Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The man with the golden music (1922-2004)

I am probably not that unusual in having first become familiar with Elmer Bernstein’s music without even knowing that the famous film composer had written it. In fact, I didn’t even hear his music in a movie. I heard it in a television advertisement for cigarettes. When I went with friends to see one of the sequels to The Magnificent Seven (I hadn’t yet seen the original), I wondered why they had used music from a cigarette ad in the movie. That’s the problem with making major contributions to popular culture. Your work is no longer your own.

Because that bit of music had become so commercialized, we had stopped hearing it. When I finally saw the original movie, I felt cheated for not having experienced the music for the first time in the cinema. The good thing is that, hearing the music again today, many years after cigarette TV advertising has been banned in so many places, we do get another chance to hear the music “for the first time.” And it is a rousing, stirring, majestic tribute to the genre of the movie western. Now, it would be cool and hip of me to say that Bernstein’s most famous piece of film music is not his best and that there are better things he had composed. But as far as I can tell, that’s not true. His music for The Magnificent Seven has always stuck in my mind and had a life of its own.

The other work that Bernstein, who died last week, is best known for includes The Man with the Golden Arm, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Escape. Of these (and this is just personal), Escape is the most enduring of the lot. There is just something very fun and playful about that music. Golden Arm is jazzy and pleasant. And Mockingbird is kind of lost on me, although a lot of very smart people think it is one of his best, if not his very best. And one that doesn’t get mentioned much, but which I really liked, was the music for the 1976 Charles Bronson vehicle, From Noon Till Three.

Looking back at Bernstein’s career, it is stunning how prolific and versatile he was. He scored hundreds of movies and TV shows, the list of which reads like a catalog of popular entertainment that spans the breadth of human taste: from epics like The Ten Commandments to westerns like The Hallelujah Trail and The Sons of Katie Elder to wacky comedies like Animal House, Meatballs, The Blues Brothers and Airplane!, and even Irish movies like My Left Foot, The Field and Frankie Starlight. If anybody comes close to Bernstein in terms of his musical impact on the movies, it would probably be Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes, Patton, Chinatown, Basic Instinct, Total Recall and lots of Star Trek) who, as chance would have it, died a month ago.

There is a bit of irony in the fact that, for many of us, Bernstein will be forever associated with that majestic anthem to which the Magnificent Seven go riding to defend a Mexican village from the bad guys. Although the movie is a reworking of a Japanese film, The Seven Samurai, there is something very American about it. The mythology of the reluctant heroes on their horses coming to the aid of the defenseless villagers is etched into our psyche and still presides, to some extent, over our present involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the current political context, our memories of the film, and by extension the music, feel conservative or right wing. And that is the ironic part since, just a few years before that movie, Bernstein’s career appeared to be stillborn because of his association with the political left during the McCarthy era. It is only because composers weren’t as high-profile as actors or writers (plus some fortunate intervention from director Otto Preminger and choreographer Agnes DeMille) that Bernstein went on to flourish in Hollywood. It is worth looking back in time to remember that in those years, conservatives were inward-looking and isolationist and liberals were the ones who favored intervention to help liberate other people. How times have changed.

So it was the self-avowed communist Bernstein who gave us the stirring music that got all us young American boys all worked up and wanting to load up our six-shooters and saddle up our horses and go kick some bandito butt. It’s almost too good to be true.

Bernstein was nominated a slew of times for Academy Awards but, in typical fashion for the academy, he won only for one of his lesser scores, that of the 1967 film, Thoroughly Modern Millie. His last nomination was for Todd Haynes’s 2002 throwback to 1950s melodramas, Far from Heaven. But the last time his film music may have been heard in a new movie in his lifetime may have been in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which lifted in ironic fashion (that’s right) the classic theme from The Magnificent Seven.

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On the chance that you are in or near the British Isles and you happen to read this on Thursday the 26th, you have an all-too-rare opportunity to see Jevon O’Neill’s Bob’s Weekend. It airs at midnight on BBC 1. As Jevon himself advises, “Insomniacs watch and enjoy… folk like me, set your recording device accordingly.”

-S.L., 26 August 2004

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