A Movie Score Worth Fighting For
Leonard Bernstein’s music for “On the Waterfront” was his only original film score, and the film’s director, Elia Kazan, didn’t like it. “I think the music hurt that picture,” he said in a 1974 interview. Its critics found it intrusive and explicit: too much Bernstein, who, when the film was released in 1954, was renowned internationally as a conductor, composer and pianist. His “On the Waterfront” score hadn’t been performed in public in its entirety until last week, when the New York Philharmonic did so to accompany the film as part of its “The Art of the Score” series here at Avery Fisher Hall. The performance illustrated that, though Kazan and the critics may have had a minor grievance, the score is extraordinary and elevates a film masterpiece.
Bernstein’s score is worthy of study and celebration. Steeped in 20th-century classical music as well as jazz and the blues, it‘s built primarily on three integrated themes dubbed “Nobility,” “Mob Music” and “Love” by Garth Edwin Sunderland, who adapted Bernstein’s compositions for the Philharmonic. The three themes stand alone or merge in shifting variations to address both the violence and belligerence of an underclass in the grip of criminal forces, as well as the tender, roiling passion between the film’s love interests, Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy and Eva Marie Saint’s Edie Doyle. The latter storyline emerges after Terry, a former prizefighter controlled by the gangsters who run the docks, unwittingly sets up Edie’s brother to be killed.
“On the Waterfront” won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
(Bernstein was nominated, but didn’t win.)
Bernstein seemed to have approached the assignment as if he were writing an opera with dialogue rather than singing. When his music intrudes, it does so mightily; Kazan’s complaint about the booming timpani of the opening murder sequence seems fair: “[It] puts it right away on a level of melodrama,” the director said. But the charge that Bernstein’s music swallowed up the dialogue devalues his emotionally vivid underscoring. His use of subtly transmuted or superimposed motifs is exquisite, as the live performance revealed—even in a venue whose acoustics are ill-suited for this mix of live and pre-recorded sound.
Prior to last week’s performance, Mr. Sunderland confronted technical challenges. While replacing the soundtrack recorded by the Columbia Pictures Orchestra 61 years ago, he discovered cues Bernstein had written that didn’t match the final film, due to Kazan’s tinkering with the music—in some cases, he seems to have just turned it off—or Bernstein having written cues that were too long for some scenes. Mr. Sunderland made the necessary adjustments. Mr. Sunderland also reduced the density of the underscoring by having fewer musicians among the 91-member Philharmonic orchestra play at key moments, thus reducing the volume.
Presented to a sold-out house that cheered the appearance of Bernstein’s name in the credits, the program was tilted in favor of the music, creating a reality that seemed to endorse the view of critics who saw Bernstein as placing the score in a primary, rather than supportive, role. This distortion was reinforced repeatedly, if inadvertently.
As the opening “Nobility” theme unfolded—a lone French horn ascending, descending, struggling to ascend again, a flatted fifth adding a touch of the blues—the stark black-and-white film hovering above the orchestra seemed at a distance, as if arriving from memory. The sound was out of balance, with the orchestra fully present while the dialogue and ambient waterfront noises appeared to come softly out of a funnel. Thus, Bernstein’s most assertive music swamped the dialogue in a way it doesn’t in a theater equipped primarily for film or even at home. The cues derived from the bold, brassy “Mob Music” theme were close to overwhelming.
Yet for the most part, Mr. Sunderland’s decision to reduce the orchestra’s density created the proper equation, and the underscoring revealed that Bernstein valued dialogue. The film’s most poignant moments are enriched, indelibly so, by his delicate use of the flutes and strings in the “Love” theme and its variations. As the “Mob Music” surrenders to an alto sax and strings, the film’s most famous scene—the “Contender” exchange delivered with heartbreaking realism by Brando and Rod Steiger—profits from the anguished underscoring, as the timpani land like punches and the strings cry. The music by the Philharmonic all but sighed in despair.
In the end, the program endorsed Bernstein’s score as well as the integrity and cohesion of Kazan’s powerful film, though an intermission disrupted its flow. In the greatest tribute to Bernstein’s effort, his magnificent music took its place as an integral part of a cooperative effort that long ago resulted in one of film’s finest achievements, an impression that was reinforced on this night.