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Review by Brad Green:
I read in the papers recently of a neurological study conducted into why certain melodic hooks stick in our heads. Apparently one of the findings was that the more ďirksomeĒ we consider a melody the more likely we are to remember it. Iím not sure to what extent this has been detailed or proven, but it would go a long way to explaining those enigmatic atrocities known as the pop charts. Nevertheless, I donít believe there was any suggestion that a melody actually HAS to be irksome to be memorable. And here we have the proof.†

This soundtrack is the happy offspring of a rather curious idea. Producer/director Todd Haynesí determined that he would recreate the social melodrama style of the 1950s as perfected by Douglas Sirk; the narrative would be injected with contemporary issues but the stylisation would be faithful and unselfconscious. One of the trademarks of this genre is for intimate ensemble music to emphasise character and emotion in a manner that might come across as intrusive, or even heavy-handed in a modern setting. Which means the composer has more liberty to indulge in lyrical development. I couldnít think of anyone Iíd rather hear indulge in lyrical development than Elmer Bernstein; and indulge he does.

The first thing that struck me when I started playing this soundtrack was how nostalgic it sounded; and the first thing that struck me once I finished listening to it was that I had immediately begun whistling the main themes. Now in his Octogenarian years, Bernstein is no stranger to a memorable tune. There surely can be no more recognisable cinematic melody than his Magnificent Seven theme. This soundtrack is a long way from an epic western, but Bernstein is an extraordinarily versatile composer with a common thread to his work Ė the ability to make the sophisticated accessible. Epic soundtracks, jazz romps and more delicately emotional outings like To Kill a Mockingbird (perhaps the closest stylistic relative to this score) are all easy on the ear when fashioned with his sensibility for the popular.†

Bernsteinís career was on the up and up at the very time the film is set, so he comes to the project with a more direct appreciation than a younger composer. One of the most inviting aspects to the score is that it utilises a full orchestra as if it were a number of small ensembles. We get a wide palette of timbres as well as the personalities of individual instruments. Central to the soundtrack is the piano performed by Cynthia Miller. Bernstein can deliver some wonderful jazz exuberances on the keys, but here he exploits the prettiness of the ivories. Piano alone introduces the motifs of the first cue Autumn in Connecticut, which go on to underpin the entire score. They are romantic, gently melancholy, instantly memorable Ė and the total antithesis of irksome.†

As the score progresses, Bernstein makes use of more orchestral characteristics, particularly woodwind, to enhance the atmosphere. An ideal of American suburbia is evoked with just the odd hint of its imperfect underbelly. The soundtrack has a strong coherence, sticking solidly to variations on the central themes and just making the odd excursion into old time jazz, a moment of suspense or an unexpected caprice such as a brief piano tango spiced with dissonance. The effect is somewhat like a Norman Rockwell painting that Marcel Duchamp is threatening to efface with dadaist graffiti, except that he keeps having his pen snatched before he can make more than a minor mark.†

It is something of a rare treat to have a quintessentially American score that is both intimate and melodically driven. Nowadays, we seem to get melody-allergic ambient or experimental scores with sweeping, emotive phrases reserved for the grandiose blockbusters. We usually have to rely on the odd, quirky European production like Amelie for a flirtation with sonic intimacy. Bernstein really is an old marvel. He has delivered a score not only replete with the poignancy and emotional triggers demanded by this highly stylised project, but melodies that Iím still humming as I write this review. I wonder if a newly acquired, highly aesthetic hook can bump from the brain some older, uglier ones? I havenít read about any studies on this; but Iíve got my fingers crossed.

Published February 27, 2003

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TITLE: Far From Heaven
ID: 30206 64212
Varese Sarabande
SCORE: Elmer Bernstein
CONDUCTOR: Elmer Bernstein
FEATURED PERFORMER: Cynthia Millar (piano)

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