Woodstock, New York. When Elmer Bernstein’s agent called him about writing the score for Todd Haynes’s “Far From Heaven,” he admitted that there was a problem: the film had already been given a temporary score, which Mr. Bernstein would have to listen to as he watched.
“I won’t look at a film with a temporary score,” said Mr. Bernstein, who has composed the music for more than 200 movies in a career that spans more than half a century. “The whole idea is to hear stuff.”
But this was different, the agent told him: the music was his own, a score that had earned him one of his 13 Oscar nominations.
“My agent said, `You might like this temporary score; it’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” ‘ ” Mr. Bernstein, 80, said at his home here in September. “That’s the way it started. I looked at the film and liked it. And the score I wrote is nothing like `To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”
“Far From Heaven,” which opens Friday, is Mr. Haynes’s meticulous homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, the Danish-born director who transformed the melodramatic “women’s” pictures he was given by the studios into fevered but incisive explorations of 1950’s social taboos and hypocrisy. Stylistically, “Far From Heaven,” set in suburban Connecticut in the mid-50’s, is most obviously indebted to Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” and its autumnal color scheme. But Mr. Haynes outdoes Sirk in lushness; his burnished palette of violet and orange harmonizes with Mr. Bernstein’s plaintive score to achieve a lyrical sensuality that recalls the most operatic films of Visconti.
Mr. Haynes insisted that his use of the “Mockingbird” score was not intended as a lure for Mr. Bernstein. “I needed something right away, just to see how the images were working with music, and `To Kill a Mockingbird’ was the first thing that touched me,” he said. “I wouldn’t necessarily have thought it would work. In my mind it’s so married to the film. When I put it on with the cut, it was so beautiful it gave me chills.”
He knew that Mr. Bernstein was working with Martin Scorsese on “Gangs of New York,” which he had heard was “this albatross production that was not ending,” and assumed that Mr. Bernstein would not be available. “It was obviously a complete dream come true that he was able to do it,” Mr. Haynes said.
While scoring films for some of the most celebrated American directors, from DeMille to Scorsese, Mr. Bernstein has acquired a singular breadth of experience. Mr. Haynes recounted a phone call he received from Mr. Bernstein while he was working on “Far From Heaven.” “Elmer said: `Well, I counted out the length of the cues and it’s an hour and 10 minutes of music. That’s more music than I’ve done since “The Ten Commandments” ‘ “—in 1956. “It was mind-boggling.”
It was in 1955, the same year that Sirk directed “All That Heaven Allows,” that Mr. Bernstein achieved his breakthrough with the score for Otto Preminger’s “Man With the Golden Arm.” (It brought him his first Academy Award nomination; he has won once, for the 1967 score of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”) He said he didn’t watch the Sirk films at the time because of their reputation as melodramas and because he was in a “totally different school at that point.”
“It is true that I did the music for `The Ten Commandments’ around that time, a big, splashy film,” Mr. Bernstein said. “But where I was in my head was with `Man With the Golden Arm,’ jazz kinds of films.” He credits his passion for jazz to his father, a jazz aficionado, whom he remembers listening to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.
It was the introduction of jazz into movie scores that put Mr. Bernstein on the map. When he arrived in Hollywood in 1950, it was dominated by a group of middle European composers that included Franz Waxman, Daniele Amfitheatrof, Bronislau Kaper and Max Steiner, most of whom were accomplished concert musicians. Mr. Bernstein remembers it as “an absolutely amazing time.” He said Mr. Waxman (“Sunset Boulevard,” “A Place in the Sun”) had a “tremendous effect” on him, but it was composers like David Raksin (“Laura,” “The Bad and the Beautiful”) and Bernard Herrmann (“Citizen Kane,” “Psycho”), who were moving away from classical music, who excited him most.
“It was listening to Herrmann’s score for `All That Money Can Buy’ that made me turn my eyes to cinema music,” Mr. Bernstein said. “His was a peculiarly American voice. Of course Aaron Copland himself had written a lot of scores. And there was no more American voice than his.”
Mr. Bernstein, who was born in Brooklyn and spent his teenage years on the Upper West Side, had developed the habit of improvising compositions for his piano teacher, Henriette Michelson, by the age of 13. “When she’d had quite enough of that, she took me to meet Aaron Copland, who had recently returned from France,” he said. “He was about 30, he hadn’t yet become the great star of the music firmament. She sat me down at the piano and said, `Play something for him.’ So I played a little A minor waltz I had written, climbed down from the piano bench, and she said, `Is this talent?’ And Aaron said: `Well, I have no idea. Why don’t we give him some lessons and find out?’ And he turned me over to a pupil of his, a very good composer by the name of Israel Citkowitz, who did nuts and bolts. But Aaron kept up with me through the years.”
While Mr. Bernstein—who spent several years on the concert circuit as a classical pianist before moving to Hollywood—attributes his sense of rhythm to the composer and pianist Stefan Wolpe, his last teacher, he says he owes the energetic quality of his compositions to Copland. The clear, lilting melodies that characterize many of his most memorable scores, like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Some Came Running” and “Far From Heaven,” strongly evoke Copland’s love for traditional American music.
Mr. Bernstein bridges eras in both music and film. Few soundtrack composers (or directors, producers or actors, for that matter) are in a position to appreciate, as Mr. Bernstein can, the differences between the old studio system and today’s more independent filmmaking world, or to criticize contemporary Hollywood with so much authority. “It is fashionable to flog the old system,” he said, “but actually it was a system that could protect its artists much more effectively than today in this sense: it was very compartmentalized. There was a belief that a cinematographer knew how to shoot a film, a director knew how to direct it, a composer knew how to write the music.
“For many years I never even met the filmmaker. Each studio had a music head, who was himself a terrific musician, and he was the person to guide you. With the rise of the auteur director, you began to have invasive interference from the filmmaker.”
Mr. Bernstein said he had carefully avoided such interference throughout his career. “If you have the kind of filmmaker who considers himself or herself a collaborator in music, it’s time to leave,” he said. “A collaborator in terms of intent, character? Yes. I want to know what a filmmaker thinks. Why is the music there in the first place? What’s it supposed to be doing? What does he want the audience to feel? Because that is what music is all about, feeling.”
HE cited Mr. Haynes and Mr. Scorsese as filmmakers with whom he had had artistically fulfilling collaborations. He recalled phoning Mr. Scorsese in 1991 to tell him that he would like to do the music for Mr. Scorsese’s remake of “Cape Fear.” ” `Why do you want to do it?’ Marty asked me. `I’m going to use the original Bernard Herrmann music almost exclusively,’ ” Mr. Bernstein said. “I told him I’d love the opportunity to work with him, and secondly, I wanted to protect my friend Bernard Herrmann’s music.” Mr. Bernstein reorchestrated the score, which he said was far better suited to the Scorsese version of the film than to J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 original.
Two years later Mr. Bernstein wrote the score for Mr. Scorsese’s “Age of Innocence,” an experience that he called “a textbook way in which to work with somebody who knows what he’s doing.” It was only the second time that Mr. Scorsese had used a through score, written by a single composer; the first was Herrmann’s for “Taxi Driver” in 1976. “Elmer understands movies,” Mr. Scorsese said. “He doesn’t just understand movie music, but movies. He watches a picture, and he’s able to immediately grasp how it works, and what it’s doing on an emotional level—he sees the overall arc of the picture. For a composer, this is absolutely essential. Elmer has an innate sense of where music is necessary, and where it isn’t. And he has a mastery of different musical styles that’s astonishing to me.”
Mr. Bernstein wrote a score for the much-delayed “Gangs of New York” (which opens Dec. 20), but in the end Mr. Scorsese didn’t use it. Most of the score will be traditional Irish music, with some original music by Howard Shore and a song by Bono of U2. “The score will be a typical Scorsese score, a pastiche, which is the way he scores a lot of his films,” Mr. Bernstein said. “And he does it brilliantly.”
In the meantime, “Far From Heaven” is all Bernstein. He did not see “All That Heaven Allows” until “Far From Heaven” was finished, Mr. Bernstein said, not because of a conscious decision but simply because “I approach each film as itself, not as it’s related to a period.” Mr. Haynes said he had discussed the music for the film with Mr. Bernstein in relation to the characters, “but never in terms of 50’s style, and how we are going to navigate it and utilize it but not ever let it become too ersatz, too ironical, too much of a reference to another period.”
He recalled that when he and Mr. Bernstein presented the film at the closing night of the Woodstock Film Festival in September, Mr. Bernstein mused that if he had written the music earlier in his life, he would have been nervous about the excess, the extremity of it—that it would be considered “too much, too corny, too over the top.”
“He never said any of that while he was doing it,” Mr. Haynes said. “I felt in such utterly secure hands with him. I loved that he did have those thoughts. But we never had to discuss it, because he didn’t bring it up.”
Copyright The New York Times Company