: (Elmer Bernstein) The ultimate anthology
of cliches from classic comedy films, Airplane!
is a production
that defied the direction of modern comedies in an era when the genre
was dominated by the kind of satirical and cynical ideas of Woody Allen.
The object of this parody was the rash of airplane horror films that
arose with Airport
and lasted through all the variants of its
sequels, as well as Paramount's own Zero Hour
from 1957. The
trick to Airplane!
that made it such a fantastic parody was its
purely unashamed use of sophomoric humor, with jokes so dumb and
tasteless that they actually became funny in unison. So predictable (and
successful, grossing upwards of $100 million) was the 1980 film that it
led to its own sequel, though the original Airplane!
will be long
remembered for, among other things, changing how people react to the
word "surely." Composer Elmer Bernstein was at a point in his career
when his comedy-writing skills were in high demand. The early 1980's are
recalled by Bernstein collectors as the era of Airplane!
, and Ghostbusters
, a trend that somewhat
baffled those collectors and even occasionally the composer himself. His
vast experience in action and Western scores from the 1960's, however,
would prove to serve him well when writing these more ridiculous parody
scores, of which Airplane!
is likely the crowning achievement.
Underneath the comedy is an airborne horror plot that Bernstein uses to
insert a plethora of militaristic action motifs, and the love story
between the lead stewardess and a former pilot who has lost his wits
allows the composer to expand on some of his sappy romance writing. The
key to the enduring popularity of this score rests in Bernstein's proper
decision (as is often the case in similar films with effective scores)
to handle the story as though it were completely serious. Interspersed
throughout the score are references, for instance, to John Williams'
theme for Jaws
, which was a highly popular tactic for films to
take in the late 1970's.
Like many parody scores, however, the quality of the
score in the film is vastly different from that on album, and
is one of those highly effective scores in context that
loses some of its punch without the punch lines that go with it. On
album, an endless series of short cues cause the score to jump almost
incoherently between genres and conflicting motifs. It makes sense on
the whole, but it remains a frenetic listening experience. A sappy love
theme for the characters of Elaine and Ted is the most enduring memory
from the score for Airplane!
, though it serves as almost an
annoyance in the film, its rising strings at the outset setting the
stage for yet another intentionally awkward flashback. The orchestra
hits that represent the "tension theme" are mixed almost
indiscriminately into the film, and they don't do the score much justice
on album. There are few lengthier cues of development; the ones led by
snare drums and brass rips represent the militaristic element well and
offer some of the more listenable moments. A classical waltz-like rhythm
announces the "Resolution" cue (otherwise known as "Success") with much
of the same deliberation as cues in Trading Places
the best performances of the film's heroic title theme come early, with
the LAX-related cues (starting with "Ambulance Arrives") offering bold
brass rhythms mocking John Williams' disaster scores with good humor.
Interestingly, though, Bernstein plays much of the score without the
twist of jazz or other pizzazz that often influences his comedy works
(despite some genre-hopping in the source cues), and Airplane!
thus becomes as score that seems more functional in its attempt to play
it serious rather than purely funny. The film also makes use of source
lounge music and a 'native' cue (for the "Molumbo" tribe, a nice
deviation) by Bernstein, as well as several song staples of the era.
Ultimately, an appreciation of the composer's music for Airplane!
depends on the same level of appreciation for the film, a circumstance
that again exists in correlation with many of Bernstein's comedy scores
of the era.
A belated LP release in 1980 was not a product faithful
to the score (it was a song-riddled irritation with limited Bernstein
material included), and it took until 1997 before the first bootleg of
the score was filtered to soundtrack collectors. That bootleg combined
40 minutes of Airplane!
music with Bernstein's score for the 1978
television adaptation of Little Women
that aired on NBC. As
expected, Bernstein's tone for this Alcott story is quietly restrained,
often limited to solo woodwinds and whimsical string themes, with
occasional honky tonk Western rhythms breaking the monotony.
Unfortunately, this bootleg suffered from terrible sound quality,
completely and doing slightly more justice to
. As such, the pressing was completely unacceptable
and an item to be ignored. Several years later, a more loyal bootleg
with Bernstein's almost complete Airplane!
score appeared from
the isolated DVD score track, breaking the cues into film order,
supplying the source songs, and, most importantly, presenting the score
in glorious sound quality. For several years, that 2005 album was a very
satisfying entry in many Bernstein collections, though to give the score
the legitimate treatment it well deserved, La-La Land Records included
as one of its limited offerings (of 3000 pressings) in
2009. Advertised as the first of the label's foray into the vaults at
Paramount, the product sold out from the label within a month but was
still available from soundtrack specialty outlets for about $20
thereafter. Rearranging the cues a bit and providing alternative takes
and rejected material amounting to only about ten minutes of notable
additional music, the 2009 album is a comprehensive and carefully
assembled product that still suffers from inherent continuity issues due
to the score's wildly shifting personalities. For casual collectors, the
2005 bootleg will suffice, for the sound quality on the 2009 product is
not significantly different. Either is a vast improvement over the 1997
bootleg that held the spot on the shelf warm for these far more engaging
and loyal presentations. @Amazon.com: CD or
- Airplane!: ****
- Little Women (TV): ***
- 1997 Bootleg: *
- 2005 Bootleg: ****
- 2009 La-La Land Records Album: ****
For Elmer Bernstein reviews at Filmtracks, the average editorial rating is 3.25
(in 18 reviews)|
and the average viewer rating is 3.15
(in 10,238 votes). The maximum rating is 5 stars.
Neither bootleg's insert includes extra information about the score or film.
The 2009 La-La Land album contains extensive notation about both the film and score.