What is the most recent live-action comedy film you saw that had a really memorable original score? Liar Liar? Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery? Home Alone? To me, most comedy films of the past few decades have had scores that were perfectly serviceable, but not impactful. I won’t be humming them anytime soon.
But more than that, the music composed for comedies seems to be thrown in rather than well thought out. That wasn’t always the case. Big-name composers used to provide the scores for comedies, and they don’t get much bigger than Elmer Bernstein. He teamed up with two of the most prolific comedy directors of the 1980s to produce great pieces of music that have stood the test of the time. You might even call him the secret weapon of ‘80s comedies because of how much they benefited from his contributions.
Elmer Bernstein started working with John Landis in 1978. He worked on the score for nothing but classics: National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Spies Like Us, and Three Amigos.
He started working with Ivan Reitman in 1979. Those scores include Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Legal Eagles. He also did the score for Heavy Metal, which Reitman produced.
It was a stroke of genius for these two directors to use Bernstein’s talents in their (mostly) comedy films. Bernstein was well known at the time as a great dramatic composer. He had composed the scores for such classics as The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Escape, and True Grit (1969). He brought his considerable talents to bear for each of his assignments in the ‘80s, creating memorable results.
Three Amigos + Magnificent Seven = Ten Commandments
Let’s listen to two of Bernstein’s most iconic scores to get a feel for how his music creates a feeling of epic, grand adventure.
Notice how he blends these two fantastic scores into his Three Amigos theme. It starts out very similar to The Ten Commandments and then gets more playful as it goes, having fun with the traditional Western themes he established earlier in his career, especially when it transitions into El Guapo’s villainous theme.
Oh, and there’s no question that The Magnificent Seven inspired the score to Spies Like Us. Just listen to it.
Ghostbusters and Great Escapes
Remember the main theme from The Great Escape? Who could forget it! It’s right up there with the main theme from Bridge on the River Kwai.
Well, add some spooky, whimsical bits to it and you might just get something like the main theme from Ghostbusters.
A Mockingbird, a Werewolf, and an Airplane
You can even hear some early premonitions of Bernstein’s later work in To Kill a Mockingbird.
It’s nice and slow, as befitting that film’s somber story. And you can hear a similar tune in An American Werewolf in London.
If you speed up the theme from To Kill a Mockingbird and add quite a few silly bursts of music, you get the score to Airplane!
A Perfect Composition
It takes a composer who knows how to pull at your heartstrings and give you the feeling that you’re about to embark on a tremendously important adventure to have fun with those same ideas in a more comedic film. The man who gave us the music of God can also give us the music of Gozer. The man who gave us the music of World War II can also give us the music of the Cold War. The man who gave us the music of the Western can also give us the music of El Guapo. The man who gave us the music of Atticus Finch can also give us the music of an American werewolf.
Elmer Bernstein is the secret weapon of ‘80s comedies because practically every comedy film he scored in the ‘80s was elevated as a result of his masterful contributions. When we think of great ‘80s comedies, we almost invariably have to give credit to Bernstein for helping them succeed.
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