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BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ
Magical score is touching throughout; a Bernstein masterpiece
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
While John Frankenheimer considerably tarnished his reputation during the later years of his career with some diabolical films, one shouldn't forget the wonderful movies he directed earlier on, especially the fruitful period of the 1960s, when he made no fewer than eleven films, including the classics Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate and, perhaps best of all, Birdman of Alcatraz, with Burt Lancaster giving arguably his finest performance, as a violent murderer serving a life sentence, who takes an interest in birds initially just as a way of nullifying the intense boredom (this was before the days when prisoners had satellite tv and minibars in their cells).
Frankenheimer worked with an array of very fine composers during his long career - Jerry Goldsmith, Maurice Jarre, Alex North, Bill Conti, Leonard Rosenman, John Williams, Michael Kamen, Georges Delerue, Henry Mancini - and Elmer Bernstein. Birdman of Alcatraz was their first collaboration (the other was The Gypsy Moths). Bernstein was perfect composer casting, since his ability to express humanity's more noble qualities was vitally important to make the film work.
Bernstein's music is as subtle and delicate as his finer scores so often are. The opening title music is more on the dark side, but these early tracks quickly give way to the most magical music. "Canaries Arrive" offers a lighthearted interlude, while remaining deft and gentle; and the magic really begins with "Cage Preparations" and "Cage Building", two quite exquisite pieces full of hope and beauty. As the score progresses, it becomes yet more elegant, sometimes playful, sometimes serious, but always subtle and involving. Few composers could make a cue like "No Cure" so touching, with Bernstein using the most modest of ensembles (there can't be more than three or four players on the cue) to bring real, heartfelt emotion. "Peggy" is a tour-de-force, a splendidly touching piece which wasn't even used in the final film. The score does sometimes become more aggressively dramatic, such as in the anguished "Stroud Drunk", but even in these (comparatively sparse) sections, Bernstein handles things with grace and delicacy.
In truth, the highlights are continuous. That Bernstein wrings quite so much emotion from it all is remarkable. He was a class act, a one-of-a-kind, and at his best he really was a quite magnificent composer. Nobody else could have scored Birdman of Alcatraz so well, so convincingly. It makes a wonderful companion piece to the brilliant To Kill a Mockingbird (probably Bernstein's finest score), composed the very same year. This new release from the Varese Sarabande CD Club marks the first time this masterpiece has ever been officially released on CD - aside from the first couple of minutes of the main title, the sound quality is clear and good, Robert Townson's liner notes are interesting and the entire score is here, even the bizarre pop rearrangement of the main theme. Thoroughly recommended.