See, Hear

Without Elmer Bernstein, scores of movies wouldn't have sounded the same

But now, only Bernstein remains--the last of the giants, more towering, and certainly more valuable, than ever. His score for Haynes' Far from Heaven, a wry but moving homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s, ranks among his finest scores; it also ranks among his favorites. The score, driven by piano, provides the sound of a woman's heart slowly breaking when she realizes her picturesque life is a sham, her husband is gay and her true love is a black gardener she can never have; each note underscores Julianne Moore's torment, the unraveling of the perfect existence. As much as Haynes, a filmmaker best known for films independent in funding and feeling, wanted to pay his respects to a bygone era, so, too, did Bernstein. He wanted to make music the way they used to. The way he used to.

"Ab-so-lutely," he says, stressing each syllable like a necessary note. "That's absolutely correct. Everything about the film conjured up to me what I feel was a much happier time for cinema. No question. I definitely want audiences to walk out of the movie feeling that: 'Why don't they make music like this anymore?' But, you know, a lot of reviewers feel that way, too. Here I am obviously in the twilight of my career--I mean, just by age alone--and the reviews I've gotten so far for this are the best reviews I've ever gotten in my entire life. I got a review from The Toronto Sun, I couldn't believe it. I've never gotten a review like this. The last line says, 'As for the score by Elmer Bernstein, surely this is the sound of paradise.' Now, c'mon. I've never gotten a review like that.

"But if you stop to think, a movie reviewer who is 40 years old today has no frame of reference for this kind of film, because they didn't see these kind of films except in film-history classes. And they're looking at violent, cynical films one after another, one after another--films that depend upon some sort of sensationalism, whether it's visual sensationalism or the nature of the story or violence, whatever it is. Then, all of the sudden, here comes Far from Heaven, and to a young reviewer, it seems almost revolutionary." Bernstein, again, laughs.

Far from Heaven holds a doubly special place in the composer's heart: Not only did it afford him the opportunity to work with a respectful young filmmaker who would serve as a true collaborator, but it also came about just as Bernstein was learning that Martin Scorsese was dumping the score he has written for Gangs of New York, the director's long-delayed film set in the violent Lower Manhattan slums of the mid-1800s. Bernstein and Scorsese had worked together since 1991's Cape Fear remake, which was followed by The Age of Innocence two years later (for which Bernstein was nominated for an Oscar) and 1999's Bringing Out the Dead. But after their first meeting about Gangs, Bernstein and his colleague Cynthia Millar feared the worst. Millar told Bernstein, "He doesn't want a score," only a collection of songs.

She was right: After Bernstein turned in his music last year, Scorsese tossed it aside; now, there is a U2 song on the soundtrack, despite the fact the film is set more than 100 years before Bono was born. When he was fired, Bernstein says, "it was kinda surprising, actually," though he harbors no ill will. It wasn't the first time a filmmaker rejected a Bernstein score: Robert Redford did it with A River Runs Through It, Walter Hill with Last Man Standing and, most bitterly, Roland Joffé with The Scarlet Letter. Bernstein works with a filmmaker, but never for. He is hired to hear what the filmmaker sees, and if those two things do not sync up, fine, he's happy to walk away--especially at this age, when he neither needs nor craves nuisances.

But Bernstein still possesses the fire of the troublemaker: In 1998, he delivered a speech to the Directors Guild of America in which he called for studios to stop using movies to sell pop soundtracks and begged directors to use young composers trained in the art of scoring. His wasn't the screed of the old-timer with Good Old Days Syndrome, but the impassioned plea of an artist who has seen too many colleagues crunched to death by numbers that add up to zero. When The Hollywood Reporter reprinted Bernstein's speech, the headline ran, "Trouble in the Key of Now."

"The movie business doesn't know what to do, and it exists in an atmosphere of fear, which makes everything really unsettled," Bernstein says. "The greatest victim of this fear has been film music, and film music, in my opinion, is in a dire state now. Really dire. It has gone far away, as far as I'm concerned, from what was a great atmosphere in which to be a composer for film. It is a very uncomfortable time now. But I've been lucky, you see, because while all this was going on, I've been working with Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and to run into Edward Norton and Todd Haynes. I've been really fortunate. I haven't really suffered a lot from what I am complaining about."

Once more, as always, Elmer Bernstein has the last laugh.

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