True Grit - Motion Picture Score: Special Limited Collector's Edition Soundtrack Review
Although released successfully a long time ago on CD by the likes of Varese Sarabande and Silver Screen, this re-release of Elmer Bernstein's classic score for the fondly thought-of John Wayne oater True Grit from Tadlow Music presents the score in its entirety and in its proper filmic order for the first time. Re-orchestrated and conducted by James Fitzpatrick and performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, the score now sounds much more vibrant, clean and dynamic than ever before. And, perhaps more importantly for collectors, it comes across as Bernstein intended. Having worked with Fitzpatrick and the City of Prague Philharmonic already for what was to become the 2-disc Essential Elmer Bernstein Collection, Bernstein had already fostered a great relationship with the set-up. However, few could argue that several of the newly arranged compositions lacked that essential quality of pure Bernstein. Their interpretation of title themes for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, amongst others, simply did not sound as good as Bernstein's original versions. However, with this score, Fitzpatrick and the orchestra do themselves and the celebrated composer justice with a presentation that positively soars.
The Western genre has four great pillars of musical accomplishment - Ennio Morricone's mesmerising, atypical work on the Dollars Trilogy amongst many others, Dmitri Tiomkin's trailblazing scores for High Noon, Red River and Gunfight At The OK Corral, Max Steiner who probably forged the template for such rousing orchestral landscaping with They Died With Their Boots On, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and the seminal The Searchers, and, of course, Elmer Bernstein who, more than anybody else, managed to weave in the convincing Americana that would base the visual tone of the films squarely in the sagebrush heart of the homeland. A bit of a journeyman, Bernstein embraced practically every type of film there is - with a great many of his scores going on to become acknowledged classics not only of their chosen genre, but of film scoring in general. Things like Zulu Dawn, Saturn 3 (see separate review), Heavy Metal, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Ten Commandments and, of course, the afore-mentioned The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape all feature his distinctive style and beautifully eloquent, lyrical voice. But his speciality was undoubtedly catering for the open range and the wily, larger-than-life characters that populated it.
True Grit (1969) starred The Duke, John Wayne, as rusty, volatile US Marshall Rooster Cogburn in the first and best of two adventures for the trigger-happy, one-eyed old soak. Spurred into action by Kim Darby's incorrigible young Mattie after her father has been gunned down, he switches into full-on pursuit mode and, along with Texas Ranger Le Beouf (played by famed country singer Glen Campbell) and the girl, hunts down the Pepper Gang, who are responsible for the murder, which includes the likes of Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper. Horse thrills and gunplay are on the menu, but director Henry Hathaway(who had also helmed Nevada Smith and The Sons Of Katie Elder) ensures that the camaraderie and bonding between the three goodies is at the heart of the story. Elmer Bernstein had already scored Wayne-westerns before, such as The Sons Of Katie Elder and The Commancheros (cues from both of which are also featured as bonuses on this disc) so already had a musical voice in mind for the big star that would fit the film as snugly as a holster.
Fitzpatrick deserves credit for his positioning for the instruments and the mikes around the orchestra in an attempt to keep the sound produced from coming across as too much like a music hall concert. His desire was keep the filmic quality of Bernstein's original orchestrations. And, with the disc mastered in HDD Dolby Surround, his efforts sound terrific with a clarity and warmth that still possesses the buoyancy of a soundtrack. Fitzpatrick also believes that every home video version of the film runs a little too fast, owing to the fact that the score, across the board, appears to be half a tone higher than it should be. It goes without saying that this is rectified here and the score as performed on this disc adheres exactly to the tempos that Elmer Bernstein marked.
The title song True Grit was something of a problem for composer Bernstein and lyricist Don Black. Although Bernstein pretty much had the movie's main theme sewn-up, the marketing decision to produce a pop song out of it meant that the duo would have to find a way of fitting the words True Grit into it without bringing the song's melody to a complete dead end. It would have been a simple matter for a rapper, perhaps, but back in those days, such a lyric could drive the song into the ground. Finally solving the conundrum by placing the title deeply within a bridging sequence, the duo discovered that, with Glen Campbell's vocals, they had a hit on their hands. This song version, with Keith Ferreira's vocals this time around (Campbell's featured on the actual film soundtrack and became the hit record) appears here as Track 16. The disc also features the original instrumental version of the title theme as the final track on the presentation. This is as slightly longer take that sounds different with emphasis shifted onto other instruments, namely a harmonica throughout the latter section.
The main theme spins out like a lasso throughout the entire score, curling through virtually every cue in some way or another. This decidedly old school way of scoring is something that Bernstein excelled at in that no matter how often he employs the theme, the subtle differences that he makes to it, or the wild variations that he spins on it always sound fresh and, in some ways, a constant evolution - the tone, timbre, mood of the piece forever altering as the soundtrack moves along. With True Grit, he often plays it soft and meandering, kind of easygoing. It is a lyrical, upbeat pastoral for sweet strings, joyful brass and a happy-go-lucky solo trumpet. However, Bernstein can quite easily turn this on its head, making it propulsive, exciting and rife with tension with snares, jabbing brass, forceful percussion and urgent strings. It can be wistful and heartfelt, as in the final cues of Track 12, marking a tragic event, or it can be positively buoyant and carefree as Ruffled Rooster, Track 9. But the most pleasing aspect of its earlier incarnations is that used to depict the growing bond between Cogburn and Mattie, keenly evinced during the nice double-act of Tracks 4 and 5, when a soft, slurring romanticism is reflected with a rolling rendition of the main theme.
Track 3 features a fantastically playful jaunt on the trombone that is simply irresistible - brash and silly, it is also profoundly addictive. Off particular note during Track 4 is the moment when a slight gear change introduces a Mexican flavour that adds a lilt to the “travelogue” mood of the piece. Chimes and distant cymbals punctuate the warm orchestration and the gorgeous string layers. And listen out in Track 5 for the cute little snake-charmer motif that makes a small guest appearance.
Other notable moments include the mounting tension and mystery that develops in Track 7, Where There Is Smoke/Dying Moon. Here, Bernstein strikes an ominous and dark turn in the music, using threatening anvil-strikes, wavering high strings and a quivering sense of foreboding that finds voice in tremulous lower tones, edgy violins, softened bass and flighty woodwinds. And the triple-cued Track 8 becomes darker still, after a deceptively cosy intro. Punchy Mexican bleats remind of Eli Wallach's Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, whilst folding timpani peels and uneasy brass and horn combinations open out into the action. Bernstein then brings in what would become a trademark in his scores from the seventies and the early eighties - startling brass in a virtual stabbing frenzy and a swirling maze of strings and percussion. This is the type of thing that composer Leonard Rosenman would do in the likes of his scores for The Car, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes and, most notably, Ralph Bakshi's animated take on The Lord Of The Rings, only he would often, and uniquely, choose to ditch melody altogether in favour of more frightening, impressionistic discord, whereas Bernstein never forgets the themes that these diversions stem from.
Track 12 is another multi-cued piece that boasts action and complex orchestration, Bernstein's themes put through the wringer once again. Only this time, the plot forces the music to include a lament with the tremulous voices of the oboe and the bassoon, borne by gently searing strings. But the best track for me is 13, The Pace That Kills/A Ride For Life. This is when Mattie has been bitten by the snake and will die if Rooster can't get her medical attention. Thus begins his frantic race against time across miles of wilderness, riding his horse until it drops and then carrying the girl on foot until he reaches town. It is a bravura sequence in the film and it needs a tour de force of musical accompaniment which Bernstein supplies with determined vigour. The main theme surges through the cue, lent power by a breakneck tempo and a layer of tension and urgency that still sounds heroic and rousing, yet balanced by a seriousness that lifts the cue away from the bucolic atmosphere of easygoing Americana that suffuses a lot of the score. Cleverly alternating between the action-mode of the main theme - which is so supremely catchy - and a lighter section that draws down on the tenderness that Rooster now feels for the girl, the track is electric and vigorous.
With a brief couple of final tracks that feature pleasant, dreamy chimes and a solo violin before drifting easily into a mellower, more calming version of the main theme on lone trumpet and backed by sweet keening strings, True Grit's score closes on the Keith Ferrara-crooned title song.
The disc is then augmented with tracks and suites from a selection of other John Wayne/Elmer Bernstein pictures. Commencing with the terrific Main Title from The Sons Of Katie Elder (1965) - which definitely contains the same hyper-kinetic vibe as The Magnificent Seven - and then developing the theme into a short concert suite from the film. Next up is the main title theme from Wayne's touching swansong, 1976's The Shootist, which remains quite an elaborate up-tempo main riff that Bernstein created to bring back the good old days of Wayne's prior heroics, practically encapsulating an entire genre in the process. Further standards are doled out with The Commancheros (1961) - which has a delightful, thigh-slapping “yee-haw” intro before letting rip with a real roister-doister of a main title. Nice little chimes tingle away in the background, too. Cahill: United States Marshall (1973) combines a Tex-Mex flavour with the gentle, upbeat posturing of happy trails before segueing into melancholy as woodwind and strings serenade despair, and then turning full circle again to the original jaunty flow. But the biggest pie from the added value Bernstein/Wayne goodie-bag is the Concert Suite from 1971's Big Jake. Lasting almost seven minutes, this is by turns, rousing, elegiac and jolly. The raucous main theme softens to a solo trumpet backed by tambourine, whilst Indian drums arrive to swiftly haul us into an exotic section that mixes forceful brass and a marching tension that sounds prescient of Bernstein's later Zulu Dawn. Playful knockabout stuff follows with that traditional “passage-of-time” vibe. Lush trumpets then usher in a much softer and reflective rendition of the main theme. In keeping with the concert suite style, this track is literally all over the place.
And, as mentioned earlier, the album closes with the original instrumental main theme for True Grit for harmonica and trumpet.
There is also a nice, sepia-tinted 12-page booklet of notes about Wayne, Bernstein, the film and the score. A track by track breakdown is also presented, but it only supplies details about the film, itself, and neglects to cover Bernstein's music as it develops throughout the score, which is a definite oversight as far as these things are concerned. You wouldn't catch out FSM or Intrada like that.
Full Track Listing is as follows -
1. True Grit - Instrumental 1:44
2. A Dastardly Deed / A Stiff Job 2:16
3. Businesslike Mattie / Papa's Things 2:02
4. Pony Mine / Rooster and Le Boeuf / Runaway Races Away 4:07
5. Chase / On Their Way 1:47
6. The Big Trail 1:10
7. Where There is Smoke / The Dying Moon 4:16
8. Preparation Dugout / Dugout Stakeout / Shots Galore! 5:28
9. Ruffled Rooster 1:42
10. Bouncing into Danger / Over Bald Mountain 4:20
11. Rooster in the Meadow / Meadow Fight / A Long Shot 3:26
12. The Snake Pit / The Lift Out / Sad Departure 6:44
13. The Pace That Kills / A Ride for Life 3:01
14. A Warm Wrap-Up 1:56
15. End Credits 0:55
16. "True Grit" - Keith Ferreira 1:49
17. The Sons of Katie Elder - Concert Suite 4:18
18. The Shootist - Opening Sequence 3:12
19. The Comancheros - McBain / Main Title 2:40
20. Cahill: United States Marshal - Necktie Party 4:06
21. Big Jake - Concert Suite 6:45
22. True Grit - Instrumental (first orchestration) 1:55
Total Album Time: 69:39
VerdictA classic western needs a classic score and True Grit certainly got one when Elmer Bernstein saddled up for the ride. Fast where necessary, elegant and lyrically expansive when it comes to the harmonies of old frontier and the relationships that are forged there, the soundtrack is ebullient, rousing and melodic in equal measure. The overall arc of the story is reflected in the score and the album, itself, is a finely tuned musical narrative in its own right. The additional cues are marvellous examples of the composer's continued exploration of the Old West and the stubborn-as-a-mule moralities that its chief screen icon exuded. All sound great and play brilliantly as suites alongside the main score.
As is usual with such fare, Tadlow's Special Collector's disc has a limited release but, when you consider that I picked mine up with no trouble at all (from Intrada) only very recently, fans of Bernstein, or Wayne's movie should also be able to find one without having to undertake too rugged a quest. Highly recommended.
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