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Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic
  • Composed by Elmer Bernstein
  • Tadlow / 2017 / 63m

The archetypal Hollywood movie director, Cecil B. DeMille made countless films in a career that started with his first silent movie in 1914.  Over forty years later, it ended with the film that has gone on to be his most famous, 1956’s The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses, one of the most famous special effects in Hollywood legend and its cast of a thousand extras.  American Epic is a 2004 documentary about his life and career directed by film historian Kevin Brownlow, well known for his work documenting Hollywood’s silent era.

Victor Young was to have composed the music for The Ten Commandments but when he fell ill, DeMille’s eye was cast onto the young Elmer Bernstein, who had been hired to write some source music for the film.  Blacklisted by Hollywood at the time, Bernstein was struggling for work but so impressed was the great director with the composer that he used his contacts within the FBI to drop the investigation and allow him to work on his film, which as the most expensive film that had ever been made was a huge vote of confidence in the young man.  As his son Peter notes in this album’s booklet, the legendary Bernstein most likely would not have had a career as a film composer at all had it not been for this intervention from DeMille.

Elmer Bernstein and Cecil B. DeMille

Step forward nearly half a century and – at the other end of his life – the composer was pleased to get the chance to write music for this documentary, neatly bringing his career full circle.  As it happened, this proved to be the last music Bernstein would write.  His main theme for the two-part documentary sounds like it could have been written for The Ten Commandments and indeed much of the score trawls through some ground which was very well-trodden over the course of Bernstein’s career (interestingly, I’ve always thought that he barely changed as a composer over all that time – his scores at the end sounded much like his scores at the start – but of course in this case, it’s a deliberate step back).

Through the score we hear sweeping romance, jaunty little comedic pieces, heightened drama – it really does sound at times like it might be the music from a missing Cecil B. DeMille film.  Just listen to “Joan the Woman” – it’s not even a minute and a half long but in all other ways it’s impossible to call it anything other than epic.  And really, there’s so much great, vintage Bernstein here – there are a few pieces of source music adapted into the score but everything else is just brimming with his trademarks.  After an extremely stirring arrangement of the main theme in “CB’s Daydreams”, we come to “The Ten Commandments – 1923” (of course, the Charlton Heston version was actually the director’s second version of the tale) and for the first part of the cue we hear what an Elmer Bernstein silent film score might have sounded like – and later on he launches into the most huge, biblical epic film music written for probably forty years.

Tadlow’s press release describes the score as being like a “greatest hits of the style and imagination of such a revered composer” and really, it’s impossible to put it better than that.  He could have written it in 1956, but it was actually 2003 and it sounds just glorious, the Prague orchestra playing Bernstein’s music to perfection.  I never met him, but I always got the impression that as well as being such a wonderful film composer, Elmer Bernstein was also a real gentleman and you could hear this seeping through into his music; Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic is really stirring stuff, but as was often the case I think the real treasure comes in some of its softer moments, where there is some really aching tenderness shining through.  Having said that – when the bonus track, the familiar concert suite from The Ten Commandments, comes along to close the album – I defy anyone not to break out into a big grin.  Elmer Bernstein was a gem of a composer, and this was some way to close his extraordinarily long and distinguished career.  All fans of the composer will relish this album.

Rating:
****
Stirring score provides apt closure to a master’s career

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  1. , Andre>>Cape Town (Reply) on Wednesday 4 October, 2017 at 22:50

    Thanks for bringing this Album to our attention James. BERNSTEIN was one of Hollywood`s greatest composers, capable of turning his creativity to any genre– from period spectaculars…through Westerns and those brilliant jazz scores with sleazy themes that rivaled ALEX NORTH`S jazz scores. But his style did alter when he became obsessed with that Ondes Martenot instrument AND its performer, CYNTHIA MILLAR. Somehow the magic had been drained from his brilliance. Luckily, the period prior to the Ondes Martenot era resulted in a BERNSTEIN legacy of some of Cinema`s most outstanding music. P.S. He also wrote an unmemorable musical– “How now, Dow Jones”.

  2. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Wednesday 18 October, 2017 at 23:18

    “But his style did alter when he became obsessed with that Ondes Martenot instrument AND its performer, CYNTHIA MILLAR. Somehow the magic had been drained from his brilliance.”

    Tell that to Far From Heaven, Rambling Rose, The Field, Twilight, Slipstream, or the unused score to The Scarlet Letter….just to mention a few of many. Bernstein became obsessed in 1981, but there was plenty more brilliant magic left to come even if he did overuse that particular instrument for personal reasons.

    Yavar