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RAMBLING ROSE – Elmer Bernstein

September 30, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Rambling Rose is a romantic drama period film directed by Martha Coolidge, based on the 1972 novel of the same name by Calder Willingham. The film is told in flashback by Buddy Hillyer (John Heard), who returns to his childhood home in Georgia and remembers his life growing up there during the Great Depression. Young Buddy (Lukas Haas) lives comfortably in a big house with his parents (Robert Duvall and Diane Ladd); however, everything is thrown into turmoil following the arrival of Rose (Laura Dern), an orphaned young woman who comes to work for the family. Rose is happy and free-spirited, but exceptionally promiscuous, and her sexual dalliances with several members of the family, as well as other people in town, brings all manner of troubles to the Hillyer family door. The film was a critical success that year, culminating in both Dern and Ladd – daughter and mother in real life – being nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, the first ever mother-daughter duo to be nominated for Oscars for the same film.

The score for Rambling Rose was by the great Elmer Bernstein, who had been scoring films about girls coming of age in the American south since the 1960s and To Kill a Mockingbird. This music is very much rooted in Bernstein’s American pastoral sound, which favors languid, gently romantic writing for a string-led orchestra. The mood is graceful, elegant, and often deeply emotional, and the way it concentrates on the interpersonal dramas and relationships that develop between Rose and the people whose lives she affects allows the film to become quite profound in its evocation of childhood emotional awakening.

The opening cue, “Hello – I’m Rose,” is essentially a suite of the film’s main themes, providing an entertaining summary of everything Bernstein has to offer. It moves effortlessly from moments of wry comedy to moving romantic drama, and features sparkling performances for piano, clarinet, and a warm bank of strings. There is often a sprightly, rhythmic, jazzy ragtime quality to the music that speaks to both the film’s geographic setting and the prevailing popular music at the time the film was set, and this comes out especially through the bouncy piano and muted brass writing that often takes center stage. The recurring theme for Rose gets several statements in various guises too, including one which has a Broadway sound that recalls Bernstein’s work on scores like Thoroughly Modern Millie, and one featuring what sounds like a cross between a calliope and the ubiquitous ondes martenot instrument, which Bernstein used repeatedly throughout the 1980s, and which was usually played by his protégé Cynthia Millar.

Several cues lean heavily into the pastoral romance. “Orphans” is a lovely piece which passes the main theme around within the woodwind section, backed by whimsical string and pianos. “Revelation” has some optimistic moments during its opening minute or so, but gradually becomes quite melancholy as it develops, eventually turning into a quite bleak portrayal of sorrow and regret. “Love,” on the other hand, is extremely beautiful, but is also peppered with a touch of sadness, a perfect encapsulation of Rose’s character and the way her natural promiscuity often leads her down dark roads. “Fever” is perhaps the score’s most serious cue, and has a sense of urgency in its undulating string writing that is quite compelling. “Hired, Mired and Fired” has a touch of bittersweet remorse underpinning its statement of Rose’s theme, while the last minute or so of “Compassion” is just lovely.

Meanwhile, cues like “The Family Meets Rose” and “Let The Crazy Creature Out” are lighter and more fanciful, regularly returning to Rose’s theme with a jaunty spring in their step and more jazzy arrangements. I especially like the dirty blues sound in the sadly brief “Father’s Reverse Insomnia,” which brings back some subtle memories of scores like A Walk on the Wild Side, as well as the quirky comedy and vibrant finale of “That Scruffy Looking Man”. In addition, “Safe Home” is an ebullient, triumphant piece which again revisits the calliope/ondes martenot sound, to excellent effect.

The score’s 10-minute finale, comprising the cues “Rose and Buddy,” “Goodbyes,” and “So Long Rose,” is incredibly moving, a beautiful portrayal of friendship, romance, longing, and grief, as Buddy contemplates his final moments with Rose, and reminisces about the effect she had on his life. Rose’s theme anchors the entire sequence, but Bernstein somehow manages to pull out all the emotional stops and present it in its most lush and effective way. The stylistic echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird are at their most apparent here – the purity and innocence in the strings, the magical touch that comes from the frequent harp glissandi, the gentleness in the woodwinds and the piano. Bernstein had such a wonderful knack of bypassing all the noise and writing music which went straight for the emotional core of his films; sometimes that resulted in music which felt a touch manipulative, but Rambling Rose is one of the exceptions to that rule. It’s pure, simple, effective melodrama, joy and sadness combined.

The album also features two performances of the classic Deep South anthem “Dixie” performed by Louis Armstrong, as well as a lovely performance of “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight” performed by ‘America’s Sweetheart of Song’ from the 1930s, Ruth Etting.

Rambling Rose is a delightful score, one of Elmer Bernstein’s best of the 1990s and, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most delightful evocations of childhood innocence, coming-of-age revelation, and romantic melodrama he ever wrote. The Deep South setting is enhanced with some subtle but appropriate evocations of Dixieland jazz and blues, but this never overwhelms the heart of the story – which remains about how the most unlikely people can have the most profound and long-lasting positive effects on your life.

Buy the Rambling Rose soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Hello – I’m Rose (5:23)
  • The Family Meets Rose (2:18)
  • Father’s Reverse Insomnia (0:55)
  • Orphans (1:41)
  • Revelation (3:14)
  • Love (1:59)
  • Dixie (Rose on the Town) (written by Daniel Decatur Emmett, performed by Louis Armstrong and the Dukes of Dixieland) (0:42)
  • That Scruffy Looking Man (3:06)
  • Let The Crazy Creature Out (2:26)
  • Fever (1:36)
  • Safe Home (1:01)
  • Hired, Mired and Fired (1:26)
  • Compassion (2:46)
  • Rose and Buddy (4:25)
  • Goodbyes (2:46)
  • So Long Rose (2:57)
  • Dixie (written by Daniel Decatur Emmett, performed by Louis Armstrong and the Dukes of Dixieland) (3:44)
  • If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight (written by James P. Johnson and Henry Creamer, performed by Ruth Etting) (2:56)

Running Time: 45 minutes 21 seconds

Virgin Records 2-91717 (1991)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Orchestrations by Emilie Bernstein. Recorded and mixed by Brian Masterson. Edited by Kathy Durning. Album produced by Elmer Bernstein and Cynthia Millar.

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