2010 May 31 • Monday
When The Beatles played the Hollywood Bowl in 1965, Elmer Bernstein was there. His son Peter was a teenager, after all, and somebody had to take him. Joining the two Bernsteins was Peter's school friend John Landis.
Years later Landis wanted to get Elmer Bernstein to score Animal House. The studio executives thought Landis was crazy and that Bernstein wouldn't even take a call from the young director. Bernstein came up with a rich symphonic score for the movie, and the movie made a zillion dollars or so.
After that, you had to get Elmer Bernstein to come up with a dramatic orchestral score for your zany comedy, whether it was Animal House, Meatballs, Airplane!, Ghostbusters or our 115th Soundtrack of the Week: Stripes.
Horror and fear in movies will have a greater impact on an audience if humor has thrown viewers off their guard. Contrast is important. This is why Martin Scorsese insisted that some humor had to be added to Paul Schrader's grim screenplay for Taxi Driver. Enter Albert Brooks.
Comedy usually benefits from similar treatment, the infiltration of a serious note in otherwise silly situations. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are hilarious because of something fudamentally sad about their characters. Peter Sellers's first performance as Inspector Clouseau is his funniest because of the sadness Sellers brings to the character.
Finding the right amount is tricky business. His Girl Friday, for instance, attempts to carry too much dramatic weight with its death-row subplot. Stripes perhaps also over-extends itself. In an episode of Freaks and Geeks, a die-hard Bill Murray fan complains that the second half is a write-off. This is probably true. I haven't seen Stripes since it came out, but the first half made an impression on me, because of Elmer Bernstein's score as much as any other element of the film.
I didn't know the name Elmer Bernstein when I first saw Stripes, but much of his music for the movie never left my head after I heard it for the first time. The "Stripes March", of course, but more vividly the sadly swinging piano music for the loser heroes. "Push-Ups" begins with an even sadder piano cue, quotes the "Stripes March" with solo trumpet, then eases back into the "Depression" music again before a sort-of Vegas bounce/sleaze number.
Bernstein has a lot of fun with the music without making the music a joke. He nods to old tunes like "London Bridge" and his own previous work on war films like The Great Escape. Some of the pieces have a startlingly modern Americana sound, a reminder, perhaps, that the young Elmer Bernstein was encouraged to study composition by Aaron Copland.