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Frankie Starlight
  • Composed by Elmer Bernstein
  • Varèse Sarabande / 1995 / 37:04

After Elmer Bernstein grew tired of being typecast in the somewhat unlikely role of composer-of-choice for Hollywood’s screwball comedies through much of the 1980s, he avoided them at all costs and sought out instead more serious fare, more worthy of his considerable talents.  The films’ commercial prospects were of much less concern to him than the opportunities they would give him to write the kind of music he loved writing – and so he scored films like Frankie Starlight, a little-known arthouse film that told the story of a fairly successful novelist who is a dwarf, and attempts to piece together seemingly random events in his past through the position of the constellations at the time (he is also a keen amateur astronomer).

That may all sound a little strange, but there is nothing strange at all about Bernstein’s music, one of the most beautiful not just of his last decade but indeed of his whole career.  The album opens with a sumptuous vocal performance of his main theme, “From My Window”, sung by soprano Belinda Pigeon.  The unique mix of her beautiful voice with solo piano and ondes martenot works wonders (and suggests that it’s a shame the composer didn’t have more than the very occasional trip onto Broadway himself).  Speaking of the ondes, Bernstein’s apparent obsession with it has been the subject of much debate, but he never used it to greater effect than in this score, where it adds an ethereal glow whenever it appears, sounding genuinely beautiful throughout.

Elmer Bernstein

The highlight for many will be that wonderful main theme, an Elmer Bernstein classic.  After the vocal, the main title (“Moon”) presents it in its beautiful, dreamy arrangement for the pretty small ensemble the composer assembled for the picture.  I’ve always thought he was at his best when writing for a chamber ensemble like this – the music sounds so personal, so passionate, with frequent solos for all sorts of different instruments being allowed to breathe, the soloists able to shine.

There are numerous individual pieces worthy of mention, none moreso than the gorgeous “Jack and Bernadette”, in my opinion one of the most exquisite of this composer’s great career.  A duet between oboe and clarinet gives way to a brief passage for ondes, before the different sections of the main theme emerges first on piano with the solitary accompaniment of a solo bass, then the slightly larger ensemble, then back to the ondes and finally back to the piano.  It’s a real tearjerker of a piece, filled with real feeling.

The delightful scherzo “At Play” will remind everyone of the composer’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird – something always worth being reminded of.  There are other sections where Bernstein’s music expresses a kind of joyous outdoor feeling – parts of “Visions”, but especially the brilliant “Wild Ride”.  There are moments, too, where Bernstein has to convey darker emotions, sometimes with an overwhelming sadness coming through – indeed, the other parts of “Visions” is a good example!  Most often though, it is simply beautiful music – the ravishing main theme an absolute joy whenever it appears.

Elmer Bernstein wrote consistently good music throughout his very long career – of course he’ll always be known for the westerns, and the music for all those comedies certainly has a lot of fans – but it was in scoring serious drama that he was at his best.  Indeed, in the whole of film music, I would argue that only Alex North could rival Bernstein at doing this kind of thing – the music couldn’t be too showy in such dialogue-heavy films, so there’s a challenge to find room to put music in there that can really breathe and make a genuinely strong contribution to the story.  Bernstein did it time and again and Frankie Starlight is one of the best examples from the latter part of his career.  *****

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  1. Matt Lambertson (Reply) on Saturday 7 April, 2012 at 13:43

    I don’t have a lot of Bernstein in my collection yet, but I have this one presumably because of your past mentions of it, and I absolutely love it. It has a personality all its own. Very dreamy. It’s beauty is somewhat restrained and yet all the more intense for that very reason.