Scoring High

Movie composer Elmer Bernstein is Mr. Versatility

No routines for composer Elmer Bernstein, thank you. “I rarely do anything at the same time each day,” he says, “simply because anything you do routinely cannot possibly be fresh. I think having a life with change in it keeps you young.”

Change has certainly worked for Bernstein, 80, who has been at the top of his profession for a half-century, with 200 film and TV credits and 13 Academy Award nominations. (He won an Oscar for adapting 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie.) “Composers, like actors and directors, get typed,” observes director John Landis. “But not if you’re as versatile as Elmer. When he did The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955, he was Mr. Jazz. Then he did The Great Escape in 1963 and became Mr. Action Adventure.” Landis enabled Bernstein to become Mr. Comedy, drafting him for 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House — the first of a string of comedy scores that included Airplane! and Ghostbusters. “The nature of my life is one adventure after another,” says Bernstein. “Each of these projects had its own challenge.”

The latest challenge for this musical chameleon was providing the romantic music for the just-released Far from Heaven, writer-director Todd Haynes’ elegantly crafted homage to ’50s melodramas. Bernstein’s lush, lyrical score, observes Haynes, is “like a character” in the film, helping express “things that aren’t said.” Bernstein calls Far from Heaven a gift. “At my age,” he says, “to find out that a director in his early 40s was interested in working with me was very exciting.”

Contact with younger people, Bernstein believes, is another key to staying youthful. He has taught film scoring at the University of Southern California, and his many proteges include two of his four children: son Peter, 51, is also a composer, and daughter Emilie, 34, has been orchestrating her father’s scores for nearly a decade. Bernstein often returns the favor by showing up at clubs when Emilie performs with her alternative rock band, Eve’s Garden.

Frequent travel also expands Bernstein’s world. Three years ago, the New York City native bought a retreat in Woodstock, N.Y., where he has spent summers since 1930 and where the Woodstock Film Festival has named a music award after him. He and his wife Eve have another home in Warwick, England, near where she was raised. In California he divides his time between a house in Santa Monica and a property in Santa Barbara that includes a main house on top of a hill and his studio out of sight down the slope. Each day he walks the 150 steps down to the studio, he says, “and up. That’s my exercise.”

Lately, he’s writing fewer film scores in that studio. “There aren’t a lot of films I really want to do,” he says. “The kinds of films that are being made have changed. When they do address real problems, they tend to deal with life too coldly and cynically.”

So besides working on a memoir, Bernstein is now finishing a string quartet and “toying” with a concerto for an Ondes Martenot, an electrically driven French keyboard instrument, and another for piano and orchestra that harks back to his early days as a concert pianist.

The composer says he has no plans to retire–“that’s God’s business,” he says softly — or slow down. He has conducted five concerts of his film and other music this year, the last with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in October, and will do a series of such concerts in Australia in February. But don’t expect a lot more concerts, he cautions. God forbid they should become a routine.

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