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Jeff Moehlis: Paul Williams to Host ‘The Great Escape’ As Part of Elmer Bernstein Tribute

Great movies almost always have great scores, and this is certainly the case for The Great Escape, which will be shown at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 26, at The Granada Theatre as part of the Elmer Bernstein Memorial Film Series.

Elmer Bernstein, who lived for some time in Santa Barbara and died in 2004 in Ojai at age 82, wrote the music for more than 200 movies and television shows, and is widely regarded as one of the most outstanding film composers who ever lived. Other notable films that he scored are To Kill a Mockingbird (which was screened at The Granada last November), The Magnificent Seven (which will be screened at The Granada on March 30), The Man with the Golden Arm and True Grit.

The Great Escape will be introduced by beloved songwriter Paul Williams and noted writer Jon Burlingame, with an emphasis on Bernstein’s score. Williams — who is curating the film series and who wrote such gems as “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Rainbow Connection,” “Evergreen” and “An Old Fashioned Love Song” — spoke to Noozhawk about the upcoming screening. Click here for the full interview with Paul Williams.

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Jeff Moehlis: I went to the screening of To Kill a Mockingbird (in November), where you gave the introduction. That was really interesting, and it certainly helped me to better appreciate the score, but also the movie in general. I’m looking forward to to coming back for the other movies.

Songwriter Paul Williams is curating the Elmer Bernstein Memorial Film Series at The Granada Theatre. On Jan. 26, 'The Great Escape' will be screened. (www.paulwilliamsofficial.com photo)
Songwriter Paul Williams is curating the Elmer Bernstein Memorial Film Series at The Granada Theatre. On Jan. 26, The Great Escape will be screened. (www.paulwilliamsofficial.com photo)

Paul Williams: It’s interesting that it’s kind of a gig for me, because I’ve never done anything like this. But it’s great, because I never stopped being a fan. So I get to exercise sort of a hyper-fan approach to somebody’s work that is just so stellar, so brilliant. 

There’re a couple of films of his that I really, really would’ve liked to have seen in there as well. I really wanted to do The Man with the Golden Arm, but we couldn’t get a print of it for some reason. Although I think it’s a great selection.

What’s different about this next one is Jon Burlingame is going to join me on this. Jon is America’s leading authority as far as writing on film music and the like, but he’s also an avid fan and authority on Elmer Bernstein.

It’ll be interesting to have someone who knows Elmer’s work to this extreme. I mean, he’s written books about Elmer. He’s done entire evenings with two-hour presentations, and the courses he teaches — you know, he teaches at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California.

It will be exciting to have someone who really knows what they’re talking about sitting next to me. And it was great to have Richard Bellis the last time. I think it opens up the conversation, and allows me to be like an audience member. In other words, I don’t lose my card as a fan when I’m sitting up there.

JM: The next movie coming up is The Great Escape. Can you give us a little preview of your thoughts on that movie and Elmer’s contributions to it?

PW: I want to look at it again before I get into any details on the score, but first of all it’s such a macho film, and I’ve always been such a macho guy (laughs).

You know, I was friends with Charlie Bronson and his wife, Jill (Ireland), and I knew a couple other people in the film. There was a part of me that never stopped looking at Charlie like the guy in that picture.

What I really tried to come up with was a palette of very different films that really, really run the breadth of Elmer’s work. I think there’s something about this film, The Great Escape — this being a hard-core adventure film — that maintained humor. I think there’s humor in Elmer’s score, I think you see it. I think he has that amazing capacity to go from full-tilt dramatic to just the lightest touch.

That’s what I loved about the film of To Kill a Mockingbird. There was such an elegance in his restraint. In The Great Escape, I think we begin to hear a little more of his aggression. Well, I’m not sure “aggression” is the right word — it’s not like he’s out of control.

JM: What to you is special about Elmer’s work, what makes it stand apart from the work of other composers?

PW: What a songwriter does for a film is to attempt to create an emotional bridge for the audience, for what we’re seeing. In a three and a half little piece of a song. My challenge as a lyricist is to not hit the nail on the head too much, but the end result should be that the audience is going to feel the emotion that the filmmaker hopes he’s put on the screen. In a way, the songwriter in that sense is like a midwife.

I think you then take that to be the industrial-strength position of the film composer. His amazing job is to build that bridge, that emotional bridge, to the point where the audience is lifted or guided, and perhaps even nudged — a navigational nudge — toward the emotion that the filmmaker wants to inspire.

But it’s so much more delicate. For a song, we want you to hear, we want you to listen to these words, hear this music, embrace these thoughts related to the film that you’re possibly just seeing, or the scene that’s going on behind the film.

The composer, on the other hand, works subliminally. He’s behind the curtain, and I think it has never been done more eloquently and with greater diversity of genre than Elmer Bernstein. Wow, that was bold, there!

JM: Forget this Jon Burlingame guy, you know what’s going on! (both laugh)

PW: The most wonderful way to celebrate film is as a fan. I’m currently chairman of the board at ASCAP. There are two things that I’m intensely passionate about. One is recovery, of course. I’m almost 25 years sober. I talk about sobriety almost anytime you put me in front of a camera or a microphone. I also talk about music producers’ rights. I’m intensely passionate about that.

One of the great elements of my work in that world is I get to come elbow to elbow with Quincy Jones, or Leon Russell, or a great film composer. The best part of my job is that I can let that fan live and breathe while I’m doing my work.

Whether it’s working with John Williams on a tune, or some kid who’s just beginning, the fact is as a lover of movies and movie music I can maintain my fanhood.

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The Great Escape, which will be shown at 7 p.m. Jan. 26 at The Granada Theatre, 1214 State St. in downtown Santa Barbara. Click here to purchase tickets.

Click here for the full interview with Paul Williams.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

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