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The Great Santini
  • Composed by Elmer Bernstein
  • Film Score Monthly / 2011 / 57:04

A young man tries to earn the approval of his very demanding father in The Great Santini, a film which got rave reviews (especially for Robert Duvall’s central performance) but little audience upon its release in 1980.  At the time, Elmer Bernstein was in the middle of his “comedy phase”, scoring Airplane!, Animal House and all the rest, and this film allowed him a rare (but very welcome) opportunity to score a drama.  He relished the opportunity and delivered a fine score which features some typically-touching material to deal with the the complex personal relationships.  I’ve always thought Bernstein (despite all the wonderful “big” music he did) was at his best when writing chamber-sized music for serious drama – he was able to do so in a way which was deft and sensitive, frequently with quite exquisite melodies, yet avoided all the clichés and overt sentimentality which can blight film music of that type – a rare skill, and he was the master.

This score does actually open with some “big” music, “The Santini Mystique” – it represents the military background of Duvall’s character, but some of the musical effects Bernstein employs are a little odd.  Not until the fourth cue, “Ben and Bull”, does the true nature of the score reveal itself, as the composer introduces the first of several outstandingly tender, moving themes.  There are three more of them to come – each is a real delight and sent through numerous variations through the score.  Those moments represent Bernstein at his best, but the album is a little strangely-produced, placing source music (which rather ruins the mood so carefully created) as it appears in the film rather than sticking it all at the end, which is a shame; however, there is one really nice bonus, which is a ceremonial piece the composer recorded for an event at the University of California during the recording sessions for this film.  ****

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  1. Sam Juliano (Reply) on Sunday 8 April, 2012 at 15:02

    Don’t see the problem at all with arranging the source music the way it unfolded in the film. In fact I’d much rather have it that way.

    I agree that this is Bernstein at his best, and the score stands with the ones he wrote for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and FAR FROM HEAVEN.