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WILD WILD WEST – Elmer Bernstein

wildwildwestOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

When Elmer Bernstein scores a western, you know exactly what you’re going to get. With a track record that includes scores like The Magnificent Seven, The Commancheros, True Grit and The Shootist (his last “true” western back in 1976), it is obvious that Bernstein is a master of the musical depiction of the vast open prairie, of six-shooters and ten-gallon hats, and Wild Wild West is a welcome return to the genre which made him world famous.

The presence of Elmer at the podium and Will Smith and Kevin Kline in the lead roles have, unfortunately, not been able to save the film itself from being the summer flop of 1999. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the film is a big-budget remake of the 1960s TV series of the same name, and follows the exploits of two US law enforcement agents in the Old West, asked by the President to stop the megalomaniacal Dr. Arliss Loveless (an over-acting Kenneth Branagh) from breaking up the Union with his impressive array of mechanical inventions. Despite some good special effects and some genuine laughs, Wild Wild West is otherwise a surprisingly uninvolving affair, suffering from a poor screenplay, lazy supporting performances and some misguided attempts at racial humor which leave a bitter aftertaste.

But, as all good westerns should, Wild Wild West has a great score, with a hugely dominant main theme, although this one strikes me as reminiscent of Alfred Newman’s How The West Was Won than anything in Bernstein’s past. Nevertheless, it’s an archetypal, heroic full-orchestra blast, with a propulsive brass melody, bright string accompaniment and, in the “Main Title”, an unexpected but somehow appropriate Lalo Schifrin-style electric guitar funk interlude. Further large-scale recapitulations of theme abound, especially in “Dismissal”, “Trains Tanks and Frayed Ropes”, “Goodbye Loveless” and “Ride The Spider”, but there is no end credits cue – instead, that honor goes to Will Smith’s rambunctious rap “Wild Wild West”, not included on this CD but sitting in pride of place on the Interscope song compilation.

The action music is trademark Elmer, with the precise rhythms and percolated snare drum licks heard in earlier scores such as Airplane! most prominent, while Elmer’s son Peter takes over some of the underscore duties on “Tanks Trains and Frayed Ropes” and “Goodbye Loveless” when the time and scheduling pressures got a little too much for dear old dad (although some of his work does suffer from a tiny bit of temp-track love and bears a surprising resemblance to “Futile Escape”). In fact, the whole scoring experience of Wild Wild West is a family affair – daughter Emilie takes on some of the orchestration duties, and produced the album as well!

Of course, no modern Elmer Bernstein score would be complete without a guest slot for his musical fetish of choice, the ondes martenot, and it’s retro-sounding wailing electronic tones make none-too-subtle appearances in the “Main Title”, the mischievously romantic “East Meets West” and the funk-based ‘The Cornfield’. Similarly, the intentionally humorous choral parts of Airplane! are cleverly reworked into the schizophrenic “Loveless’ Plan”, which has the choir chant ‘Loveless! Hallelujah!’ before embarking upon a Salome-inspired exotic dance for Will Smith’s drag act.

The one omission from this quite lean album from Varese Sarabande is Richard Markowitz’s original TV theme, afforded one or two glorious performances in the film, but cut out altogether here. Nevertheless, Bernstein’s score is one to savor, especially when you consider that Elmer is 78 next year. Although he has had to draft his family in to help him, his music is as alive and important as it ever was, and it is a testament to his standing in Hollywood that they are still willing to entrust the music for their blockbusters to a man who should be drawing his pension. It may not be original, but Wild Wild West is highly enjoyable, and has been far better received than the film it accompanies.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:00)
  • West Fights (1:14)
  • Dismissal (2:13)
  • East Meets West (1:15)
  • Of Rita, Rescue and Revenge (5:43)
  • Tanks, Trains and Frayed Ropes (4:03)
  • The Cornfield (1:09)
  • Loveless’ Plan (4:45)
  • Goodbye Loveless (4:33)
  • Ride the Spider (2:14)

Running Time: 30 minutes 14 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6042 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Orchestrations by Emilie A. Bernstein, Patrick Russ and Jon Kull. Additional music by Peter Bernstein. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin and Bobby Fernandez. Mastered by Joe Gastwirt. Album produced by Emilie A. Bernstein.

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