Home > Reviews > LEGAL EAGLES – Elmer Bernstein

LEGAL EAGLES – Elmer Bernstein


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Legal Eagles is a fun comedy-drama-thriller written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, and directed by Ivan Reitman. It stars Robert Redford as New York assistant district attorney Tom Logan, who teams up with his rival, public defender Laura Kelly (Debra Winger), after he becomes convinced that her client, eccentric art dealer Chelsea Dearden (Daryl Hannah), is genuinely innocent of the crime she is accused of committing. As Tom and Kelly delve deeper into the case they find themselves becoming embroiled in a web of mystery, cover-ups, and police corruption, dating back to the night 20 years previously when Chelsea’s father was killed in a mysterious fire; not only that, and despite their own better judgment, the two lawyers find themselves developing romantic feelings for each other. The film is a breezy, enjoyable caper, with Redford and Winger’s relationship clearly inspired by the sexual tension between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and was one of the box office successes of 1986.

The score for Legal Eagles is by the late great Elmer Bernstein, his fourth and final collaboration with Ivan Reitman after Meatballs in 1979, Stripes in 1981, and Ghostbusters in 1984. It’s all very much rooted in his 1980s style, built around two central themes, and prominently featuring the sound of the ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument that is part piano, part Theremin, and has a whistling, ghostly timbre.

The two main themes appear as the first two cues on the album. The first is “Legal Eagles Love,” the relationship theme for Tom and Laura, a jaunty piece for strings and woodwinds with a light, almost comedic brass countermelody that initially speaks to the good-natured buddy movie bond they share, but gradually develops into something deeper as their romantic feelings come to the fore. The wailing ondes martenot – used so successfully in scores like Ghostbusters to convey an eerie ambience – is used here in a lighter, more playful way.

The second theme is “Moving On,” a jazzier and more forthright piece for strings and muted brass which tends to accompany Tom and Laura’s more serious scenes of investigation and legal creativity, and actually appears multiple times throughout the film itself. The brass and strings play a five-note riff off each other, while the rest of the orchestra provides upbeat, rhythmic backing. Bass flutes, plucked double basses, electronic pulses, and the ondes martenot are given range to be expressive throughout much of the piece, resulting in something which at times sounds like free jazz, floating expressively around the main 5-note core.

The rest of the score, as heard on the album, is devoted to various set pieces, and more often than not does not directly quote any of the thematic ideas from the first two cues, although the instrumental consistency is retained. “Hypnotic Eyes” is a meandering, quite abstract piece for ondes and soprano saxophone; “Strange Birthday” has pretty cascading piano trills, ondes martenot waves, and a lighter, almost magical ambience; and “Scared” is darker and more restrained, with low cello harmonics, spooky-sounding woodwind textures, and mysterious interjections from the ondes martenot that add a sense of foreboding.

The two exceptions to this are “Tom and Laura,” which combines several different variations of the Legal Eagles Love theme with a re-worked version of the Moving On theme with more urgency in the brass. The various settings of the Legal Eagles Love theme are actually quite clever, incorporating 80’s-style action riffs, pizzicato-led sneaking-around music, and a vibrato-rich classic-Hollywood string version, and are very enjoyable. Additionally the conclusive cue, “Fire and Rescue,” which underscores the film’s key climactic action sequence, sees the Legal Eagles Love theme get a workout as an action motif, placing Tom and Laura firmly in jeopardy at the center of the rapping snare drums, frisky string scales, rolling pianos, and staccato brasses that dominate the cue.

In addition to the score, the soundtrack album contains three songs: “Good Lovin’” by The Rascals, “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf, and an original piece called “Put Out the Fire” which was co-written by Daryl Hannah and is performed on-screen by her in the film as part of the unusual sequence where she freaks out Robert Redford’s character with a piece of avant-garde performance art involving pyrotechnics, illusionist misdirection, giggling babies, and one-line poetry. Rod Stewart’s song “Love Touch,” which was written to be the film’s pop chart tie-in and plays over the end credits, did not appear on the album due to a rights dispute between MCA Records and Warner Brothers Records.

The music from Legal Eagles was released on both vinyl LP and cassette in 1986 at the time of the film’s release but, surprisingly, it has never been released on CD, and does not appear to be available for download via any of the usual digital platforms, making it one of Elmer Bernstein’s more obscure and undiscovered scores of the 1980s. Legal Eagles is a slight score by Bernstein’s standards – it doesn’t have the thematic strength of any of his more revered works, nor does it have the sense of nostalgic familiarity that many of his massively successful 80s scores now enjoy, thirty years down the line. Personally, however, I’ve always had a soft spot for the good-natured friendliness of the theme for Tom and Laura, as well as the expressive jazz lines he introduces at regular intervals. If you can find it, I would recommend Legal Eagles as a good example of Bernstein’s popular 1980s style, and especially to those interested in exploring one or two of his more obscure later works.

Buy the Legal Eagles soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Legal Eagles Love (2:55)
  • Moving On (2:36)
  • Hypnotic Eyes (3:14)
  • Strange Birthday (3:24)
  • Good Lovin’ (written by Artie Resnick and Rudy Clark, performed by The Rascals) (2:28)
  • Put Out The Fire (written by Daryl Hannah and Michael Monteleone, performed by Daryl Hannah) (3:57)
  • Tom and Kelly (2:47)
  • Scared (4:42)
  • Fire and Rescue (3:57)
  • Magic Carpet Ride (written by Rushton Moreve and John Kay, performed by Steppenwolf) (4:21)
  • Love Touch (written by Mike Chapman, Holly Knight, and Gene Black, performed by Rod Stewart) (4:03) [BONUS]

Running Time: 38 minutes 24 seconds

MCA Records MCA-6172 (1986)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Orchestrations by Christopher Palmer and Patrick Russ. Featured musical soloist Cynthia Millar. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Kathy Durning. Album produced by Elmer Bernstein.

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