Think Hollywood. Think glamour. Think Los Angeles. Sun-bleached skies, silicon-pumped hotties and stars on every street corner. Now scrap that. Think Warwick. Sleepy. English. Provincial. For it is here, in a 14th-century cottage decorated like your gran’s, that Rough Cut meets a movie legend. The greatest living film composer, a contender for the all-time title: Elmer Bernstein.
Creator of immortal themes for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, Bernstein has a career stretching back 50 years and more than 200 movies, with a list of collaborators that include John Ford, John Sturges, George Roy Hill, John Wayne, Don Siegel and Francis Ford Coppola. He’s survived World War Two, working with Otto Preminger and being “graylisted” for his left-wing views (“Cecil B DeMille asked me if I was a communist. He gave me a lecture, but his judgement that I was okay saved me.”) On October 9, Bernstein will celebrate his 80th birthday with a concert of his classics at the Royal Albert Hall, where the audience Ð or at least those expecting a tottering octogenarian conducting from his zimmerframe Ð will be shocked to see a stocky, dappy, silver-haired gent bound on stage, looking as if he’s only 50.
And, despite his age, this is by no means a retirement performance. Bernstein may work less than he used to, due, largely, to the poor quality of material on offer (“We’re going through a rough period right now. Films are designed for 14 year olds”), but he still knows how to pick a prime project. His latest? Martin Scorsese’s corsets’n’cutthroats epic Gangs of New York. “I think anything Scorsese does is extraordinary,” says the native New Yorker, as his wife, Eve, serves us coffee and biscuits in his front room. “There’s something very special about this film. It’s very hard to explain. It has the feeling of something you’ve never seen before.
“Scorsese is by far the greatest film artist I’ve worked with. There have been other long-term relationships with directors, the most notable is with Robert Mulligan, culminating in To Kill a Mockingbird. I also did many films with George Roy Hill, as a matter of fact the film for which I won the Oscar was directed by him, Thoroughly Modern Millie. But the relationship with Scorsese is unique, in the sense that his knowledge of music in general, of my work and of how music is supposed to function in a film, is just superb.”
Quite a barrage of praise, even for someone as lauded as Scorsese Ð who, as an ardent film buff, will appreciate the compliments more than most. Certainly Marty could tell you that Bernstein was the man behind the revolutionary all-jazz score of The Man with the Golden Arm, and the genius of Sweet Smell of Success. So, Mr. Bernstein, all-time great, where does your inspiration come from? “You know, people ask me that question but it’s a mystery. I say” ÔFrom God,’ which is probably a very good answer when you come down to it, because there’s no way of explaining the moment. If it doesn’t come, and sometimes it doesn’t, then you fall back on experience, back on a knowledge of your art and craft. But when that inspiration comes, then, you know, that’s particularly wonderful.”