Reviews & Quotes

Reviews: Big Jake

Composer:Elmer Bernstein
Conductor: Elmer Bernstein
Performer: The Hollywood Symphony Orchestra
Manufacturer: Prometheus
Catalog Number: PCR 512

Dan Goldwasser | SOUNTRACK.NET

Elmer Bernstein will forever be, at least in my mind, one of the best composers for a western movie ever. It’s probably because of his brilliant score in 1960 to The Magnificent Seven that the idea of what an American western should sound like was engraved in my brain. Over the next decade Bernstein would score approximately sixty projects, including a slew of westerns, incluing a few for legendary actor John Wayne. Once of these films was called Big Jake. The film focused on an old rancher (Wayne) whose grandson is kidnapped and held for ransom. Bernstein didn’t hold back when it came to the score, providing a musical tapestry that uses plenty of themes and a seemingly infinite array of musical styles – all while keeping it in the classic “Bernstein western.”

The “Main Title” cue is an amazing conglomeration of almost all of the styles and themes Bernstein will use in the score. Starting out with a jaunty turn-of-the-century motif, it segues into a sweeping orchestral theme, then a pounding (if not slightly stereotypical) Indian motif, a heroic western theme, and a softer dramatic melody. In “Delilah’s View / The Riders” Bernstein uses a melody that sounds similar to bits of the Simon and Garfunkle song “Scarborough Fair”, and variations on the classic melody “Frere Jacques” is also used throughout the score. Some cues are filled with pulse-pounding, hard-hitting orchestral action (“Massacre / Little Jake / Mexico”, “Survey / Ambush / Buzzards”), others are filled with sweeping orchestral melody (“On The Move”, “All Jake and Raider”), and others contain tense drama (“On The Trail”, “Getting Old”).

Bernstein’s style is well represented – there are things about this score that sound stylistically familiar – usually due to the orchestration choices and tempo. All that’s missing is the Ondes-Martenot! “On The Way / Onward Jake” is worth checking out, as well as the 11-minute long finale, “Tricks / Little Jake Again / Going Home”. But while the score ends there, the music doesn’t! Five source cues are also provided on this release for our enjoyment, and while they’re not necessarily worth hooting and hollering about, their inclusion is a nice touch, if simply for completions sake.

The original recording of Big Jake has, until now, never been released. As part of their limited edition series, Prometheus Records has taken the original mono source tapes, cleaned them up (as best as they could), and packaged them very nicely into a solid hour of musical enjoyment. The performance by the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra is good – but not great. Nevertheless, with informative liner notes by James Southall and many enjoyable moments, this score deserves to be in the collection of any Bernstein afficionado.

Great score! Exciting, tuneful. And it has one of those “moments!”

Readers may recall I mention this one in “nailing the moments,” that place where I spotlight movie scenes scored to perfection. Scenes no one could’ve done better.

Elmer Bernstein “nails the moment” in BIG JAKE, big time! And he does it without even touching his main themes!

But first, a look at how Bernstein attacks the score from two sides without the usual good guy bad guy stuff.

Protagonists are big Jake McCandles (John Wayne) and John Fain (Richard Boone).ĂŠKidnapped grandson, aging rancher out to get him back. Two sons (Christopher Mitchum, Patrick Wayne) help grandpa Wayne deliver a ransom, provide physical action. Outlaw Fain and gang make things tough, violent. “They asked for gold” shouted a line above Boone’s artwork on posters. “They gave ’em lead instead,” said the one over Wayne and company. Something like that.

George Sherman directs, Maureen O’Hara adds sparkle. But it’s about action. Outdoor action, meaner, bloodier than the usual John Wayne fare.

Interestingly, Bernstein provides two themes (expected) but makes them both noble, stalwart tunes (unexpected). Wayne’s good guy melody is heroic, typically Wayne, typically Bernstein. But equally impressive is Boone’s bad guy theme. No minor key, dissonant stuff here. Boone’s tune packs an imposing, quasi-noble punch. Interesting idea!

Of all Bernstein’s westerns (notable ones include MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, COMANCHEROS, SONS OF KATIE ELDER, TRUE GRIT), BIG JAKE has the most striking action music. Fight scenes have edge, energy to spare. But they’ve got something else. By using both main themes, juxtaposing them one after the other (never on top of each other) Bernstein creates action music with an unusual melodic slant. You notice it underneath the noisy bullets, horse whinnies and death cries on screen. You feel the two protagonists are equally matched, up for the battle, “getting it on.”

The “Main Title” needs explanation for those unfamiliar with the movie. Turn-of-the-century events play on screen, old-time newsreel style. There’s narration, music to match. Moving images alternate with freeze frames as credits appear. Without fanfare, Bernstein’s primary ideas (Mitchum’s motorcycle tune, the riding theme, Big Jake’s theme, etc.) mix with silent movie stuff, support the montage. Suddenly a shift to reality, shots of Fain’s vicious gang. Here Bernstein plays a trump card, Fain’s music in an expressive, somewhat elegiac guise. Narration continues, tells us about the outlaw gang. Bernstein sees them as the last of their breed.

The McCandles ranch minus Jake, a housemaid watching riders in the distance. Fain’s gang approaches. Typical ranch work is scored with a Copland-esque rodeo of activity. An abrupt shift, Fain’s theme salutes in fully exposed, triumphant manner. It’s “Delilah’s View/The Riders,” a display of memorable music playing for what we know are vicious killers.

The outlaws arrive, kill the hands, kidnap the boy, demand ransom. Bernstein delivers his first of three major action set pieces. The “Massacre” mixes aggressive music with Fain’s impressive tune on French horn. The setting is violent, the orchestral fabric chaotic, but the noble tune cuts in, darts about.

In the second action set piece (“Survey/Ambush/Buzzards”) Bernstein scores a clash between posse and outlaws again with emphasis on Fain’s theme. The killers overpower the posse, sting them. So does Bernstein.

It’s during the third action set piece that Bernstein shifts the tide. An eleven-minute track (“Tricks/Little Jake Again/Going Home”) follows the battle of Jake and sons vs. Fain and gang. Bernstein tips the musical scale, quotes portions of Jake’s tune as things unfold. When the movie wraps, Bernstein affords a brief, rousing flourish of Jake’s theme in full.

And that “nailed moment?”

Interestingly, it doesn’t occur during the frequent displays of violence or action, but rather in one brief, tender moment. Jake’s group meets with Fain’s gang for a trade. Fain doesn’t know Jake is the boy’s grandfather, assumes he’s just a hired gun delivering the ransom.

“Reunion.”

Jake requests to see his grandson before parting with the strong box. Fain agrees, brings the boy out, head covered. Bernstein scores this with nary a theme at all. Instead, a gentle progression of harmonies sets the tone. Jake commands Fain to show him the goods, remove the head cover. Fain pulls the cloth away, a face appears.

Bernstein “nails the moment.” In fairness, so does John Wayne, giving the tenderest expression of his long career. In the brief and gentle scene, Jake sees his grandson at last. Bernstein colors it with a brief new line for solo violin, one of the warmest snippets of musical scoring ever done.

This limited edition CD features a world premiere of the original soundtrack. Source tapes were in terrific shape, but mono. Mid-range sound dominates. As such, a boosted low end seems intrusive, muddying the works. You may find it desirable to reduce the bass.

Prometheus delivered the album just in time for Christmas. What a present!

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