Home > Reviews > TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD – Elmer Bernstein


November 6, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

To Kill A Mockingbird is renowned as a celebrated Pulitzer prize winning novel written by American novelist Harper Lee. It was adapted for the screen by Horton Foote and is set in 1930’s Alabama during the era of the great depression. There are two distinct narratives operating in the tale. The first tells the story of a widowed and respected lawyer Atticus Finch, played in exemplary fashion by Gregory Peck, and his laudable but ultimately futile effort to defend a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. The equally important second narrative however is more intimate and focuses on Finch’s two young children, Scout and Jem. In many ways it is a coming of age tale as we see through their young eyes the struggle of growing up in the old south during a time where the races were segregated and black people were denied equality and justice under law. Made in 1962 before the civil rights act, the film provided an uncomfortable and potent commentary on the ugly cultural pathology that was still manifest in America many years after the Great Emancipation.

In 1962 Elmer Bernstein was a successful and established composer with several great scores already to his credit including “The Ten Commandments”, “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Birdman of Alcatraz”. In taking on the scoring assignment however Bernstein initially encountered creative difficulty in conceptualizing the score’s emotional narrative. After six weeks of writer’s block he had an epiphany and I quote “What I realized was that its (the score’s) real function was to deal with the magic of a child’s world.” Born from this realization was a score that ultimately became dear to the composer and one of his personal favorites. Indeed the score received widespread critical acclaim and was Oscar nominated for best film score, ultimately losing to Jarre’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia”.

The wondrous main title, opens with a delicate gossamer like piano introduction of the main theme that is taken up by solo flute, supported by violins arpeggios, harp and clarinet. A lyrical solo flute melody is soon joined by vibraphone and celeste before giving way to a swelling restatement of the theme by the string section. Slowly the theme subsides to again be taken up with the delicate gentile innocence of the piano. This emotive main theme exemplifies the children and permeates throughout the entire score. It reappears often in many different guises; tender in “Remembering Mama”, hesitant and uncertain in “Creepy Caper/Peek-A-Boo”, contemplative in “Ewells’s Hatred”, sentimental in “Tree Treasure”, rapturous in “Footsteps In The Dark” and lastly nostalgic in the conclusive “End Title”. For me this theme with every listen harkens one’s back to your childhood, it elicits feelings of longing for a less complicated time, that treasured time of innocence.

The second theme heard but once in the cue “Atticus Accepts The Case / Roll In The Tire” is playful, full of a joie de vivre and quintessential Americana. This major key statement is however tinged with some disquiet and trepidation in the later part of the cue as the kids trespass onto the eerie and foreboding Radley residence.

A third theme, Boo’s theme, is first heard as a piano and flute fragment in “Peak-A-Boo”. It finally coalesces and finds full expression carried by solo violin in the cue “Boo Who”. Here it provides a perfect compliment to the children’s theme. Indeed, there is a beautiful synergy between these themes that is fully displayed in this cue and their joint statements speak of the bonding finally established between the children and Boo.

A tender fourth theme featured prominently in “Tree Treasure” and carried by solo oboe is associated with the mysterious items left in the Radley tree by Boo. The children have over time collected and placed the many items in a keep safe box which is emblematic of the growing bond between the children and Boo. This is the same keep safe box which is highlighted in the films opening sequence. Bernstein was right on in selecting the oboe to carry this delicate theme which abounds in mystery and the wonder of discovery.

Cues such as ”Ewell’s Hatred”, “The Lynch Mob” and “Ewell Regret It” are dark, dissonant and quite potent in expressing the sinister forces that oppose Finch as he honorably strives to carry out his defense of the accused. They provide a powerful and stark contrast to the delicate themes of the children and Boo and give the score the gravitas necessary to carry the film’s dramatic justice narrative.

I found it most interesting that Bernstein pulled back on the reins of his music during the film’s most dramatic scene, the court house verdict. This underscore approach proved quite effective as it served to help Peck’s impeccable performance just shine.

This score as a whole as well as each individual cue is perfectly attenuated to the film. It has a multiplicity of wonderful themes and stands firmly on its own as an enjoyable CD listening experience. The main lyrical theme is a masterpiece cue that gains Bernstein immortality. It is timeless and in my opinion takes it place in film score lore as one of the most beautiful and memorable themes ever composed. For these reasons I assign this score the highest rating of five stars – a masterpiece. I strongly encourage you to add this score to your collection and ask you to trust me that you will enjoy countless years of great pleasure from each re-listen.

Rating: *****

Buy the To Kill A Mockingbird soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:19)
  • Remember Mama (1:07)
  • Atticus Accepts the Case/Roll in the Tire (2:05)
  • Creepy Caper/Peek-a-Boo (4:09)
  • Ewell’s Hatred (3:30)
  • Jem’s Discovery (3:46)
  • Tree Treasure (4:22)
  • Lynch Mob (3:03)
  • Guilty Verdict (3:09)
  • Ewell Regret It (2:10)
  • Footsteps in the Dark (2:07)
  • Assault in the Shadows (2:25)
  • Boo Who? (2:59)
  • End Title (3:25)

Running Time: 41 minutes 57 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5754 (1962/1997)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Performed by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Featured musical soloists; Penny Haydock, John Grant, Edward Paling , Pauline Dowse , John Clark, John Cushing, Stephane Rancourt and Christophe Sauniere. Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen. Album produced by Elmer Bernstein and Robert Townson.

  1. November 6, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    Very well done review Craig. I had never heard To Kill a Mockingbird before today—wow, how beautiful! I look forward to more to come. Between Jon and now you, the quality of the site can only increase. I haven’t experienced much film music earlier than 1978 so I look forward to your insights.

  2. November 6, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Great first review Craig!
    Since you’re a great Golden Age connoisseur, you’re going to help make this site even better than it already is. I’m looking forward to reading more!
    All the best!

  3. christopher
    November 8, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    Great review, Craig. This score was already near the top of my list of things to get. I’ll bump it up another notch.

  4. Craig Richard Lysy
    November 9, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Thanks guys for the kind words and encouragement. Jon has set a very high standard and I will try hard to make him proud.

    All the best

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