Perhaps no traditional orchestral score this year has drawn more attention than Elmer Bernstein’s for “Far From Heaven,” Todd Haynes’ 1950s-style melodrama about a housewife whose life is turned upside-down by revelations about her husband and her growing attraction to their African-American gardener.
Bernstein, the composer of such film music classics as “The Magnificent Seven,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Man With the Golden Arm,” thinks the acclaim has come because “they haven’t heard this kind of music in so long.”
“Where do you hear a score that’s melody-based anymore? If we had done this in the ’50s, it might have been appreciated then, too, but it would have been just another score,” he says.
Bernstein is up for a Golden Globe and has been awarded lifetime achievement honors by the National Board of Review.
The key role that music plays in “Far From Heaven” is by design, according to Haynes. “In these kinds of movies, the characters don’t articulate everything themselves. You don’t know how much they learn from their experiences. They’re victims of their society and the pressures that surround them. So music becomes a voice, and a central kind of dramatic entity that most movies today don’t need.”
Bernstein says that Haynes “wanted music that was unabashedly romantic, unabashedly emotional. What I wanted to do in the score was to say, ‘This is serious. These are real people with real problems, and we should feel along with them.'”
The composer, a 13-time Oscar nominee (and winner for 1967’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) avoids viewing films with a temp-track (music accompanying an early cut). In this case, his agent persuaded him to see “Far From Heaven” — even though it had been temp-tracked with one of Bernstein’s most famous scores, “To Kill a Mockingbird.'”
“We were in sync right away on what the film needed in terms of a lyrical quality in the music: a fully expressive score that wasn’t going to hold back too much, and yet something that was truly affecting,” says Haynes.
Bernstein worked on the film between March and early June, ultimately writing more than an hour of music, most of it for a chamber ensemble of just 12 musicians.
The piano, played by Bernstein’s composer colleague Cynthia Millar, is the central instrument in the score. “The fragility and loneliness of the piano was something that really made sense,” adds the director, “the sort of isolation that Cathy, the central character (played by Julianne Moore), certainly feels.”