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True Grit
  • Composed by Elmer Bernstein
  • Original tracks: La-La Land Records / 2013 / 69m (score 47m)
  • Re-recording: Tadlow Music / 2006 / 70m (score 47m)

The legendary John Wayne’s only Oscar win came for his performance in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie True Grit, in which he played drunken, ageing US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, helping young girl Mattie Ross to track down the man who slaughtered her father.  If it’s hardly on the level of Wayne’s finest westerns, it’s still an enjoyable film (though – dare I say – the Coen Brothers’ remake is a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’s superb novel and perhaps a more satisfying film).

true_grit_tadlowThe film was the third of Wayne’s westerns to be scored by Elmer Bernstein (after The Comancheros and The Sons of Katie Elder – and there were three more to come).  I think it’s safe to say that you know what you’re going to get when you listen to an Elmer Bernstein / John Wayne score: you’re going to get a big, bouncy, catchy theme – some rigorous and exciting action music – some rambunctious lighthearted music – some sweeping romance.   You get all of those in True Grit.  But, no doubt to the surprise of many listeners, those who purchased the soundtrack album released with the film didn’t get all of that at all, since for some reason it was full of pop rearrangements of Bernstein’s themes rather than the score itself.  Bernstein himself was involved with the record, but it certainly can’t have been his choice to release it in that form and it won’t have ranked amongst his prouder moments.

In 2006 album producer James Fitzpatrick re-recorded the whole actual score with the City of Prague Philharmonic conducted by Fitzpatrick himself and released it on his Tadlow label; that was the first opportunity anyone had to really experience Bernstein’s fine score outside the film.  Now in 2013, La-La Land has released the original 1969 film tracks for the first time, in pristine sound.

Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein

The main title was underscored with a song (named after the film) composed by Bernstein with lyrics by Don Black.  In the film it was sung by Glen Campbell; on Tadlow’s recording, by Keith Ferreira.  It’s a lovely pastoral tune, nice in its vocal form and always pleasant when it appears within the body of the score, where it is used as the theme for the girl, Mattie.  It has a certain innocence to it in its orchestral arrangement, offering a childlike perspective on the unfolding events, particularly when heard in the surprisingly tender, touching solo violin version.

The other major theme (for Wayne’s character) is a Bernstein corker, introduced in the wonderful “Rooster and La Boeuf Off” and also heard in full form later in “Ruffled Rooster”, very much in the vein of The Magnificent Seven or indeed The Sons of Katie Elder (which was also directed by Hathaway).  There’s some first-rate action music here – perhaps best of all is “Dugout Stakeout / Shots Galore”, which includes a number of variations on the bad guys’ theme before developing into a violent explosion of a piece, brassy and percussive and quite exhilarating.  Impressive too is the music underscoring the exciting climax to the film, indexed on the La-La-Land CD as “The Meadow Fight / A Long Shot / The Snake Pit / The Liftout / Sad Departure / Chen Lee and the General (The Pace that Kills)” – catchy title!  Actually the two releases feature identical track titles, but combine the short tracks together slightly differently.

Both discs also feature a decent amount of bonus material.  La-La Land’s album has a number of demo versions of songs, including “True Grit” sung by Bernstein himself, Campbell singing an earlier version of the song with the same tune but a different lyric (“The Eyes of the Young”), and John Hartford’s song “Go Home Girl” which was originally written for the film but ultimately went unused when Bernstein said he wanted to write his own song and use the melody through the score (imagine that happening today!)  Commendable too is the superb package design by Jim Titus.

Tadlow’s bonuses are not inconsiderable themselves, being the main themes from all of Bernstein’s other John Wayne western movies (my personal favourite is The Sons of Katie Elder).  Notable too are the liner notes by the late David Wishart, with the booklet also featuring some comments from the composer’s wife Eve and from the lyricist Don Black.  Whichever version you choose, you can’t really go wrong – this is a highly-enjoyable, surprisingly deep score by the master of the genre, one who really did have true grit – it’s memorable and exciting and a must-own for Bernstein fans.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. acrylian (Reply) on Tuesday 15 October, 2013 at 11:52

    I wonder why the great suite by Elmer Bernstein himself that actually contains all major parts on the “John Wayne, Vol 1” sampler has not be mentioned?

    • James Southall (Reply) on Tuesday 15 October, 2013 at 19:11

      Good point. At least it’s been mentioned now you’ve mentioned it! It is indeed a great suite.