Friday, 4 December 2009

Seminal Scores: To Kill a Mockingbird (Elmer Bernstein, 1962)

Harper Lee's sole 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is still, 49 years after release, one of the most powerful evocations of childhood ever written. Capturing the transient nature of youthful innocence perfectly, it scooped the Pulitzer Prize for its incisive, cutting yet beautifully humane story, one of a small-town lawyer named Atticus Finch who takes a controversial case defending a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of rape. The narrative unspools through the eyes of his children, Jem and Scout, so adult scenarios take on an otherwordly feeling, with the growth to self-knowledge a slow, puzzling process.

Naturally, come 1962, the acclaimed story was ripe for a movie version and if ever a literary adaptation could be described as lightning in a bottle, this was it. Robert Mulligan's measured direction, the immaculate child performances of Mary Badham and Philip Alford and above all Gregory Peck's magnificent Oscar-winning turn as the unerringly decent Atticus himself, secured it as a deeply moving picture. Lost in the hoopla (as is often the case with such prestigious productions) is Elmer Bernstein's score, an exquisite gem capturing the fragility of innocence as successfully as Lee did with her story.

It's inarguably one of the finest dramatic scores ever composed; as a score for a drama itself, it may be the finest. Mockingbird continued an astonishing vein of form for Bernstein, slap bang in the middle of a golden period that included The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Birdman of Alcatraz.

Bernstein's wistful, nostalgic brand of Americana was an inspired match for the source material. Always at home writing for personal, intimate ensembles, his combination of featherweight themes, boisterous interludes and surprisingly dark moments of realisation speaks directly of the novel's themes of childhood innocence, and also the impending influence of the adult world. Rather than clutter the score up with multiple themes and motifs, the composer wisely plays it straight through the eyes of the child protagonists.

From the first tentative piano bars of the main theme to its eventual glorious representation on breathy winds, accordion and gentle strings, the score is pervaded with a sense of delicate magic, akin to the feeling of rediscovering an old scrapbook or diary (an appropriate allusion, given the film's title sequence). Key to the success of the score, and Bernstein as a composer, is the development of the music itself, with much of the early going ('Remember Mama'/'Roll in the Tyre') revelling in alternately warm and playful hues for woodwinds and bouncy brass. Too often these days, movie scores are frontloaded with the best cues; there's no danger of this with Bernstein, one of the few musicians who knew how to pace his albums.

The first strains of unease come in 'Creepy Caper' as the children come to investigate the sinister Radley house. However, the danger is diluted and somewhat playful, the ramifications of true evil having not yet been grasped by the child characters. The first real discord comes with the pitting of the plaintive main theme against timpani rolls and accordion in 'Ewell's Hatred', as James Anderson's hideous racist Bob Ewell makes his position apparent in Tom Robinson's prosecution.

As such, the joyous exuberance of the opening matures and expands through the album's mid-section, with the strings becoming statelier, winds becoming more sparing and the piano becoming more ominous. 'Lynch Mob' and 'Guilty Verdict' accompany two of the film's pivotal scenes, the former where Scout defuses a potentially violent confrontation and the latter emphasising the heartbreak of the case's outcome. Here, tempestuous rumbling pianos compete with woodwinds, and the beautiful strings yearn for any humanity that's left, as Jem and Scout are forced to come to terms with the implications of prejudice and hatred.

The latter stages of the album are the most outwardly menacing, with 'Ewell Regret It' and 'Assault in the Shadows' sinking further into the registers of the orchestra, as Ewell plots his revenge against Atticus and the children. The strings and winds are contorted to produce a darker sound and the piano is used more violently. Sandwiched in between is 'Footsteps in the Dark', a truly gorgeous representation of the idyll to be shattered by the monstrous racist.

After the storm, there is the immense pastoral calm of the climax, as the prejudices of Jem and Scout are turned on their head in the form of Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, making his debut), the supposed ogre of the neighbourhood who turns out to be their saviour. The massed/solo strings of 'Boo Who?' are heartbreakingly lovely as the children, older and wiser, settle down and look forward to their future lives. End Title then brings us full circle with a sweepingly beautiful rendition of the main theme, luring us, in the words of Kevin Mulhall's album notes, 'back to our own innocence and youth'.

Film music suffered a tremendous loss in 2004 when Elmer Bernstein (and Jerry Goldsmith) passed away. Truly, there was no-one better at heartfelt, personal scores, and To Kill a Mockingbird may be the most heartfelt of the lot, a hauntingly evocative portrait of that most elusive time: childhood itself. A tender masterpiece.

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