More outstanding film theme music, this time with three contrasting examples from the New Yorker with a huge, award-winning repertoire, reaching deep into the American and British psyche. This is merely the tip of the iceberg for the man who did music for films as diverse as Airplane!, The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, but these three are important in different ways.
The Magnificent Seven was a 1960 remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai, but here, directed by John Sturges and starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen Charles Bronson, and others, the hired, and mostly ill-fated gunslingers are set to protect a group of Mexican villagers from bandits. What this stirring classical score does so successfully is stir up a sense of American heroism, of diverse characters coming together by leader Brynner, and capturing that frontier spirit.
The Great Escape, another John Sturges hit and a 1963 patriotic war film based on real characters who plotted from Stalag Luft III war camp in Poland, used plenty of poetic and commercially driven licence, including using several favourite American actors (none of the real prisoners were American) composites or changes from the book’s characters with stars that included Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn again, alongside James Garner, and British stars Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasence. In some ways the plot has parallels with the first – it’s also about building up a team of specialists to fight a common enemy – but this time Bernstein’s score, especially the main theme, tapes into a British ‘tommy’ style of whistling nostalgia. The British right-wing fringe party Ukip appropriated the tune for their campaign bus during the 2016 Brexit referendum, after which Bernstein’s sons Peter, also a composer, and Greg, a screenwriter, said their father, who died in 2004, would have banned such a used. ““Our father would never have allowed Ukip to use his music because he would have strongly opposed the party’s nativism and thinly disguised bigotry.” Good for him, and them.
The third track, reaching back to 1957, captures the fierce hustle and bustle and dog-eat-dog rivalry of the media in the heady days of New York journalism. Bernstein’s score expresses this with the swing and emotional turmoil played by the Chico Hamilton Quintet in Alexander Mackendrick’s sardonic film about a manipulative newspaper columnist, JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who uses a ruthless publicist, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), to break up his sister’s romance with a jazz guitarist – which leads to a tragic conclusion. It contains about as sharp a dialogue in any film ever produced, and Bernstein’s music, especially opening track The Street, and later Goodbye Baby Blues, both included below, bring out that harsh cruelty and humour of the film.
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