Elmer Bernstein: Far from Heaven - soundtrack album review

Elmer Bernstein: Far from Heaven - soundtrack album cover 2004 was a heartbreaking year for film music fans. Not only did they have to contend with the passing of the legendary Jerry Goldsmith but also the death of the equally esteemed Elmer Bernstein. One of cinema's most revered composers whose work encompassed classics including The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Escape and countless others, Bernstein was a figure whose musical sound was firmly rooted in that of Hollywood's Golden Age: lush melodies, clear themes and, when necessary, a rousing sense of adventure. His death therefore marked the end of an era – but there couldn't have been a more perfect crowning to the end of such an illustrious career than the score for 2002 drama Far from Heaven. Directed by the noted Todd Haynes, the film is a pastiche of the Technicolor melodramas made famous by the likes of Douglas Sirk in the 1950s, and stars Julianne Moore as New England housewife Cathy Whitaker. Seemingly happily married to Frank (Dennis Quaid), Cathy must come to terms with the fact that her husband may be a homosexual, whilst also struggling with her feelings towards black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert).

Elmer Bernstein: Far from Heaven - image 1 The film successfully imitates the form and technique of classic movie hits and yet also deals more candidly with issues of gender, sexuality and race than its predecessors. Another key reason for its success is Bernstein's score, surely one of the most inspired-ever fits between composer and film. Given that Bernstein began his scoring career in the 1950s when melodramas were at the peak of their popularity (All That Heaven Allows; Written on the Wind et al), it made perfect sense for him to score a contemporary imitation. Not to mention that Bernstein had himself earned his stripes scoring numerous movies of this ilk (Desire Under the Elms; Some Came Running).

The score begins on a gloriously nostalgic note with "Autumn in Connecticut", Bersnstein's familiar lush strings swelling to beautiful heights before the theme settles into a pristine piano solo courtesy of Cynthia Millar. It's wonderfully evocative not only of classic Hollywood but also Bernstein's very own scoring triumphs – he was always at his best when working with an intimate orchestral ensemble, as masterpieces like To Kill a Mockingbird and Birdman of Alcatraz attest. The main theme sets the tone for the score as a whole: beautiful and melodic with a definite undercurrent of melancholy and regret.

Elmer Bernstein: Far from Heaven - image 2 The contemplative piano weaves its way through the brief "Mother Love" and also takes centre stage in the plaintive "Evening Rest", preceded by wavering strings. The soft jazz of "Walking Through Town" and "Prowl" changes the tone somewhat, the gentle clarinet, piano and double-bass creating a lovely, relaxed ambience. It's hardly surprising – in addition to his dramatic scores, Bernstein also made his name with jazz works like The Man with the Golden Arm. It's back to heart tugging emotion in "Psych", oboes and strings interacting gracefully with Millar's piano before the unexpectedly bouncy "The F Word" restores a note of optimism. Bernstein's ability to paint in so many different emotional shades with such an understated musical ensemble was always one of his strongest characteristics, and resonates strongly to this day.

Elmer Bernstein: Far from Heaven - image 3 The main theme rears its head again in "Party" and "Hit", the latter considerably more downbeat and anguished. The ghostly flute section of "Crying" is notably beautiful and of course the piano is never very far away. "Turning Point", the longest track in the score, begins and ends with rhythmic strings and, for the first time, brass to inject a sense of purposefulness, sandwiched by a lushly moving string/oboe arrangement. "Cathy and Raymond Dance" is another piece of elegant jazz, this time with a smooth saxophone accompaniment to presumably mirror the shifting attitudes towards race and sexuality as depicted in the film. The rolling piano of "Disapproval" then gives way to the starker piano chords of "Walk Away", hinting at the narrative's more troubling undertones.

"Miami" casts the main theme in a completely different mold: a sexy Latino number that complements the generally restrained tone of the score very well. In a brief percussive moment, "Back to Basic" introduces a tapping glockenspiel – so rare is percussion in the score that the effect is immediately striking. It emerges again, alongside a rumbling piano, in "Stones", the darkest moment in the score and one that comes across as positively earth-shattering. "Revelation and Decision" is one of the most haunting moments, the yearning strings simply laden with emotion and calling to mind John Williams' most poignant material.

After this, the woodwind section of the subsequent "Remembrance" sounds desolate and washed out, Bernstein effortlessly reflecting Cathy's turbulent emotional journey throughout the film. The string section rallies again during "More Pain" but it's still infused with a palpable sense of sadness; only in the climactic duo of "Transition" and "Beginnings" does it once again begin to glow with new-found optimism, further spurred on by the delicate piano and warm accompaniment from the woodwind section. The second half of the final track brings everything to a wonderful close with a resounding cymbal crash and a brief reminder of the score's occasional jazz undertones.

Elmer Bernstein: Far from Heaven - image 4 In 2002, film music was undergoing a sea-change, the giants of Hollywood's Golden Age having mostly passed on and soundtracks making the inexorable shift to a processed, manufactured approach popularised by the likes of Hans Zimmer. Elmer Bernstein was therefore the only composer (besides his friend and contemporary Jerry Goldsmith) who could have scored a movie like Far from Heaven – because he was the only remaining link to the period depicted in the film itself. Bernstein's intimate, accomplished sound had fallen out of fashion during much of the nineties, with many filmmakers rejecting his work for failing to move with the times. It fell to Todd Haynes to realise that Bernstein's emotionally direct music would provide the vital link to the past, further helping bring the narrative to life.

As for the music itself, it manages the hugely accomplished feat of being both period-specific and timeless all at once. The score is possessed of a very controlled, restrained quality that may initially appear aloof – but Bernstein, like Haynes, is able to dig beneath the artifice and dig out genuine heartache and emotion. Cathy's growth to maturity, as she moves from blowsy housewife to self-aware woman, is exquisitely depicted in Bernstein's music, making Far from Heaven a triumphant conclusion to this extraordinary composer's career. Not only is it Bernstein's swansong; it's also the swansong to a beloved era of film music.

The score is available as a CD release on Amazon, though often on the second-hand market or as an import. Check out these links as a starting point: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Reviewer: Sean Wilson

Elmer Bernstein: Far from Heaven - album track listing


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