FILM IN FOCUS
Discussing one classic film and its music score
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
Elmer Bernstein's favorite film score
In this FILM IN FOCUS article, Film music critic Roger Hall offers his personal view of this classic film score.
I consider this film to be one of the greatest films of the last half of the 20th century, not only for the poignant story and stellar acting, but also for the superb film score by Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004).
There has so much written about this classic film from 1962 starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham and Robert Duvall in his screen debut, that I don't feel it needs any further discussion from me. So, I will focus my remarks on the composer and...
I think that the tide running against good music is so strong that none of us who care are surprised or outraged any more when we hear dumb music accompanying a film...Film has become, with some exceptions, a special effects medium. Films reflect the generally shoddy standards of present-day society. It's a junk culture, and people buy junk...generally speaking, film has not advanced in terms of taste and intelligence, and that makes it tough for music.
--Elmer Bernstein interviewed by Tony Thomas, quoted in Music for the Movies, 2nd edition, 1997.
When I was a young lad I was a frequent moviegoer. The early 1960s was a time of great films and major film scores. Just consider these titles from 1960 to 1962:
THE ALAMO (music by Dimitri Tiomkin)
ELMER GANTRY (music by Andre Previn)
SPARTACUS (music by Alex North)
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S (music by Henry Mancini)
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (music by Maurtice Jarre)
To that list must be added TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
In his notes to the 1978 LP album of the soundtrack, Christopher Palmer wrote:
No film has lent itself more happily to this composer's flair for lyrical intimacy; and in few films has any composer made so determined an attempt properly to penetrate a child's mind...Children's music in films is often the equiuvalent of the patronizing manner adopted by adults who have little understanding of or sympathy with children. Bernstein has the happy knack of writing children's adult music, not adults' children music.
For me, Elmer Bernsetin was one of the composers in what I call the Great Film Composer Triad of the past half century. In addition to him the other two were: Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. All three composers began their composing for TV or movies back in the 1950s. Two of them passed on in 2004: Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith. And another major film composer, David Raksin, also died that year.
One of his Elmer Bernstein's early scores was for ROBOT MONSTER in 1953, now considered one of the worst films ever made. I saw it as a teenager and still remember it as a "guilty pleasure." I wrote about first watching this film on late night TV and what a lasting impression the score made on me. My story was written as an 80th birthday tribute to the film composer. You can read it at this link:
Between 1951 and 2002, Elmer composed over 200 scores for films and TV programs.
Here are some of his great film scores from 1955 to 1965:
THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955)
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (1962)
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
But the score that Elmer Bernstein picked as his favorite was -
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)
I agree with his choice. This has one of the simplest and most delicate film scores ever composed. It's a masterpiece of subtle film scoring.
I listed it in the 100 Essential Film Score of the 20th Century in my book,
A Guide to Film Music.
Elmer Bernstein had 14 Oscar nominations and strangely he received his only Oscar for his adapted score to a musical, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE in 1967. He should have received at least several more Oscars for such landmark scores as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Later, he composed scores for "Saturday Night Live" alumni comedies like TRADING PLACES (1983) and GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).
He also wrote more serious film scores, like MY LEFT FOOT (1989)and THE GRIFTERS (1990).
Even though he was probably best known for his rugged outdoor western music, like the John Wayne westerns, Elmer's ability to compose a subtle score was always evident, as in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.
His last major score was FAR FROM HEAVEN, which I chose for The Sammy Award as Best Score of 2002. It was fortunate that he had the opportunity to close out his career with such a brilliant film score.
-- Roger Hall, 5 November 2012
(part of this article reprinted from Lifetime Sammy Award for Elmer Bernstein)
Read the interview with Elmer Bernstein
celebrating the 50th anniversary of his film music scores at:
Elmer Bernstein has been named
the Lifetime Achievement Award
The Sammy Awards
Comments regarding this review can be sent to: Film Music Review
This recommended TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD CD
may be ordered from
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is listed at No. 4 on the
100 Essential Film Scores of the 20th Century
50th anniversary edition
50th anniversary edition
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Rental or Purchase
Read a detailed description about the film at
To Kill A Mockingbird (50th anniversary edition, 2010)
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