Tag Archives: Elmer Bernstein

Robert Townson & The Magic of Movie Music

PHOTO ARTUR BARBAROWSKIRobert Townson, the film music producer who brought Hollywood legends to Glasgow in the 1990s and worked with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on a series of recordings now regarded as mythic, is returning to Scotland next week. In two special concerts, the RSNO and Townson are reuniting to celebrate the 40thanniversary of Varese Sarabande, the record label which showcased their unique relationship; a relationship which produced an astounding 40 soundtrack albums over seven years.

Just like the new audiences who have been coming to RSNO concerts after having their interest piqued by the organisation’s various film music events, so Townson, now Vice President of Soundtracks and Executive Producer at Varese Sarabande, found that film music was a gateway to classical music in general.

Back in the late 1970s, Townson was “just an 11-year-old kid” going to the cinema with his pals. Over the course of just two years, four movies came out which, he says, changed his life: Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978), both with a score by John Williams, and Star Trek – The Motion Picture and Alien (both 1979), both scored by Jerry Goldsmith.

“These four films opened my eyes and ears to this music,” says the charismatic Canadian, who still sounds wonder-struck as he describes the effect that John Williams’s rousing fanfares had on him. “I was not a musically sophisticated kid; I didn’t even play the piano. I went to see the films with no expectation but I was struck by the scores, there was an immediate connection. John and Jerry sparked my passion in all music – through them I discovered classical music, in particular Dvorak, Mahler and Beethoven.

“The late 1970s was a fertile period of great film music – a near golden age. The composers who were writing still included the masters of earlier decades – Miklos Rozsa, Elmer Bernstein, Georges Delerue.”

Not only were some of the important figures from the 1940s and 1950s still active but film music as a distinct genre worthy of respect was given a shot in the arm around this time with the release of the Classic Film Scores by RCA. These records introduced the adolescent Townson to the first wave of Hollywood movie composers, who had come from Europe.

He recalls:  “I developed a voracious appetite for the music, especially Jerry Goldsmith’s. Every score I heard by him was mindblowing to me. The variety and range in his work was amazing. I look back now and admire my teenage taste!”

You also have to admire Townson’s teenage chutzpah. After all, he founded a record label Masters Film Music, before he hit 20. But why?

“Well, it was born out of frustration. I was frustrated that there were new films whose soundtracks weren’t being released. Three of these films really triggered me into action: The Final Conflict (The Omen 3) and Raggedy Man which had Goldsmith scores, and Heartbeeps, which John Williams did between Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T, a magnificent period in his career. I realised that something needed to be done – and the conclusion I came to was to release all three myself!”

Operating out of his bedroom in his parents’ home, Townson made contact with Goldsmith, and, for distribution, approached Varese Sarabande as they were already specialists in film music, having recorded concert works by movie composers. The film studio allowed him to use the original soundtrack of The Final Conflict by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Goldsmith himself.

Goldsmith was delighted with the album. For Townson, it proved the launchpad for the career he has today. “It established me working with Jerry. From that first album until he died in 2004, there wasn’t a time when we weren’t working on something. We made 80 albums together; he was like a second father to me. He was a wonderful man, an absolute genius and a very cool guy – very demanding of himself and very driven. He would finish recording a score in the morning and start writing the next one that afternoon.”

A successful recording of Alex North’s score for 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired Townson to begin a new project: of recording existing scores alongside the new soundtrack albums he was producing for Varese Sarabande. Three albums into the series, he began to have logistical problems with the orchestra, and just at that point he heard that the RSNO was interested in recording film music.

Townson’s first visit to Glasgow, in 1995, produced a new recording of the peerless Bernard Herrmann score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, conducted by the up-and-coming film composer Joel McNeely. It was a tremendous success, winning the Gramophone Award and paving the way for regular trips to Scotland over the next seven years. “I’d do maybe three or four recordings each time, and I was recording pretty much exclusively with the orchestra. The RSNO was far and away my preferred orchestra and I always looked forward to my next trip.”

He wasn’t the only one. Jerry Goldsmith became such a regular here that musicians back home in Los Angeles joked that they were lucky to have him at his own 70thbirthday party; they had thought he might be celebrating in Glasgow with their Scots counterparts. Mind you, Goldsmith did have a 70thbirthday concert here where audiences were thrilled to hear such powerful themes as those for Patton and Air Force One (the appropriation of which by Trump would not have gone down well with its composer, says Townson).

But it was Elmer Bernstein, the one-time blacklisted composer responsible for bringing uniquely American sensibility to the Hollywood movie score, who perhaps provided the most stardust, as well as forging a very special, mutually affectionate, relationship with the orchestra.

His music, along with Goldsmith’s, is represented in the programme for next weekend’s concerts and there will also be compositions by one of Glasgow’s own film music greats, Patrick Doyle, and the evening’s conductor, composer Diego Navarro. As Townson, who will be presenting, says: “It’s going to be a film music concert like no other!”

Robert Townson and Jerry Goldsmith_City Halls booth_by Matthew Joseph Peak

Robert Townson & Jerry Goldsmith, City Halls, Glasgow by Matthew Joseph Peak

*****

If you’re a film aficionado or a classical concert-goer, chances are that at some point in recent years you have attended a film screening with live orchestral accompaniment or a concert featuring a programme of iconic movie scores.

Film music has become big box office business, and, over the last few years we in Scotland have been spoiled for choice – the BBC SSO devoted a weekend to the music of Bernard Herrmann, the John Wilson Orchestra visits every winter with songs from the great musicals, and all the film festivals (even – or especially – the silent one at the Hippodrome Cinema in Bo’ness) tend to include some sort of celebration of movie music.

But it wasn’t always thus. Back in the 1990s, following a series of annual screenings of silent movies with music performed by the RSNO, conducted by composer Carl Davis, something magical happened: Hollywood itself began to come to Glasgow thanks to record producer Robert Townson who came to work with the RSNO to produce definitive new recordings of important scores from Hollywood history.

Nobody who experienced the diminutive white-haired movie giant Elmer Bernstein conducting his own, majestic and catchy music for The Magnificent Seven or his exquisitely delicate and beguiling themes for To Kill a Mockingbird at one of his birthday concerts with the RSNO in 1997 and 2002 could forget how their spine tingled at being in the presence of Hollywood history.

Robert Townson recalls that on the day they were about to record To Kill a Mockingbird, Bernstein was “trotting to the podium when the horn section started playing The Magnificent Seven theme”, much to his delight.

I, personally, remember the impact that news of Bernstein’s first visit to Glasgow had on colleagues at The Herald. When Michael Tumelty, the classical music critic who went on to become a favourite writer and friend of Bernstein, bumped into some musician pals outside the City Halls and asked what they were doing, he was gobsmacked to learn that they were recording The Great Escape, and zoomed back to the Herald office on Albion Street to share the news.

Fifteen minutes later, anyone who happened to pass the “smoking room” would have seen a conga line of middle-aged reporters and sub-editors slowly shuffling round a cupboard-sized space, jangling the coins in their pockets and collectively humming the rousing theme to that classic war movie. Such was the Bernstein effect.

And such is the effect of the iconic movie scores that the RSNO recorded back to worldwide acclaim back then, and continues to champion in film music concerts and events, such as their sell-out Back to the Future screening-with-live-accompaniment in Edinburgh last year. The orchestra even has a film music specialist from Hollywood, Richard Kaufman, on its roster of regular conductors and a dedicated, and concert-filled, film section – RSNO At the Movies – on its website. The giants of movie music may no longer walk among us but their legacy lives on …

* Varese Sarabande 40thAnniversary Concert, November 16 & 17 at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh and the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow respectively. Visit www.rsno.org.uk to book tickets.

* An edited version of this feature was published in The Herald on Saturday November 10th, and online at http://www.heraldscotland.com

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Hallowe’en Movies

It may not have inspired nearly as many movies as those cheerier, more wholesome, festivities that take place in December, but Hallowe’en rears its ugly, pumpkin, head in a rich mix of classic films – from family fantasies, such as ET, to such serious dramas as Kramer Vs Kramer.

It pops up in musicals, romantic comedies, thrillers and chillers. Just as there are certain movies which are perfect for getting us into a Christmassy mood, so there is a less well-documented collection of films which are ideal for conjuring up the spirit of Hallowe’en. Here’s my guide to essential Hallowe’en viewing.

HALLOWE’EN MUST-SEES
1. Arsenic and Old Lace (1941)
“Insanity runs in my family,” says Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) in this madcap black comedy. “In fact, it practically gallops.” And it’s all unleashed on one wild Hallowe’en night when he discovers a body stashed in the window seat of the quaint Brooklyn home shared by his beloved spinster aunts. Turns out they have a penchant for bumping off lonely old gentlemen. It’s not just Aunt Martha and Aunt Abi who are nuts; Mortimer’s brother Teddy thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and his other sibling, Jonathan, is a maniac who flies into a murderous rage when anyone comments on his obvious resemblance to Boris Karloff…
This timeless classic blends high octane comedy – Cary Grant was never as hysterical as when he was playing the increasingly hysterical Mortimer – with black humour and the genuine chills provided by torture-loving Jonathan Brewster and his slimy, plastic surgeon, sidekick Dr Einstein (the ever-creepy Peter Lorre). It’s a great one to watch in the dark in the middle of the night .. Director Frank Capra followed this Hallowe’en-themed film with the greatest Christmas movie of them all – It’s a Wonderful Life.
2. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Two festive seasons for the price of one in this cult animation from the eccentric mind of Tim Burton, a magician of the macabre whose every film hints of Hallowe’en-style horrors. This musical, which was clearly inspired by Burton’s heroes, the illustrators Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, tells the story of Pumpkin Jack, the main man in Hallowe’en Town, and what happens when he tires of the Hallowe’en routine and tries his hand at being Santa instead..
TRICKS AND TREATS
3. Meet Me in St Louis (1944)
Is there anyone who has seen this heart-warming Judy Garland musical and doesn’t remember the traumatic trick-or-treating scene in which little Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) rises to the terrible challenge of approaching the front door of the scariest man in the street – and throwing flour in his face. Director Vincente Minnelli brilliantly captures the menacing mood as Tootie tentatively knocks on the door… and her jubilation as she realises that she is “the bravest of them all and the most horrible” after she has completed the task that none of the other kids would take on..
4. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Woody Allen’s joyful musical – in which stars ranging from Drew Barrymore to Alan Alda bravely sang old standards (regardless of how well – or not, in the case of Julia Roberts – they could sing) – follows a year in the life of a wacky Park Avenue family. One of the highlights is the Hallowe’en sequence when the children from the building come to the door to trick or treat. This being the wealthiest part of New York, you don’t just get a kid in a supermarket outfit singing a pop song; you get full, MGM-style, production numbers. And the one that the family falls for is a girl dressed as a banana, singing Carmen Miranda’s Chiquita Banana song, accompanied by two maracas-shaking boys in Mexican costume.
OF MICE AND BOGEY MEN
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
It’s not a horror movie, but this peerless film of Harper Lee’s wonderful book has an unforgettable scene, set at Hallowe’en, which is utterly terrifying. Our young heroine, Scout, through whose eyes the story is told, is set upon by an assailant in the dark as she and her brother Jem are returning home from a Hallowe’en pageant at their school. Scout is still in her ham costume and is knocked to the ground as the attacker lays into Jem. Her unwieldy, solid costume prevents her from seeing what’s happening and who her attacker is and stops her from being able to get to her feet. All of which adds to the suspense, which is brilliantly heightened by Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent music. The scene is not only extremely scary but also a pivotal point in the plot – as it leads to our first glimpse of the mysterious Boo Radley..
6. Hallowe’en (1978)
The low-budget chiller that spawned several sequels and a series of spoofs (the Scary Movies etc), this creepy horror flick takes place on October 31 when a psychotic killer, who has been mistakenly released from an institution, returns to his family home to pick up where he left off 15 years earlier. Jamie Lee Curtis followed in her mother Janet “Psycho” Leigh’s filmic footsteps by being something of a magnet for the murderer..
SAUCY SORCERESSES
7. I Married a Witch (1942)
Veronica Lake – she of the peekaboo fringe, petite figure and impish face – was brilliantly cast as Jennifer, the mischievous minx of a witch, who, having been burned at the stake in the 17th century, plots revenge on the modern-day ancestor of the puritan responsible for her fate. She seduces him, wrecks his marriage plans and his political campaign and, of course, ends up falling in love with him in this downright magic romantic comedy which undoubtedly inspired the hit 1960s TV show, Bewitched, but is ten times funnier..
8. Bell, Book and Candle (1958)
As sexy sorceresses go, they don’t come more sultry and spellbinding (or chic) than the beatnik witch Gillian Holroyd in this stylish romantic fantasy/comedy which reunited Vertigo stars Kim Novak and James Stewart. Gillian takes a fancy to her new neighbour and uses her magic powers to make him fall in love with her and out of love with the bully who made her life hell at school. Needless to say that she doesn’t expect to fall hook, line and sinker herself …
This dreamy, Manhattan-set romance also stars Elsa “The Bride of Frankenstein” Lanchester as Gillian’s mad old aunt Queenie, while Jack Lemmon is great fun as Gillian’s brother, a wizard with a regular gig playing the bongos at the local witches’ hangout, the Zodiac Club, in Greenwich Village.
9. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Three witches for the price of one in this fantastical comedy: Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer discover they have magic powers when a devilish stranger (Jack Nicholson) blows into town in answer to their prayers. He wreaks so much havoc that they ultimately have to draw on their powers to get rid of him too…
WICKED WITCHES
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Why The Wizard of Oz has become a staple of the Christmas TV schedule beats me: it should surely be reserved for Hallowe’en viewing. After all, you don’t get very many witches who are uglier than the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) with her hatchet features, snotter-coloured complexion, scrawny frame and stripy stockings. And that voice that saws right through one’s head as it cackles “Surrender Dorothy!”. Her entourage of flying monkeys in military costume aside, the Wicked Witch is a creature of convention with all the accessories that are considered de rigueur for a witch at Hallowe’en: broomstick, cauldron, pointy black hat….
11. The Witches (1990)
Considerably more evil than the Wicked Witch of the West – just watch how she gleefully pushes a baby in its pram down the steep slope to a cliff edge – is the Grand High Witch, played by Anjelica Huston in Nicolas Roeg’s movie of Roald Dahl’s book The Witches. With her Hitler-like oratory and her desire to wipe out a section of the population (ie: children), the Grand High Witch is one of the scariest sorceresses ever portrayed on film. And far too terrifying for young audiences.
On a lighter note, she is also one of the most striking-looking of all movie witches: you’ve got to admit that, in her slinky black satin, purple trimmed, dress, her long black gloves, Cleopatra-style hair and blood-red lips, she cuts quite a dash. At least, that is, until she peels off her human skin to reveal her real, hideous, witch face.
12. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most magnificent villain of them all? Not the Queen from Snow White, though she is a contender, but the elegant, beautiful and utterly evil Maleficent, the bad witch from Disney’s wonderful interpretation of Sleeping Beauty. Left off the guest list for the christening of Princess Aurora, this horned witch casts a terrifying spell on the infant: that when she turns 18, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die…
Like Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch, Maleficent is a vision in swathes of black and purple (clearly the only colours for any self-respecting sorceress to sport), and a supermodel of the supernatural world (by way of total contrast with her arch enemies – the three dumpy, frumpy good fairies). And forget your black cats and brooms; Maleficent has a crow as her assistant and can transform herself into whatever she likes – most memorably, a monstrous, fire-breathing dragon.

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