“Consider this new book the standard Bernstein biography.” — Booklist, Starred Review
A behind-the-scenes look at the life and music of legendary Hollywood composer Elmer Bernstein, the only person to be nominated for an Academy Award in every decade from the 1950s to the 2000s
Over a career spanning 54 years, he composed landmark scores in every available genre—epics, jazz, westerns, dramas, and comedies—and his credits read like list of the greatest films of his time: The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Man With the Golden Arm, The Great Escape, Ghostbusters, to name just a few. This biography, written by Elmer’s son Peter, interweaves exclusive interviews, oral histories not otherwise available, estate archival materials, and personal experiences.
Elmer Bernstein lived a colorful life: he was a first generation American; he was blacklisted; and he was a fearless advocate for film music not afraid to take on anyone in pages of trade papers. The book looks at many of his landmark scores in depth, collaborations with various producers and directors, and his success in navigating the rough and tumble of Hollywood. There is much to his story: a cycle of struggle, success, frustration, failure, and reinvention repeated many times over his career which connected the Old Hollywood with the modern era.
Peter M. Bernstein is an American composer and conductor. He has composed scores for over 500 feature films, miniseries, long-form television, and episodes. His first breakthrough project was The Ewok Adventure for LucasFilm (1985) and its sequel Ewoks: The Battle For Endor (1986). Soon after came his first T.V. series, 21 Jump Street (1987-1991). His orchestration credits include Animal House, Trading Places and Ghostbusters, as well as the scored portions of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. He is the son of Elmer Bernstein.
CHAPTER 1 – BEGINNINGS
CHAPTER 2 – GROWING UP
CHAPTER 3 – FROM NEW YORK TO HOLLYWOOD
CHAPTER 4 – HOLLYWOOD 1950-1952
CHAPTER 5 – THE BLACKLIST
CHAPTER 6 - DE MILLE and PREMINGER
CHAPTER 7 – TESTIMONY and FINISHING
CHAPTER 8 – SUCCESS
CHAPTER 9 – TELEVISION and BOATS
CHAPTER 10 – MAGNIFICENCE and THE PONIES
CHAPTER 11 – EARLY 60’s: INCREDIBLE PACE
CHAPTER 12 - CHANGES and TRAVELS – MID 60’s
CHAPTER 13 – OSCAR and THE REST OF THE 60’s
CHAPTER 14 – THEN 70’s Pt 1 - A BUMPY RIDE
CHAPTER 15 – THE 70’s Pt 2 – PRESERVATIONIST and MENTOR
CHAPTER 16 – CARREER RENEWAL WITH COMEDIES – WHO KNEW?
CHAPTER 17 – THE OTHER 80’s – LOOKING FOR CHANGE, AGAIN
CHAPTER 18 – THE 90’s Pt 1 - RESCURED FROM THE COMEDY WORLD
CHAPTER 19 – THE 90’s Pt 2 - KEEPING IT GOING
CHAPTER 20 – FINALE
CHAPTER 21 – CODA
APPENDIX 1 – FILMOGRAPHY
APPENDIX 2 – TELEVISION
APPENDIX 3 – OTHER WORKS
APPENDIX 4 – DISCOGRAPHY
APPENDIX 5 - BIBLIOGRAPHY
About the Author
Elmer Bernstein composed the scores to awful movies (Robot Monster, 1953), expensive movies (The Ten Commandments, 1956), and classic movies (The Great Escape, 1963; Ghostbusters, 1984), but in this new biography we learn about Bernstein, the man. Written by his son Peter, using original interviews, oral histories, and personal ephemera, the book is neither tribute nor hagiography. Instead, it’s the story of a man’s life: its highs (though he won but one Oscar, he’s the only person to have been nominated in five straight decades), its lows (he was blacklisted in the 1950s), and the ordinary stuff in between. The author isn’t a professional biographer and this is a good thing. The book’s informal, conversational writing style makes it feel authentic and personal, as though it’s intended simply as a book about an interesting person, told by someone who knew him. The Magnificent Elmer (2014), cowritten by Bernstein’s second wife, Pearl, covers some of the same ground, but it’s very hard to find. Consider this new book the standard Bernstein biography.
In a long and prolific career, Elmer Bernstein (1922–2004) composed the scores for more than 150 films and nearly 80 television productions. His work earned 14 Academy Award nominations (winning one for Thoroughly Modern Millie) and two Tony nominations. He arranged music for such classics as The Ten Commandments, Sweet Smell of Success, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ghostbusters, Stripes, Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Far from Heaven. The author of this biography, Bernstein’s son, focuses more on his father’s career, including his blacklisting in the 1950s and his numerous successes, failures, and reinventions. This is not a memoir of growing up with Elmer Bernstein as a father; rather, it is a studiously detailed career overview and appreciation of his talent. As such, there is a reserve to this biography—when the author (rarely) writes about himself, it’s in the third person. Bernstein once said, “Music is the soul of life, yet each soul sings its own song,” and as this biography makes clear, he was a soul with many songs. Anyone who enjoys music, movies, or music in the movies will find much to sing about in this thoughtful and well-written biography.
“From child prodigy to legendary film composer, Elmer Bernstein's life was a big one, and I am grateful to his son for this terrific book.”
“How wonderful to learn more about one of Hollywood's most talented, prolific, and eclectic composers! This detailed and thorough biography brings Elmer Bernstein to life, and one can appreciate even more his superb music.”
“Composers paint emotions into films like magicians conjuring spells for the ears. My delight in this book was to discover that there is so much more to this complex and this fascinating man—a joy to explore.”
This documentation of Elmer Bernstein’s output and influence should inspire many to follow in his footsteps. Peter M. Bernstein has given us all a full picture of this incredible artist. This is a much-needed book, and I hope musicians and those in the film industry, as well as the general public, will read it and learn about the genius of Elmer Bernstein.