Saturn 3 (Elmer Bernstein)

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Saturn 3 was a troubled film from the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. Beset with problems from day one, the film vanished without a trace at the box-office despite a high profile cast including Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett (!), and Harvey Keitel; unlike many sci-fi films of the period, it failed to even garner much of a cult following since. In fact, Elmer Bernstein’s score and behind-the-scenes drama are virtually the only reasons the film is remembered today.

In many ways, Saturn 3 was a blast from the past for Bernstein, whose very earliest works had included science fiction B-flicks like Robot Monster during his blacklisting and exile from Hollywood. Unlike his contemporaries John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, Bernstein was never able to produce a wildly popular sci-fi score with a big, bold title march: his latter-day sci-fi scores were either chained to Star Wars clone framework like Spacehunter or a offbeat eclectic cult experience like Heavy Metal. To Bernstein’s credit, he doesn’t attempt to ape the Star Wars space opera sound with this score–rather, he uses the awful film as a musical testing ground.

“Space Murder,” the nearly 10-minute-long first track, is a good representation of Saturn 3 in a nutshell. The cue opens with brassy, dramatic music that seems ready to explode into a statement of theme…and then promptly metamorphoses into a disco track to accompany the bizarre onscreen visuals of choreographed astronauts. The disco was left out of the final print, and for good reason–it’s jarring and completely out of sync with the rest of the score, just as the scene was out of sync with the rest of the movie. Even though Bernstein employs the novel technique of placing a deep male chant underneath the disco, the music is still extremely odd. The disco beat returns in track 5, “Blue Dreamers,” this time matched with female vocals, and the effect is just as bizarre.

At the end of “Space Murder,” though, is the album’s real strength: a tender, soaring love theme, complete with wordless female vocals. The theme was dialed out of the finished picture completely, and Bernstein went on to use it as “Taarna’s Theme” in his 1981 score for Heavy Metal, where he was able to give it far more power and development. On the Saturn 3 album, the love theme is heard far too infrequently, which only increases its contrast with the remainder of the score to the point that it’s almost as jarring as the disco music.

The rest of the score has Bernstein trying a multitude of techniques: male chants and whispers, brooding suspense music, percussive action cues, electronics, and more. It’s to the composer’s credit that these ideas work as well as they do, but the various experiments and clashing styles also prevent Saturn 3 from gelling into a cohesive score. The best parts of the music are often buried deep in lengthy cues, often only after several style changes. Part of this is due to the album’s structure (many of the cues were sewn together form shorter pieces of music during the mastering process) but even taking that into account, the music often seems fragmented and incoherent.

Saturn 3 is more interesting than enjoyable, a musical experiment that flies in the face of most post-Star Wars science fiction scoring. It’s a fantastic indicator of Bernstein’s range even as it’s not the most listenable album. So, while many of the ideas presented are interesting, and there is some good suspense/action music to be heard, Saturn 3 is probably of most interest to Bernstein completists and collectors–a fitting appraisal, as it was released as part of the limited-edition Intrada Special Collection. Only seek it out if you’ve got an open mind and are willing to embrace one of Elmer Bernstein’s most experimental and bizarre efforts in the sci-fi (or any other) genre.

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To Kill A Mockingbird (Elmer Bernstein)

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Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name, To Kill A Mockingbird won near-universal acclaim and several Oscars upon its 1962 release. Elmer Bernstein’s score was nominated but did not win a statuette (losing to Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia; it would be 1967 before Bernstein won his only Oscar for Thoroughly Modern Millie). Nevertheless, it remains arguably the composer’s finest work.

Since To Kill A Mockingbird is, in essence, a child’s-eye-view of racial turmoil, Bernstein wisely chose to develop his music around this theme, which he called “the magic of a child’s world.” To this end, the ensemble is small, with just a relative handful of performers and soloists, which lends the score a deceptively simple feel and intimacy. A highlight of this methodology, and the album as a whole, is “Main Titles,” which grows from a simple, halting piano melody into a gorgeous orchestral statement of theme. By adding successive layers of instrumentation, Bernstein builds from the image of a child picking out piano notes to a complex and fully-realized, but still intimate, piece of music.

The theme returns in the score proper in a variety of arrangements, alongside a menacing four-note motif for the villainous Ewell and a theme for Boo Radley. The Ewell material, as heard in cues like “Ewell Regret It,” is the album’s darkest, conjuring up images of a child’s worst fears–darkness, danger, and the menace inherent in them. Boo’s theme is more subdued until “Boo Who?” when a fully fleshed-out arrangement is offered, intermingled with the main and Ewell themes. There are also some sprightly cues near the beginning of the album, notably “Atticus Accepts The Case/Roll In The Tire,” that foreshadow some of Bernstein’s later work in the western genre.

Complicated rights issues meant that the original film tracks were never released; instead, there are several re-recorded albums available. The most definitive is the 1997 Varése Sarabande re-recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Bernstein himself; this recording, which contains music unused in the final film, is still in print and carried by most major soundtrack outlets. To Kill A Mockingbird is highly recommended; in addition to being a beautiful work in its own right, it serves as an excellent introduction to Elmer Bernstein’s writing. While the composer would go on to write many more outstanding scores in every genre, Mockingbird remains his most lyrical and emotional work, and a true gem of film scoring.

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