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Sweet Sound of Success

It‘s now 50 years since Elmer Bernstein composed his first Hollywood film score -- a forgettable college-football number called Saturday’s Hero. Now pushing 80, he‘s still at it. Thus, the celebration of his work that begins tonight at the Los Angeles County Museum -- a dozen films over four weeks (see Film Calendar) -- must be reckoned as both a retrospective and a salute to a career in progress. Gangs of New York, now in the works, will be his seventh collaboration with Martin Scorsese.

Those 50 years cover a lot of history, for Bernstein himself, for film music and for the industry. He came to Hollywood from his native New York with credentials in order: composition at Juilliard, a fling at a concert career, some 80 scores for Army Air Corps Radio Shows and for Norman Corwin documentaries. He came in as the contingent of European-refugee composers -- Steiner, Korngold, Waxman -- was slowly giving way to an American generation: Bernstein, David Raksin, Leonard Rosenman and the subsequent hordes. The LACMA series, which covers the spectrum from the 1956 The Man With the Golden Arm -- generally regarded as the first major beachhead of jazz into the film-music vocabulary -- to 1993’s The Age of Innocence, with Bernstein and Scorsese in period mode, honors above all the full range of what a truly savvy music man can accomplish even within the machine. These are included, along with the Oscar-winning Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Magnificent Seven and everybody‘s favorite heartwarmer, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now, white-haired and twinkly, Bernstein sits in his sun-drenched Santa Monica studio, and radiates a sense of high approval of the way things have gone over that half-century.

L.A. WEEKLY: The first time your name really stuck with me was sometime in the 1950s, for a short film you made with Charles Eames about toy trains. It was exquisite, especially for the scoring -- solo winds, like Mozart.

ELMER BERNSTEIN: Yes, Toccata for Toy Trains. [Still available on video and DVD in an Eames collection, still delightful.] I did about 30 films with Eames, the closest to genius of anyone I ever worked with. He had made some films with Franz Waxman, one of the last of the German colony, and Waxman suggested me. A film I had made, Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford, had made some noise because I had done some interesting orchestrations: solo woodwinds, and a real concerto for two pianos and orchestra to accompany a car chase. You could do that sort of thing back then, because every studio had its own orchestra, and you could work with orchestrators and bring in all kinds of unusual combinations.

But you had also had all that classical training in New York before you moved out here: composition with Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe, a debut piano recital at Town Hall with not-bad reviews . . .

I never intended to become a “classical” composer, beyond learning a few essentials. And the Town Hall recital got the usual kiss-off reviews: “He’s young, let‘s watch him . . .” Dime a dozen! Besides, there was enough Bernstein on the New York scene. Lenny and I became good friends, and we decided between us that he would be Bern-STINE and I would be Bern-STEEN. Even so, when he died, my daughter’s teacher at school asked if she would like the day off.

The one thing everybody seems to know about film composing is that matter of the straitjacket, of the director telling you that such and such a scene would last exactly so many seconds, and that you had to compose to fit.

You know, I never ran into that, at least not at first, not as long as the studios had full music staffs. That, by the way, was as close to heaven as I ever expect to get. Take one example, Sweet Smell of Success. That was the movie where I really worked to create a synthesis with several levels of jazz and all the other stuff. There was the big, loud New York jazz and the sneaky chamber jazz of Chico Hamilton‘s Quintet in the club . . .

There was also that beautiful sad farewell scene, with the solo clarinet.

Oh, thanks. Well, I cannot remember ever having to discuss music cues with Sandy [director Alexander Mackendrick] or anyone else. What we discussed was New York energy.

The one exception was when I did [1956’s] The Ten Commandments with Cecil B. De Mille. Now there was a director really obsessed with control: every word, every scene change, every shading. What he wanted from me was some kind of Wagner: a distinct musical motif for every character and every state of mind. But I knew all this going into the job, and I knew that if De Mille thought he knew everybody‘s job better than everybody else did, he was probably right.

One piece of advice stuck with me, however. It was from Morris Stoloff, who was music director at Columbia. He reminded me that the major difference between composing for concerts and for films was that the film audience had to get your music the first time. Nobody is going back to see the movie just to figure out your music. Now, of course, they can, with video, but Morris was basically right even so.

And now?

Now . . . yecch! Two things brought an end to that movie-studio heaven I was talking about, besides of course the end of studio orchestras and musical staffs. The first was commerce, the discovery that a film score had commercial value outside of the film. That meant that suddenly a film composer had to face a whole new question: how that score will sell -- on three-minute 78-rpm records, on LP and now on CD. That has had a very bad effect on film music.

The second thing that happened was the rise of the auteur, the director who thinks he knows everything and integrates every aspect of the film into some kind of concept. The director who has to know what you’re doing, piece by piece by piece . . . that can be very inhibiting. Instead of concentrating on your own grand plan -- as composer, or designer, or whatever -- you have to be concerned with what the director is going to think two days from now about what you did today.

There are exceptions, of course. Scorsese does know everything, and so does Coppola. Here‘s what I did with Scorsese for Age of Innocence. We talked about the period of the piece: 1870, say. We talked about musical models: Brahms, say. Then I went to London, recorded a few themes with a small orchestra. Marty liked some of them, didn’t like some of them. But he took the themes he liked, and started to cut the film around the music. That‘s the ideal way to work, and that’s why Marty and I have done seven films together.

Every director is different, of course. Producers, too. With Alan Pakula on To Kill a Mockingbird, we did a lot of preliminary talking. We talked through every character at enormous length before I sat down to compose. But again, we weren‘t talking about seconds and minutes and feet of film; we were talking about the people who were going to live in that film.

Any favorite among those 200 film and television scores?

Oh, Mockingbird, I guess. It’s such fun to listen to, even if I did write it. I don‘t just listen to movie scores, of course. I saw the L.A. Opera’s Lohengrin, and thought it was just fine, really well staged and performed.

Did you also see La Traviata last month?

[Long pause.] It‘s a great opera, though, isn’t it?