May 2002 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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DVD film: To Kill A Mockingbird with music by Elmer BERNSTEIN
  Starring Gregory Peck. Directed by Robert Mulligan
  COLUMBIA TRISTAR/UNIVERSAL UDR 90085   [124 mins approx. feature] plus Making of feature [90 mins]

To Kill a Mockingbird

Elmer Bernstein and his Oscar-nominated score is featured strongly in this DVD's fascinating feature-length documentary about the making of To Kill a Mocking Bird. Bernstein remembers that he saw the music through the eyes of the children just as the screenplay does. His music is correspondingly playful, innocent and intimate. The story is based on Harper Lee's Pullitzer Prize-winning novel about life in the 1930s in America's deep south with all its cosiness – and bigotry.

It will be remembered that Elmer Bernstein (here I quote from Christopher Palmer's marvellous book, A Composer in Hollywood) "…supported the stand taken by Copland in 1940 with Our Town which showed that, in a certain type of picture, a score written for fifteen musicians, was more dramaturgically appropriate than one written for fifty. Bernstein has always been an advocate of the small orchestra score, and one of the most attractive features of his work is its chamber-music-like concentration and concision of expression. He is in fact a miniaturist, whose warm lyrical gift makes the greater impact for being discretely exercised."

The score for To Kill a Mocking Bird precisely illustrates Palmer's observation. Instead of some dramatic peroration, the theatre curtains unfolded onto the Universal International logo over a soft lullaby played by a small group of instrumentalists. This lovely childlike melody persisted as the credits unfolded over the contents of a toy box. It wasn't until a marble rolled over to hit against another that the music swelled to embrace a larger string ensemble but even then the music was tastefully restrained.

This is one of Elmer Bernstein's best scores and one of the 'greats' in the history of film music.

Turning to the film itself, To Kill a Mocking Bird was honoured by Oscars for Gregory Peck as Best Actor for his role as the father, Atticus Finch, and to Horton Foote for Best Adapted Screenplay. As well as Bernstein's nomination, it also gained other nominations for Best Picture; Best Director (Robert Mulligan); Best Cinematography; and for Mary Badham who played Atticus's little girl, Scout. Peck of course is excellent turning in his greatest role of his lifetime – a deeply sensitive and moving performance. I cannot recommend To Kill a Mocking Bird too highly.

Ian Lace


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