Think in your head of a Western plain,” says director John Landis, ”and a group of cowboys, silhouetted, galloping left to right.” The melody you’re humming? It was written by Elmer Bernstein.
While it would be enough for an artist to make such a lasting impact on one genre, Bernstein — who penned perhaps the most famous Western theme ever, for 1960’s ”The Magnificent Seven” — was always riding over the next hill, eyes on the horizon. ”He was open to anything,” says Martin Scorsese, who worked with the composer on several films, including ”Cape Fear” and ”The Age of Innocence.” ”He’d give his opinion, but he was open to anything.”
Bernstein, who died at 82 after a long illness, in Ojai, Calif., on Aug. 18, left his mark all over the music of the last half century. A piano and composition prodigy who was discovered at 12 by Aaron Copland, he wrote more than 200 movie and TV scores. Following an early career stall due to a flirtation with communism, he worked steadily for 50 years, moving from big-budget epics (”The Great Escape”), dramas (”Sweet Smell of Success”), and Westerns (”True Grit”) to comedies (”Three Amigos!”) and independent films (”My Left Foot”).
Bernstein’s score for Frank Sinatra’s 1955 drama ”The Man With the Golden Arm” was the first to consist primarily of jazz. His sound was as closely tied to John Wayne as it was to comedy directors like Ivan Reitman. He was nominated for 14 Oscars in a rare six consecutive decades (winning for 1967’s ”Thoroughly Modern Millie”). He even composed two different themes for God — for 1956’s ”The Ten Commandments” and 1980’s ”The Blues Brothers.”
”He’s got this extraordinary bridgethe directors he worked for are people like Cecil B. DeMille…and me!” says Landis, who knew Bernstein as both a collaborator on films like ”Animal House” and ”Trading Places” and as the father of Landis’ childhood friend Peter. ”Elmer’s score for Animal House is hugely influential,” Landis says. ”The music is essentially dramatic.”
Modest and jovial, Bernstein never credited his achievements to any one gift. ”You listen to a lot of music, listen to what the great composers have done,” Bernstein told EW last year, in one of his final interviews. ”It’s a combination of having worked very hard at your craft, having a lot of experience, being open to listen to things, and then…hoping something good-sounding comes out.”
And the philosophy kept him fresh. ”He still seemed to have an enjoyment of it, a love of it,” Scorsese says. ”No matter what his age, he didn’t seem like an older man. He was out there and enjoying every attempt and taking advantage of every opportunity to try something new.”