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OSCAR – Elmer Bernstein


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Oscar is a comedy film starring Sylvester Stallone, directed by John Landis, adapted from Édouard Molinaro’s 1967 French film of the same name. Stallone plays Angelo “Snaps” Provolone, a gangster in New York in the 1930s, who promises his dying father that he will give up a life of crime and go straight. However, no matter how hard he tries, he keeps getting pulled back into his old ways, and the local police refuse to believe that he has reformed. Not only that, Snaps has to deal with a series of comic misunderstandings involving his accountant, his wanderlust-stricken daughter, a case of mistaken identity, a fake pregnancy, and his former chauffeur Oscar, who unwittingly becomes the center of attention of everything. The film has an astonishing supporting cast – including Ornella Muti, Don Ameche, Tim Curry, Chazz Palminteri, Kirk Douglas, and Marisa Tomei in her mainstream screen debut – but unfortunately the film was a flop, mostly because people couldn’t see Stallone in a comedy role. As director Landis said later, “people couldn’t understand why he didn’t take his shirt off and kill anybody”.

The film score was composed by Elmer Bernstein, who had previously worked with director Landis on a series of films including National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places. In many ways it was Landis, through scores like Animal House, who turned Bernstein into a composer of ‘serious comedy scores,’ for which he became somewhat pigeonholed throughout most of the 1980s. It was also Landis who came up with the idea of using pre-existing music as the basis of the scores for his films; Trading Places, for example, used the opera The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as the underlying theme for the score, and then for Oscar he asked Bernstein to base his score around Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which despite being about a Spaniard somehow depicts the Italian heritage of Provolone perfectly. In addition, as he describes in the album’s liner notes, Landis says “as I shot the film I envisioned a particular kind of score and knew that Elmer would be the one to write it … by using a comic opera approach, I was actually contradicting the musical theory that Elmer and I had inaugurated 14 years ago with the serious score for Animal House.”

The opening track of the album is a performance of the opera’s most famous aria – and one of the most famous songs in opera buffa, period – “Largo Al Factotum,” performed by the world-renowned American opera baritone Earle Patriarco. It’s very good indeed, a completely straight performance sung with power and intensity, verbal dexterity, and the right amount of bravado and flourish. The rest of the score is based on thematic nuggets from the opera, fleshed out and adapted by Bernstein in combination with some original score material that blends with and complements Rossini’s style.

There are just five Bernstein cues on Varese Sarabande’s rather short album, comprising just over 25 minutes of score. Truth be told, beyond the most iconic and famous parts, I’m not familiar enough with the original opera to fully know where Rossini ends and Bernstein begins, but this is perhaps to Bernstein’s credit: he successfully blends his own style with that of the great maestro so that the two are virtually indistinguishable.

“Grifting” initially features a lovely, lyrical motif for soft strings and gentle woodwinds, as well as interpolations of the flighty ‘Largo Al Factotum’ melody. After the 1:40 mark there’s a playful little Italianate dance melody featuring cascading woodwind and string textures, brass accents, and whimsical prancing rhythms that really enhance the film’s setting, Provolone’s cultural heritage, and his pretensions of wealth and class. The lyrical melody recurs at several key moments, adding a touch of sweetness and romance, and the whole thing finishes with a jaunty caper that is clearly inspired by the ‘scampering’ part of Rossini’s overture. “Lisa Dreams” is charming, pretty, and dainty, a waltz-like quartet for light woodwinds, piano, harp, and pizzicato strings, that quickly picks up the warmth of the full string section. The middle section of the cue interpolates the rhythm from the ‘a te fortuna non mancherà’ part of Largo Al Factotum with lively sweetness, and then the final part of the cue emerges into a variation on the lyrical motif from the first cue, rendered as a gorgeous violin solo.

“Tea and Romance” introduces a new romantic melody, solo violin against a more contemporary sounding piano, which initially has a superficial similarity to Alex North’s Unchained Melody, but then heads off into an entirely different direction. More clarinet solos enhance the Italian heritage of the score, and more gorgeous solo violin and solo piano writing explores the relationship between Lisa and her various loves. “Revelations” revisits all the main Bernstein themes again, including Provolone’s march, and the various romantic ideas, with a real lushness in the arrangement. The sweep in the orchestra in the final minute or so of the cue is pure, old fashioned Hollywood, leaving a positive impression, and it closes with some appropriate final allusions to Largo Al Factotum. Finally, “Cops and Real Crooks” is a slightly more martial piece for strident strings, trilling brass, some surprisingly energetic horn-led action music, an unexpected quick burst of the ‘March of the Toreadors’ from Bizet’s Carmen, and some playful caper music that jumps energetically across the entire orchestra.

The album is rounded out by several other songs and pieces, including “Sweet Georgia Brown” performed by Bing Crosby, “Rockin’ in Rhythm” performed by Duke Ellington & His Orchestra, “Tea for Two” performed by Fred Waring & His Pennsylvanians, and “Plain Dirt” performed by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. The final part of the score cue “Cops and Real Crooks” also includes the ‘Finucci Piano Boogie,’ and original piece composed and performed by pianist Ralph Grierson.

Taken in the bigger scheme of things Oscar is little more than a light, pleasant diversion that sees Bernstein engaging in some warm romance scoring, stereotypically Italianate orchestration, and loving evocations of opera buffa that fans of the genre will likely enjoy, especially when he blends Rossini’s style with his own. It’s a short album – less than 40 minutes, including the source music – and is somewhat rare these days, but it makes for fun listening, and reminds listeners why Elmer Bernstein was so in demand as a comedy composer for the last two decades or so of his life.

Buy the Oscar soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Largo Al Factotum from The Barber of Seville (written by Gioachino Rossini and Cesare Sterbini, performed by Earle Patriarco) (4:42)
  • Grifting (5:43)
  • Lisa Dreams (3:46)
  • Tea and Romance (4:29)
  • Revelations (5:27)
  • Cops and Real Crooks (5:45)
  • Sweet Georgia Brown (written by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard, and Kenneth Casey, performed by Bing Crosby) (2:54)
  • Rockin’ in Rhythm (written by Duke Ellington, Harry Carney, and Irving Mills, performed by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra) (3:21)
  • Tea for Two (written by Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar, performed by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians) (3:21)
  • Plain Dirt (written by Charlie Stanton, performed by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (2:38)

Running Time: 36 minutes 21 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5313 (1991)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Orchestrations by Patrick Russ and Emilie A. Bernstein. Recorded and mixed by John Richards. Edited by Kathy Durning. Album produced by Elmer Bernstein.

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