Elmer Bernstein once explained in an old interview with Soundtrack magazine how his career was divided into specific periods, such as his comedy years, where he wrote important underscore and arrangements for directors Ivan Reitman (Meatballs) and John Landis (Animal House).
The unique problem for Bernstein was where to apply score when most of his films for the two filmmakers relied on source music for comedic effect. As Johnny Mandel knew in the song-heavy Caddyshack (1980), there were specific areas where the need to compose or arrange material to dramatically match a scene was necessary, and after the success of the aforementioned films, Bernstein became their go-to guy because of his versatility.
The composer was also blessed with a sense of humour, because as the arrangements of classical and Christmas tunes in Trading Places illustrates, he knew where one could create a sense of the absurd and the ridiculous through little gestures, and shifting the dramatic emphasis a wee bit without harming a song's integrity.
The dilemma for CD soundtrack producers is that while Bernstein’s music works well, what original cues were actually composed for most of his early eighties comedies are sparse, if not short. In many cases, the music was designed to get into and out of scenes without delay, and there isn’t much original material to fill even a half-hour album, which is why Trading Places is unique for having original music plus a wealth of full-length source cues (aka, a complete tune) arranged by Bernstein rather than pre-existing recordings.
The CD’s first third is comprised of score – essentially variations on “The Marriage of Figaro” with slight bits of original Bernstein material – whereas the midsection is filled with source pieces that shift from classical to Christmas arrangements, and the CD closes with several alternate cues that function as a thematic wrap-up.
As a whole, the CD manages to flow surprisingly well, perhaps because of the specific moods that carry the listener through satire, silliness, saccharine nonsense, strained emotionalism, and earnest gentility (the latter nicely evoked in “O Little Town of Bethlehem”). The arrangements are quite lovely, and their inherent harmonic beauty amped the humour of their corresponding scenes where Landis’ goofball characters learn respective moral lessons after reaching financial extremes.
What La-La Land may have unintentionally created was a snappy little Christmas album for the sardonic, the cynical, and the more sobered who never fully bought into the idealistic holiday cheer that’s omnipresent each December. Jeff Bond’s liner notes give a solid overview of Bernstein’s comedy phase, the film’s production and a cue-by-cue breakdown, and most likely after finishing the fat booklet, listeners will give the CD another spin to re-absorb some of the nuances buried in Bernstein’s long-lost gem.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan