Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004)
"BERNSTEIN WEST: A PERSONAL REMEMBRANCE" by Richard Kraft
Laura Engel, Elmer Bernstein and Richard Kraft in 1997
I’m curious: what’s your favorite Elmer Bernstein score, the one that really made you want to hire him?” I asked the director of MARIE WARD as we sat dining on paper-wrapped chicken at Genghis Cohen Restaurant. Elmer lifted his head slyly to catch her reply. The German filmmaker paused for a moment and said with great authority, “Oh, I would have to say WEST SIDE STORY.” Elmer and I caught each other’s eye. With a cunning nod he responded, “Yeah, I like that one, too.”
As we walked to our cars Elmer whispered to me, “She thinks she just hired Bernstein East.”
That I would be sharing a private joke with Bernstein West was nothing short of a miracle, one that started more than a decade earlier.
July 1972 was one of those dates that forever changed the life of a soundtrack geek of a certain vintage. Everything before then was the Dark Ages, a time of ignorance and isolation. Everything after was the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment. For in July of 1972, our spiritual leader spoke out to us all, raising the eternal question, “What Ever Happened to Great Movie Music?”
The leader was Elmer Bernstein, and his pulpit was an issue of High Fidelity magazine. Actually, it was not an issue, it was the issue—the one devoted to film music and soundtrack collecting. For many of us it was the Burning Bush. The voice of God had spoken, and we were not alone.
I certainly had a spiritual awakening that day. Up to that point I was an 11-year-old nerd thinking the only two people on this planet remotely interested in those vinyl things with the words “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” stretched across their fronts were my older brother, David, and myself. But there it was, burning in all its glory on the top shelf of the Beale Street Branch of the Kern County Public Library in Bakersfield, California. My hands trembled as I pulled it from the rack. There on the cover were photos of exotic soundtracks like RAINTREE COUNTY, with values attached to such collectables skyrocketing as high as $150! How could this be true? How could this be happening? Surely no one other than David and myself knew, or cared, that these records existed. But the Burning Bush knew differently, and it spoke of possibilities that extended beyond Beale Street and Bakersfield.
This 11-year-old devoured every word of this Holy Scripture, especially the sermon by Prophet Bernstein. Even 35 years ago people were kvetching that the golden era of film music was a thing of the past. I hung on every word Bernstein wrote, for I knew all too well who he was. This was not just some cranky guy reminiscing about the good old days. This was the guy who made those good old days great. He was the man who composed two of my most treasured scores: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (hauntingly beautiful) and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (a score chock full of the most themes per square inch).
It was only natural that Bernstein would have written THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, because the words in that magazine were now my Law, and I truly did follow him into the promised land of believing that film music is an art, that soundtrack collecting is a legitimate pursuit and, most importantly, that there were others out there in the wilderness who shared this passion.
Most interesting, and ultimately most impactful, those words preached by Mr. Bernstein led to his announcing he would be starting a Film Music Collection. At the time the concept of a series of classic film score re-recordings seemed like some fever dream fantasy. Only a visionary like Elmer Bernstein could have foreseen the entire future of specialty soundtrack labels and releases that we all now, ungratefully, take for granted.
Like many others I wrote to join the Club, and found myself eagerly awaiting the arrival of each new release. There were masterpieces by Steiner, Herrmann, Waxman, Rózsa, North, and Tiomkin. My brother and I pretty much lived for the next offering. We would race to the mailbox every day in anticipation of the possible arrival of that magical mailing carton entombing the next treasure. Long after we had played and replayed each disc I would stare at the return address on the mailing label. Not only were these records unbelievably transformative—they were also created and shipped out by Him! Elmer Bernstein was sending us these gifts.
The return address was Calabasas, California. I had no idea where that was, but it sure sounded swanky and exotic. Finally, my brother and I worked up the courage to write to Calabasas and request an audience with Mr. Bernstein. Much to our amazement, he agreed.
Armed with a stack of index cards crammed with fanboy interview questions, David and I trekked to Los Angeles. Of course we were both too young to drive, so our parents drove and dropped us off at the entrance of Mr. Bernstein’s home. My youthful legs trembled as we hit the buzzer. “Hello, I’ll be right down,” he said. After a few breathless moments, there he was.
Elmer Bernstein was a giant man in many ways. A truly commanding figure with strong features, an authoritative voice laced with a pseudo-British accent, and the most alert eyes I have ever seen. He had a boyish charm and an extremely warm smile.
Like the perfect host, Elmer led us deep into his mansion. Whether it was actually a mansion, I really don’t know—to my brother and me it was the most exquisite residence we had ever entered. There were massive wood doors, rich libraries, and the grandest of pianos. To us this was something out of CITIZEN KANE.
He took us to a music room with crammed shelves overloaded with Film Music Collection releases. As Elmer gushed about the recordings he resembled an exuberant Willy Wonka pitching his latest confectionary creations. He appeared more excited about bringing Rózsa’s THE THIEF OF BAGDAD into the world than talking about his own compositions.
The next few hours were incredible. For some reason Mr. Bernstein indulged every pesky question these two unsophisticated, geeky kids wanted to ask. He seemed to be getting more of a kick out of that afternoon than we were. With great delight he shared stories about his legendary career on such films as THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE, BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, HUD, and such lesser-known gems as THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT, WHERE’S JACK, THE SCALPHUNTERS.
During the interview his young daughters would occasionally bop into the room, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be his child, to live in that house.
When my own parents picked us up to drive back to Bakersfield I felt a pull of sadness. I didn’t want to go back home. When our parents, both hardworking yet poorly-paid schoolteachers, asked me what I had learned that day, I answered, “Rich people aren’t creeps.”
This was a revelation. Much more than any of the classic themes Elmer Bernstein has written, the thing that has stuck with me the most over the years was the realization that there are nice people in Calabasas, and that living the life you want and making your dreams come true doesn’t somehow make you selfish and evil.
Up to this point I had always assumed I would follow in my parents’ footsteps and become a teacher myself. The idea of thinking beyond what I already knew was foreign. Hollywood, though less than two hours away, had seemed like some distant Shangri-La, something available onlt for snotty, self-absorbed snobs living miserable lives off Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard. But after spending a day with Elmer and his family, my imagination of life’s endless possibilities was kindled and stoked. I wanted what Elmer had. I wanted to be like him.
On my 21st birthday I bid farewell to my life in Bakersfield, shoving all my earthly possessions into the sagging back of my beat-up Pinto, and headed to Los Angeles. Suddenly on the drive down, the radio announced that John Belushi had just OD’ed at the Chateau Marmont. “Hmmm…an opening in Hollywood,” I thought to myself.
After I arrived in Los Angeles my brother and I started stalking recording sessions obsessively. We finagled ourselves onto the Warner Bros. backlot where Elmer was recording the score to SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE. He at least pretended to remember us from our Calabasas visit years earlier.
Stepping up to the podium, looking a lot like a Jewish Winnie the Pooh, Elmer grabbed the attention and respect of the orchestra. “Can we please have an A,” he said in that crazy sorta-English accent. The baton went down, and we were showered with the rousing theme to SPACEHUNTER. Then, from the bowels of the orchestra emerged an eerie, unworldly purr. It was pouring from a strange wooden box manned by a bright-eyed British woman. It was an ondes Martenot, a wonderfully bizarre electronic instrument from the 1920s.
Elmer took enormous delight in showing us how it worked. He was as enthusiastic in proclaiming its virtues as if he had invented the thing himself.
Through a series of wacky misadventures I found myself as the head of music at the ultra-low budget, mega-low quality film studio, Cannon Films. While working on some of the worst films ever to run through a projector, I managed to work with a number of my favorite composers, like Ennio Morricone, John Addison, Basil Poledouris, and Pino Donaggio. Yet none of those experiences prepared me for what would happen next.
“We are making a film with Bo Derek,” barked Cannon Films owner Menahem Golan. “She wants to use Elmer Bernstein. Go meet with them.” At age 23 I was brought into the world of John and Bo Derek, and reunited with my idol Elmer Bernstein.
Joining John, Bo, and Elmer was Elmer’s son, Peter Bernstein, who was actually the one hired to score the film (with his dad conducting). Peter shared the sly, knowing wink of his father, both conceding that BOLERO was going to be a mighty colorful adventure.
“See this?” said John Derek as he summoned me over to gaze upon the latest issue of Guns and Ammo magazine. Pointing to a particularly nasty looking bullet he asked, “Do you have any idea what this could do to Menahem’s skull?” Bo smiled.
Elmer now lived in Montecito, and was neighbors with the Dereks. He liked colorful, passionate characters like John Derek and Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin, and got a kick out of working with them. “Besides,” he said, “we did THE TEN COMMANDMENTS together,” remembering a youthful John Derek as Joshua
The plan was to record the music in Italy to save money. “Every time I call Rome to see if things are set up properly, they say, ‘No problem,’” Elmer complained. “‘No problem’ in Italy means lots of problems.”
Sure enough I got panicked calls from Bo and Elmer during the recording session. “We just came back from lunch and half the orchestra is missing,” Bo informed me. “She’s right,” Elmer added. “I counted the chairs.” Bo then delivered even more troubling news: “The orchestra just told me they haven’t been paid. What should we do?” Knowing too well the company I was working for, it didn’t surprise me that “the check was in the mail.” Scrambling for a solution I timidly suggested, “Would you mind putting it on your credit card?” Much to my surprise, she did it, and the whole session was paid for via Bo Derek’s personal Amex.
When Elmer and Peter arrived back to L.A. with completed tapes in hand, I presented them with sweatshirts with the words “NO PROBLEM” stretched across the front.
Shortly after that Playboy did a steamy pictorial from the film, and I happened to be on the phone with Bo Derek the day it was released. Having not seen it yet, she quizzed me in detail how the photos had turned out. “Did they use the one with the honey dripping on my left breast?” she said. “How do my nipples look?” I assured her they looked fine. As I awkwardly readjusted behind my desk, I thought this was the one day I didn’t mind getting paid minimum wage to run a lousy music department.
I knew Elmer’s main motive for doing the film was to help his son. Elmer had been so kind and generous to me when I was young, and during the whole BOLERO debacle I decided to help Peter out in any way I could—getting him gigs writing songs for various Cannon TV shows and movies. Our favorite was the flamethrower-wielding vigilante film classic, EXTERMINATOR 2, for which he penned a song called something like “Burn Me with Your Love (Love Theme from EXTERMINATOR 2).”
Elmer, Peter, and I started to become friends. At one point Elmer invited my brother and me to come up for dinner and stay over in his guesthouse. David and I never slept that evening as we feverishly spent all night secretly rummaging through Elmer’s guest closet, which was crammed with banker boxes of old contracts. There in my hands was his original deal for THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM! What was really shocking (besides how little he got paid) was how thin the actual contract was. While a composer’s deal today is slightly fewer pages than the Manhattan phone book, back in 1955 the thing was no more than 3 pages long. I asked Elmer about this later, and he said there was more trust back then—and besides, this was before word processors, so no one could take the time going back and forth making a billion minor changes to a contract.
In an attempt to repay some of his generosity I tracked down a one-sheet to a film clearly missing from his collection of career memorabilia. Elmer grinned from ear to ear as he unwrapped CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON. “You know, that was actually a pretty good score,” he remarked.
One day I discovered some questionable activities had taken place at Cannon and blew the whistle. Shockingly, I found myself unemployed. Flat broke and armed with a résumé of utter stinkers, I called Elmer in a panic. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Come up to Montecito and we’ll figure it out.”
“Al doesn’t know anything about music,” he explained, referring to his longtime agent Al Bart. “As a matter of fact, when we were in the Army together I got him out of a lot of service by having him be my page-turner when I was playing the piano to entertain the troops. The only problem was that he couldn’t read music. So I used to kick him in the knee when it was time for him to flip the page.”
“I’ll call Al and set you up with something,” he said. Elmer to the rescue.
Hired as a receptionist, I was soon promoted to junior agent—with the emphasis on “junior.” One of my tasks was to attend recording sessions so the composers would feel their agency actually cared about what they were doing. It was an assignment made in heaven.
I attended sessions like GHOSTBUSTERS, with that jaunty piano vamp that penetrated my mind for weeks. I also sort of cringed whenever Elmer attempted to be “hip” with his “pop” arrangement of his theme, hoping to convince Ivan Reitman not to play Ray Parker Jr.’s song, “Ghostbusters,” throughout the film. I could tell Elmer was fighting a losing battle and that his enthusiasm for scoring comedies was approaching an end.
I spoke with Elmer frequently about the now-defunct Film Music Collection and begged him to take on new recordings of his John Wayne westerns. To my surprise he agreed and headed off to Utah to record for Varèse Sarabande Records suites from TRUE GRIT and other films.
After my stint at the Bart-Milander Agency I was offered the opportunity to help run Varèse. I was like a kid in a candy store, able to release anything I ever wanted as long as it didn’t lose money. Among the first soundtracks I worked on were Elmer’s SPIES LIKE US and THE BLACK CAULDRON, and an obscure personal favorite, AMAZING GRACE AND CHUCK.
Even when I wasn’t releasing one of his albums Elmer always made sure I was invited to his sessions. I remember THE THREE AMIGOS, where screeching out of this period western score I heard a cat-like squeal. “What the hell was that?” shouted director John Landis. All eyes darted out to the orchestra, where Cynthia Millar was playing the ondes. “What’s that doing here?” Landis said. “It sounds like a flying saucer just landed in Mexico.” Elmer obliged by marking “tacit” on most of her score.
The final straw in Elmer’s comedy career arrived with the Bill Cosby comedy disaster, LEONARD PART 6—a film so bad Elmer refused to step into the control booth to talk to the director. The filmmaker eventually tiptoed out to Elmer to say, “I have a few comments.” “That’s nice,” Elmer replied, as he stepped outside the soundstage and drove off in his sports car.
I was now starting to see another side of Elmer. Besides being just the cuddly, lovable Pooh Bear mixed with the exuberant Tigger, I recognized that when Elmer finally reached his melting point he could quickly turn into a very sour Eeyore. Changes in the film industry were catching up with Elmer, who was now in his mid-sixties. At an age when most people retire, Elmer was having his scores tossed on turkeys like A NIGHT IN THE LIFE OF JIMMY REARDON.
When he was offered GHOSTBUSTERS 2 Elmer told me, “I just can’t do it. I can’t do these any more. My heart’s just not in it.” Everyone was shocked that he would turn down such an obvious hit. “I’ve got to hold out for something else,” he said.
That something else came in the form of MY LEFT FOOT, a film Elmer took for very little money. This led to THE GRIFTERS, produced by Martin Scorsese, which in turn led to CAPE FEAR and, best of all, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.
On the flipside, Elmer—like many of his contemporaries, including Jerry Goldsmith, Maurice Jarre, and John Barry—was having a number of scores rejected. I LOVE TROUBLE, LAST MAN STANDING, THE SCARLET LETTER, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT were among Elmer’s disappointments.
While Elmer had experienced having a few scores replaced before (such as CASEY’S SHADOW), it was now occurring at an alarming rate. It didn’t help that many of the films he was working on were failing for other reasons. (Is there actually a film called STARS AND BARS?) Nor was it helpful that many of the oppressive conditions of modern film scoring (temp love, truncated schedules, decision by committee, team composing) were coming into vogue during this era. There were also times when the musical and dramatic sensibilities of Elmer and others of his generation were at odds with changing contemporary film aesthetics. And there were times when it was merely a personality conflict that had nothing to do with either the film or the music. I remember hearing Elmer’s rejected score to THE JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN and thinking, “This is Elmer Bernstein doing Aaron Copland. What’s the point? What they ended up with was James Horner doing Elmer Bernstein doing Aaron Copland.”
I had not been Elmer’s agent for a number of years, having gone off to run Varèse and then starting back up as an agent with Danny Elfman and Jerry Goldsmith. So it came as a great surprise when Elmer called me to have lunch and ask me to represent him again. He felt so much had changed in the business that he wanted to be with someone who was still passionate about the music and excited about promoting promising talent. The deal was that he would let me represent him if I would also take on one of his protégées. We shook hands and we were back in business.
Caroline Thompson had written A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and directed BLACK BEAUTY, all scored by her boyfriend at the time, Danny Elfman. When Danny wasn’t available for her next film, BUDDY, both Danny and I sung the praises of Elmer. While BUDDY wasn’t a huge success, Caroline and Elmer hit off a warm friendship. The producer of the film was Francis Coppola, who offered Elmer his next film, THE RAINMAKER.
The lunch breaks at THE RAINMAKER sessions were amazing. Elmer tripped down memory lane with Coppola as they carried on heatedly about films and music and opera. As I watched Coppola talk so lovingly about his papa, Carmine, I recognized how strong of a fatherly connection Elmer had made with Francis. I chimed in as the conversation switched to musical theatre, as the three of us lit up Lucy’s El Adobe Restaurant with our sing-a-long version of “Name That Show Tune.”
For Elmer’s 75th birthday I wanted to get him something really special. What do you give a man who treats himself to everything? What do you get a guy who on a whim jumps on a jet to London just to grab dinner with his pal, Don Black? I thought and thought and arrived at the answer. I tracked down a first edition of Harper Lee’s novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and then spent the next six months sending off for inscription to every surviving member of the cast and crew. Every few weeks the book would come back to my office with warm greetings from people like Robert Duvall and director Robert Mulligan. My favorite moment was when Mary Badham, who had played Scout, called to tell me she had just had the book forwarded to her by Atticus. She was talking about Gregory Peck, but still called him by her screen father’s name.
I was lucky enough to join Elmer for the 75th birthday concert that Bob Townson had arranged for him with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Even in his seventh decade he was still an excited kid pumping up an audience with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. After one concert I had dinner with his now-grown daughters, Emilie and Elizabeth. We emptied out the restaurant humming our favorite obscure Bernstein tunes. For hours we offered off-key renditions of WHERE’S JACK, THE GREAT SANTINI, and GOLD. I was blown away by how knowledgeable and passionate they both were about their father’s work.
Elmer Bernstein, Basil Poledouris,
Richard Kraft and Jerry Goldsmith
After my brother David passed away from complications from Crohn’s Disease, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation honored me at a fundraiser. I reached out to a number of David’s composing heroes to pay tribute to him. One by one they came to the piano. Basil Poledouris played LONESOME DOVE, Marc Shaiman accompanied Danny Elfman on NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and Jerry Goldsmith led a small ensemble for the theme from RUDY. The moment that brought a tear to everyone in the banquet hall was when Elmer Bernstein closed his eyes, lowered his fingers to the keyboard, and gave us his tender music from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. It was the best film music concert ever and it was for my brother, once a geeky kid rummaging through contracts in Elmer’s guesthouse.
Barry Sonnenfeld was considering hiring Hans Zimmer to score WILD WILD WEST. “But what about Elmer Bernstein?” I pestered. “He’d be perfect.” “I don’t know,” said Sonnenfeld. “It’s a western, for crying out loud!” I responded by emphatically humming the theme from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN over the phone. “Okay, that one’s pretty good,” he said, “but this is a comedy.” Instantly I started to warble the tuba bass line of THE GREAT ESCAPE. “Admit it,” I said, “you just smiled when I did that. The man can get joy out of a bass line! And what were ANIMAL HOUSE and TRADING PLACES and AIRPLANE! and GHOSTBUSTERS? Comedies.” “But this is cool and has attitude,” he lobbied back. “Elmer is the original cool composer,” I said. “MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM is still cool. And THE GRIFTERS—talk about attitude.” “Yeah, but the guy is like a hundred years old,” he complained. “Three hundred,” I countered. “But he could still kick your ass.”
Ten minutes into the meeting Sonnenfeld called me. “You bastard. You’re right. I love him and just offered him the film.”
Sonnenfeld adored Elmer, and marveled at what a major life force he was at his age. “I never wanted to grow old,” he remarked, “but now that I know Elmer, it’s not so scary.” I suggested Elmer would make a terrific, life-affirming topic for a documentary. The filmmaker was intrigued to direct it but, unfortunately, the project never came to pass.
One morning I was jarred awake from a deep slumber at 6am. “Is this Richard Kraft?” screeched the voice on the other end “Yeah, who is this?” I said. “It’s Martin Scorsese, and I’m firing your client. Tell Elmer Bernstein he’s off my film.”
Pushing the sleep from my eyes I rallied to get enough oxygen into my brain to comprehend what was going on. “Elmer told me he would have music to me on Thursday for a screening on Friday,” he said, “and now he’s telling me he won’t have it until after the weekend. He’s fired.”
“Wait,” I said. “Elmer hasn’t even started your film.” (We were talking about BRINGING OUT THE DEAD.) “Doesn’t matter,” Scorcese said. “He promised to write some temp music for a screening I am having for some friends on Friday, and now he’s screwed me. It’s over.”
“But even if you fire him,” I said, “you won’t have your music for Friday. And you and Elmer are great friends—you’ve done so much good work together. What do you gain by getting rid of him? You won’t have your music and you won’t have your favorite composer.”
“Don’t use logic on me,” Scorsese shouted. “Don’t you know I’m fucking crazy?”
Even though I was in the middle of a situation going horribly awry, I did have enough presence of mind to think: How cool is this? I’m getting reamed by the dude who made RAGING BULL. I now have my undisputable brush with greatness.
“But…” I started. “No but—he’s fired,” snapped Scorsese, in that same manic, staccato style I recognized from the guy he played in the back of the cab in TAXI DRIVER who was planning on shooting his wife.
“Why don’t you just at least talk to Elmer?” I said. “I’m sure you can work something out.”
I quickly dialed Elmer to prep him for his call from the raging director. Elmer seemed more concerned that Scorsese had woken me up so early than he was about his fate on the film. A half hour later he called me back to say they had ironed out their differences.
When Edward Norton was looking for a classic romantic comedy score for his film KEEPING THE FAITH, it was a joy to recommend Elmer. The young and feisty actor/director paced the recording sessions in Seattle, falling in love with Elmer’s theme and feeling appreciative of working with such a master. That was the last session I ever shared with Elmer.
A short while later I received a letter from Elmer. It was a long, handwritten note, the sort nobody sends anymore. There was a lot of thought and care put into the letter, but the gist of it was that he was firing me. While he appreciated my introducing him to new filmmakers and attending to his business, he felt I had let him down by not taking care of his protégée to the degree he expected.
At the time I did not have the maturity to recognize that Elmer was at a point in his life where he had already scaled a million mountains and celebrated a million triumphs. Another film or not in his career at this point meant less to him compared to him setting up his legacy, which included helping out others. As things were winding down for him, things like the future of those he cared about meant the most.
I was so saddened by how things had gone so wrong between us. Elmer had been nothing but kind to me for all those years. I tried many ways to repay him for all he had done for me, but in the end I had somehow come up short in giving him fully what he wanted.
Elmer was now facing 80 and he was out of my life.
From the sidelines I kept track of how Elmer was doing. When Jerry Goldsmith was unable to score Jerry Zucker’s RAT RACE I gave Elmer an enthusiastic, unofficial recommendation. One day at baggage claim in LAX I bumped into Elmer’s daughter, Emilie, who was working as her father’s orchestrator. She had just flown back from London where the plug had been pulled on Elmer’s RAT RACE score. I offered a feeble joke about how he had already scored THE RAT RACE 40 years ago. We smiled, but deep down I felt awful that there are no “Get Out of Jail Free” cards for film composers, no matter how much they’ve accomplished. Every score is another testing ground and rejection is always a lurking possibility.
A little later I heard rumblings that things were not going well for Elmer with Scorsese on GANGS OF NEW YORK. My heart sunk when I heard they tossed his score.
In my wildest dreams I never thought Elmer’s rejected score for GANGS OF NEW YORK would find a release, let alone teamed up with both NATTY GANN and THE SCARLET LETTER. But, because of the path carved by Elmer with his Film Music Collection, Varèse Sarabande formed their CD Club, allowing for their release as well as such other Bernstein scores as SPACEHUNTER, GHOSTBUSTERS, STARS AND BARS, and even MARIE WARD (which, while an excellent work, never quite achieved the notoriety of his director’s favorite score, WEST SIDE STORY.) Bernstein’s vision of preserving film music for its own sake has become a reality.
One day the phone rang. It was the people making FAR FROM HEAVEN. They were looking for Elmer. I let them know I was no longer his agent and pointed them in the right direction. Before I hung up I told them how amazing he was as both a composer and a person.
I saw Elmer at the Oscars the next year, where he was nominated for his extraordinary score for FAR FROM HEAVEN. Initially I felt hesitation in approaching him, having been fired and all. Thankfully he caught my eye and bounced over like the joyful Tigger I had always remembered. “How are you?” he exclaimed, as if nothing had every happened between us. We caught up as we took our seats. The nominations were read and I looked over at Elmer thinking how enchanted our lives have been together. I was one of those fortunate few who get to meet their hero and discover they are far greater than you had ever imagined.
Even though I had my own client nominated, I secretly wanted them to announce Elmer’s name when that envelope was opened. I glanced over at Elmer, still a kid wanting to win. When FRIDA was named I could see the disappointment on his face. Five decades into his career, and this still meant something to him.
The last time I saw Elmer was at a film music concert at Walt Disney Hall. He was now quite ill, that famous spark missing from his eye. He shuffled like an old man, which made no sense since Elmer was never an old man.
Jerry Goldsmith died on July 21, 2004. Less then a month later Elmer Bernstein passed away. Only nine years have intervened since these two giants of film music left us, but to me it seems like an eternity. Both creative whirlwinds, with appetites that led to seemingly endless streams of creative scores, Jerry and Elmer are no longer here. The world they lived in and enhanced now seems distant and quaint. They thrived during an era when film music really felt like an art form.
There probably wouldn’t even be a place for the likes of them now. What would they be scoring? SAW 37? CGI COMIC BOOK HERO PART 12? LAME COMEDY STARING SOMEBODY WHO WAS ONCE ON OR WATCHED SNL? CRAP TV SHOW TURNED INTO CRAP FEATURE FILM? LOW BUDGET REMAKE OF JAPANESE AND/OR ‘80’S HORROR FILM? DARK AND PRETENTIOUS DRAMA WITH SYNTH SCORE DRONE? QUIRKY LITTLE INDIE FILM WITH OODLES OF SONGS AND NO SCORE? In the few years since Elmer’s passing, Hollywood really has become no country for old men.
I look back at how much Elmer Bernstein brought into the world. He was a life force that changed music, movies, and the entire culture of soundtracks. He was my hero, mentor, advocate, guardian, client, and friend.
Sometimes I think back to when he first welcomed me into his life. I look at all that’s transpired from that time. I can picture him, eyes sparkling and devilish smile beaming—suspenders twisting over his jolly waist, I can see him tilting at windmills. I can clearly hear the faux-British accent of this enthusiastic New York Jew questioning anyone who will listen: “What Ever Happened to Great Movie Music?”