Film composer Elmer Bernstein was born into a family that loved the arts, and was exposed to theater, dance and music as a child. He was a teen-aged prodigy, seemingly destined to be either a concert hall pianist or composer. “It would have all worked out,” says Bernstein, “had it not been for World War II which interrupted everything. I enlisted. And in a curious way, it was my experience in the Special Services that led to my interest in scoring films—I found myself doing music for propaganda films for the Army Air Force. I’d never done anything like that before and I really enjoyed it. And there was a radio show for which I wrote the dramatic music. After I got out of the service I thought, ‘What an interesting thing to do.'” The rest, of course, is Hollywood history. The thirteen-time Oscar nominee spoke to ASCAP candidly and movingly about his incredible career.
Jim Steinblatt: Did you quickly get work as a composer after your discharge?
Elmer Bernstein: I’d been trained as a composer from the time I was twelve years old, but I could not get a job. It was one thing to work for the Army Air Force, but when I went to CBS to try to get a job writing music for radio dramas, I didn’t meet with any great success. A friend of mine, Millard Lampell, wrote an important radio show for the United Nations in 1949 called Sometime Before Morning, narrated by Henry Fonda, and I was asked to write the music for it. A film producer who was producing Lampell’s first novel as a movie happened to be in town at the same time and asked me if I’d like to come out to Hollywood to write the music for this movie. This was in 1950 and the movie was called Saturday’s Hero, and I said, “Yes, I’d love to.”
JS: Were you comfortable as a film composer from the start?
EB: Yes, the radio shows I’d done gave me sort of a lead-in. Things were very different when I got here in 1950 and I had tremendous support. The heads of the music department in those days were all serious musicians. Morris Stoloff was the music head at Columbia and I got all sorts of help from him. Another composer, George Duning, who had an office right next to mine was a great help, as well. We were much more nurtured in those days.
JS: The score for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was a major one for you. It was your first Oscar nomination and the first one released as a recording. Was it the first jazz score for film?
EB: Well, other composers had used jazz in scores before, but I think it was the first score in motion pictures to be so dominated by jazz elements. But at the time it felt very natural; after all, it was a film about a guy who wanted to be a jazz drummer.
JS: So many of your scores are available on record. How do you feel about soundtrack recordings, in general?
EB: Not all film music lives well on record. Film music is supposed to be designed to service a film. Very often if you want to put something on record, you take the material from a film and reorganize it so that it exists as a piece on its own. I’ve done that with many of my film compositions. Generally speaking, the motion picture score should live best inside of the film. But that having been said, I’m probably the most recorded composer. I think I’ve done 200 films, and 50 or 60 have been out on record at one time or another.
JS: You had another memorable film project in 1955.
EB: The most amazing thing was doing both The Man With The Golden Arm and The Ten Commandments in the same year. That was what made my career take off. They say The Ten Commandments is shown somewhere in the world every single day. I certainly think, of all the events in my life in motion pictures, that was the single most exciting and interesting one. It was very interesting because of Cecil B. DeMille himself, who was a fascinating and baffling person to work for. You had a sense you were involved with some great event. What really gave me pause was when DeMille wanted me to compose some themes for the various scenes so he could hear them. One of the themes I had to compose was the theme for God. That really stopped me.
JS: Did you have to make yourself feel like God for a little while?
EB: No. Henry Wilcoxson was the associate producer on that movie and was a really profoundly religious man. I was getting very tense about it and Henry said to me, “Just stop trying. Just wait for something to come to you.” And of course that made me relax and made it possible to move ahead.
JS: Well, you went from scoring the ultimate biblical epic to creating the ultimate Western score with The Magnificent Seven just a few years later.
EB: Most people don’t know I did one Western really early on with Henry Fonda called The Tin Star, but that didn’t tag me as a Western composer—what did was my score for The Magnificent Seven in 1960.
JS: Of course, The Magnificent Seven theme was heard on television as long as cigarette commercials were permitted.
EB: They still permit them in Europe and they still use that music for Marlboro, which is a really funny thing. I do concerts in Europe and play The Magnificent Seven and people will lean over talking amongst themselves and I know they’ll be saying, “That’s the Marlboro music.” As The Man With The Golden Arm opened up jazz scoring, The Magnificent Seven set a style for Westerns that has pretty much lasted.
JS: Later on there were the comedies and the smaller dramas.
EB: The comedies started with Animal House. Beginning with that, I actually composed the scores for the biggest comedy of the summer three years running: Animal House, then Meatballs, and the summer after that it was Airplane!. I kept the comedy thing going through films like Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, and Ghostbusters. When it came time to think of doing Ghostbusters 2, I thought to myself maybe it’s time for a change. The change came for me with My Left Foot,which was a small serious film. And it broke the comedy cycle. It was time.
JS: There is so much variation. From the seriousness of child abduction in The Deep End of the Ocean to detective films like Devil with a Blue Dress…
EB: That’s all on purpose. I try to keep myself fresh. I don’t want to get bored. I’ve really sought to do a variety of things on purpose.
JS: Is there something after fifty years that you still want to try stylistically?
EB: I’ve been fortunate enough to do them all as far as style is concerned. The problem for me after fifty years is the kind of films that I really enjoy scoring are made less and less and less. Because the box office is fairly dominated by teenagers and that sensibility, the films, and a lot of the music required for those films, are elements to be appreciated by people of high school age. Not that I can’t do them; I can do those kinds of things. I’m not wildly interested in doing them, however. What I’m looking forward to more are working environments similar to the one I have with Martin Scorsese, for instance, which has been a professional alliance for the last twelve years. He was executive producer on The Grifters; director of Cape Fear,where I adapted the Bernard Hermann music; then he was director of The Age of Innocence, which was a completely opposite style of scoring. Then, as if I needed a change, he did a film like Bringing Out The Dead, which was a distinctive kind of atmosphere for creativity.
JS: Who are your most important influences among film composers?
EB: That’s easy. I’d pick two that were the great influences: Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman. And I’d add David Raksin and Miklos Rosza.
JS: What are the reasons you admire each of them?
EB: Bernard Herrmann was extremely innovative. Waxman had a superior dramatic sense and was also very open to different kinds of things. Rosza for the grandeur of his concepts. David Raksin brought a peculiarly American voice to film scoring. The others had middle-European sensibilities.
JS: You have had many Oscar nominations and one Oscar—for Thoroughly Modern Millie. Is the Oscar process important?
EB: Not to the music. Although it was wonderful to win because it’s the highest honor your colleagues can give you. It’s meaningful.
EB: But many of the scores for which you “lost” still endure.
That’s the whole point. That limits the value of the award. Sometimes you wonder where the nominations came from. Basically, the Academy Award for music is an appreciation. It is not the Pulitzer Prize. It’s nice if you get the Oscar, but it doesn’t make you a great composer to get it or a poor composer to lose it.
JS: >How do you go about writing a film score?
EB: I’ve learned in 50 years never to trust a script because the only thing that counts is the movie. I’ve seen great scripts ruined and I’ve seen scripts that were not so great realized in great ways. So I trust only the movie. When I look at the movie the first thing I ask myself is, “What is the music supposed to do here? If we’re going to have music here, what is it supposed to be doing?” Music is basically an emotional art. I’m asking the filmmaker to consult and tell me what is it that we want the audience to feel. That’s what music is really about.