• Bernstein's True Grit Gets its Day

    La-La Land Records 1260
    28 tracks – 68:36

    Limited edition of 2000 units.

    The 1960s saw an interesting shift in the Western film genre.  Perhaps no one felt that great than American Western icon, John Wayne.  Wayne’s 1960s films tended to focus on themes that were returns to “traditional values” that were the underlying themes of many of the classic westerns that built his career.  Suddenly, the increasing chaos of the decade seemed to call out for what might have felt like a nostalgic wish for an earlier era where we knew who the good and the bad guys were.  True Grit (1969) is one of those interesting films where Wayne’s character, Rooster Cogburn, seems to be more of the broken aging hero but one who is drawn into hunting down a murderer of young Mattie Ross’ (Kim Darby) father.  Along for the ride is a young Glen Campbell, in one of his early main roles, playing a Texas Ranger who is out to get the bounty on the killer.  It was Wayne’s performance that has earned the film a legendary place in his filmography netting him his first, and only, Oscar.  It led to some of the most interesting roles of his career including a fascinating turn in The Cowboys (1972) and the amazingly touching final film The Shootist (1976).

    As with the style of the Western’s characters, the music to accompany these stories was also undergoing changes.  The many Spaghetti Westerns of the time introduced a new sparer scoring style with unique musical combinations, faux Native American chants, and more unique orchestration courtesy of composers such as Ennio Morricone.  Elmer Bernstein’s seminal western score, The Magnificent Seven (1960), took the sort of Copland-esque vistas explored in Jerome Moross’ The Big Country (1958), somewhat modernizing the genre.  The aforementioned scores are part of a trio of great western genre scores capped perhaps by Alfred Newman’s How the West Was Won (1962).  Already by the mid-1960s, composers like Jerry Goldsmith were further expanding the types of music used in western scores.  In some respects, Goldsmith added interesting new harmonic language and continued some of the rhythmic syncopations that one heard in some of Alex North’s western scores.

    All of this to then place this score by Elmer Bernstein in context.  True Grit is one of those fascinating scores that takes a primary thematic idea and runs it through the score.  It is also the basis for a song, with words by then popular lyricist Don Black, which essentially is sent through variations for different aspects of the story.  The song, sung by Glen Campbell, is part of the opening main title (also followed by an alternate on the CD).  The theme itself is very versatile lending itself to hints of comedic moments (“Ruffled Rooster”), darker threats, or just following Cogburn on his journey.  There is also a rather touching theme for Mattie that is heard beautifully in “Papa’s Things/Pony Mine.”  The most interesting aspect of the score is its often dissonant musical moments that are rather stark.  Bernstein’s score often feels more like a cross between Copland and Rosenman at times with some sections feeling like Leonard Bernstein.  Two longer cues provide the best overview of these approaches.  The first of these is “Dugout Shootout/Shots Galore” which is an extremely interesting intense action sequence that features some of these more dissonant moments and explosive percussion ideas.  The dramatic shifts to softer material, often in woodwinds and muted trumpets, gets at some of that isolation that is also part of the musical characterization for Cogburn.  The other track highlight is the ten-minute sequence that begins with “The Meadow Fight”.  Through these six smaller musical segments, Bernstein is able to demonstrate shaping the final climactic scenes of the film pulling together many of the ideas presented earlier in the score.

    The score proper plays out to about 47 minutes.  La-La Land then further sweetens this release by including a variety of bonus tracks.  These will be of great interest to Bernstein fans as they present one “End Credits” take and an alternate orchestral “Main Title.”  The bulk of these though are variant takes on the song material .  John Hartford’s “Go Home Girl” receives three separate tracks here that include his own performance as well as two by Glen Campbell, one with revised lyrics.  One version of the main title song, “The Eyes of the Young”, represents Don Black’s first attempt at lyrics to Bernstein’s theme.  Then there are three versions of the song, “True Grit”.  One of these is the demo sung by Elmer Bernstein himself.  There are then versions sung by Michael Dees and Glen Campbell.

    This is an important addition to the Bernstein discography.  The limited edition La-La Land release features a great accompanying booklet to boot.  Sound is also quite good, though a bit dry (which seems like a source issue) and sometimes a bit too bass heavy, but these aspects also help make this score equally fascinating to hear.