Reviews & Quotes

Composer Elmer Bernstein Proves There is Still a Place for Quality 

The third Woodstock Film Festival began Wednesday evening with an Arlo Guthrie concert at UPAC in Kingston and continues through Sunday, September 22, closing with Far From Heaven, the last film before the festival’s final awards ceremony. That the festival is even showing the yet-to-be-released film speaks volumes about the niche the local event has already developed as a platform for young, independent—and very talented—filmmakers.

Written and directed by Todd Haynes and scored by Academy Award winning composer Elmer Bernstein, the innovative but low budget film was a labor of love for the renowned Bernstein. And he has received some of the best reviews of an already remarkable career for the project that has created a loud buzz in the industry. The film deals with 1950’s mores and the themes of racism and homosexuality, and was shot using filmmaking techniques from that era. Haynes intentionally evokes the vivid colors and visual style of filmmaker Douglas Sirk, who made Imitation of Life and Written on The Wind.

Put off by much of what the film business is turning out these days and the pop-laden scores it is increasingly using to attract young audiences, Bernstein spends most of his time doing concerts now with the exception of a very few special film projects that interest him. In May, Haynes sent him a video of Far From Heaven in the hopes of encouraging him to do the film’s score. Bernstein was intrigued immediately. (Both men will be on hand to take questions from the audience following the Sunday evening showing, which sold out almost immediately. Bernstein is flying in from London especially to be at the festival, both because of his association with the film and his commitment to the festival itself.)

“I thought to myself, this is a very unusual kind of film for now,” says Bernstein by phone from California, describing his reaction after viewing the film initially. Coincidentally, he watched it for the first time in the living room of his Woodstock home, his base whenever he is on the East Coast. “This wasn’t a big budget film, but I did this because I wanted to do it. Well, much to our amazement and joy, this film has received some of the most incredible reviews…which can happen when you do something as an act of love.”

At 80, Bernstein’s name is synonymous with artistry and innovation as well as longevity. He has written original scores for light musical comedies such as Thoroughly Modern Millie for which he won an Oscar; epics like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments; contemporary comedies such as The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, Meatballs, National Lampoon’s Animal House, and Ghostbusters; and numerous projects by director Martin Scorcese including The Age of Innocence and the remake of Cape Fear.

His groundbreaking score for The Man With the Golden Arm in 1955 marked a turning point both in his career and the industry, causing a sensation with his inclusion of vast tracks of jazz, a monumental departure from the European-inspired style that had prevailed during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Again in 1960, his music for The Magnificent Seven set a new template for the musical scores for westerns to come; and his composition for To Kill a Mockingbird, one of his personal favorites and a score than won him a Golden Globe Award, captured the seriousness of racism and poverty as seen through the eyes of children in the inimitable way that he is able to hone in on the heart of a film through his music. In all he has written the music for well over 200 major film and television scores. He is a 13-time Academy Award nominee and a two-time Golden Globe winner, and has won numerous lifetime achievement honors, including one from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1996, he was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

The films Bernstein enjoys doing are now rarities in an industry that has increasingly chosen to jam scores full of songs and cater to an audience aged 14 to 20. The accepted scoring process today also demands that complete scores be created in a matter of weeks. The composer spent a year writing the score for The Ten Commandments. In the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, it took him six weeks just to come to grips with the script and decide how to proceed. “Luckily, Iâm at a stage in my life where that’s not a big problem for me because I don’t have to do it, but it makes the jobs that I want to do fewer and far between,” Bernstein recently said in an interview with BBC Glasgow.

Referring to his score for Far From Heaven, the Toronto Star reviewer said, “Surely this is the sound of paradise.” Says an obviously pleased Bernstein, “You don’t get reviews like that too often…That is hopeful.”

There seems to be an audience waiting for such high caliber films as A Beautiful Mind and American Beauty, both of which had musical scores Bernstein applauds. So why, then, aren’t more films of this excellence made?

“There simply aren’t that many risk takers or creative people around,” believes Bernstein. “Todd Haynes made four major films before Far From Heaven and every one of them took risks…Risk takers will have success if they have talent because they are willing to swim upstream and willing to take risks to do something they believe in instead of just chasing the buck…I think one of the reasons the music [in Far From Heaven] is getting the reception it is getting is because people haven’t heard a score like this in years. It is an unabashed, romantic score and, for some reviewers who are 35, it sounds absolutely revolutionary.”

By contrast, Bernstein was considering doing another project not long ago until the wife of the director told him the couple’s 14-year-old daughter hoped he wouldn’t use “fuddy-duddy music.” He passed on it that opportunity.

Getting Far From Heaven was a coup for the Woodstock Film Festival, according to Bernstein because it is just about to be released, won the award for best actress at the Venice Film Festival, and is getting such extraordinary reviews. “This is the beginning of where [the local festival] could be headed,” he says. “The question is does one want it to be headed there?”

Bernstein is hoping the Woodstock Film Festival can follow the model of a festival like that of Telluride, Colorado, where the focus is on discussions and seminars rather than awards. At the other end of the spectrum is Sundance, which he says has become a “meat market” and a predominately a marketplace for selling films.

“Our festival is a pleasant one that allows filmmakers to exchange opinions and to listen to each other,” notes the composer. It’s no coincidence that Bernstein refers to the festival in the possessive. “Iâve been with it since the very beginning,” he says, pointing out the festival gives an award in his name for best musical score.

In fact, he says he became associated with the local event as a result of the considerable amount of time he spends browsing in The Golden Notebook bookstore when he is in Woodstock. It was shop co-owner Barry Samuels who introduced him to festival founders Meira Blaustein and Laurent Retjo.

Throughout his long career, Bernstein has taken strong political positions that have had a direct impact on his work. In the 1950’s, he was blacklisted for three years and he credits DeMille with bringing him back into the mainstream. In the 1960’s, he refused to do the score for The Green Berets because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He is “in despair” these days over both the state of the nation and the quality of the films that are being made by his industry.

“I think what happens in films just reflects what is going on in the country,” he says. “We are living in a country that thinks it is okay to remove someone [Saddam Hussein] just because we don’t like him. Needless to say, if that is the sensibility, you are going to have a lot of violence in films. What our government is saying is violence is cool, and films are simply reflecting that.”

He acknowledges there is also a considerable amount of gratuitous violence in films today. While he believes it is acceptable to make films about war and violent themes, he questions whether it is necessary to see the blood actually spurting. “The reason filmmakers in the mainstream are not taking stands against this,” he says, “is because they are mostly interested in making money. It’s a simple as that. They are going to go where they think the money is.” This trend has also had an impact on the art of scoring music for motion pictures.

“Whereas in times before, composers were engaged to write a body of music for a film, that began to give way also to a concept of where the money is and the idea of stuffing films with a lot of so-called pop music rather than scoring music,” he says. “It has to do with that whole ethos of chasing the buck.”

Bernstein has always been encouraging of young filmmakers who are making serious films. He reviewed each of the films in competition this year to determine whether or not to give an award for scoring and, while he was not overly impressed with the scores, he says “the nature of each of the films was interesting and pertinent to today.” By remaining a venue for new filmmakers, he hopes the local festival can avoid becoming the kind of marketplace to which Sundance and other festivals like it have evolved. It is a niche that is needed and that the Woodstock event can fill, he believes, noting, “The direction Woodstock is going in is definitely a good one.”

For ten years, Bernstein was president of the Young Musicians Foundation, an organization that promotes new, young talent in the concert world. The work is close to his heart and he has had five serious protŽgŽs, including Cynthia Millar, a pianist/composer who worked with him on Far From Heaven. Millar will join him at the local festival for the question and answer session following the film’s showing on Sunday.

Bernstein’s advice for young musicians starting out in the business is, “Whatever field you are in—whether a filmmaker, a cinematographer, a composer or an editor—learn everything you can. There are no easy ways.” Young filmmakers today don’t spend the time they should studying movies. “A lot of people don’t do their homework, so that when a door opens a crack and they can get their foot in they will know what to do,” he believes. “What’s needed is study and a devotion to the history of the craft.” When he was in his thirties and working on the score for The Ten Commandments, DeMille continually chastised the crew for not studying old films sufficiently.

He also encourages young composers to develop relationships with mentors. Born and raised in New York City, Bernstein was given a scholarship in piano at the age of 12 by Henriette Michelson, a Julliard teacher who guided him throughout his entire career as a pianist. Detecting other talents early on, she took him at age 12 to play some of his improvisations for a young composer, who was 32 at the time and just beginning to make a name for himself. Along with Michelson, the rising star would continue to mentor Bernstein. His name was Aaron Copeland.

“It is very, very important to try to attach yourself to someone who is working so that you can observe [him or her],” he says. “And, if you are fortunate and they think you are talented, they may take you under their wing and help bring you along.” Among the young people the Young Musicians Foundation aided, Michael Tillson Thomas went on to become music director of the San Francisco Symphony, Lawrence Foster became music director of the Lisbon Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor for the Los Angeles Opera, and Christopher Parkening has evolved to become one of the world’s great guitar players. Following the Woodstock Film Festival, Bernstein will conduct Parkening at a concert of the Royal Philharmonic in London.

Bernstein never composes with a CD in mind. “The art of composing is very Zen,” he says. “You can’t force anything to happen. You have to let it happen. If you start to force the composition into…a hit record, you taken leave of honesty and truth and good art cannot be done falsely.”

Bernstein has always loved movies. His grandmother took him to see silent films when he was a child. When he composes a score all he can think of, he says, is making the score work in the film. “It is nice if people can enjoy the music outside of the film but, for me, that is not what it is about,” he notes.

Tickets to the Woodstock Film Festival’s remaining films, concerts, panel discussions and special events, as well as a complete festival schedule are available online at , at the film festival office at the intersection of routes 375 and 212, or by calling the office at 679-0261.

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