A serious score to settle…: Elmer Bernstein and the music of “Airplane!”


The Airplane! cast strike up a tune.

[UPDATE, 27/7/16: I recently came across an article on Elmer Bernstein by Ron Sadoff in Music and the Moving Image (available here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/musimoviimag.6.3.0023), insights from which have now been incorporated into the penultimate paragraph.]

[UPDATE 2, 10/06/17: Having now found that the full soundtrack album is available on Spotify, I have included links at appropriate points. Non-Spotify users can find most of the score’s various moments and motifs in the Symphonic Suite arrangement available on YouTube.]

‘By rights you should hate Airplane!,’ writes Stuart Heritage in a 2010 Guardian run-off of the all-time greatest comedy films, ‘simply because its influence stretches to every single woeful parody film made in the last three decades.’ Whilst its gag-centric, plot-light approach has certainly been repeated ad nauseam to cover just about every cinematic genre and sub-genre imaginable (a development aided and abetted by directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker – collectively known as ZAZ – in subsequent projects), it has aged better and continues to tower far above any of its inferior imitators for various reasons. Aside from its memorable lines and sheer density of gags, one such reason is its use of actors previously famed for more earnest or “serious” work, most famously Leslie Nielsen, but also Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Barbara Billingsley and Peter Graves. Moreover, far from conforming to the film’s overcharged silliness, the comedy of these performances lies precisely in the actors’ gravitas and straightness of face, in stark contrast to the manic events that take place around them.


Rex Kramer (Robert Stack, l.) and Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) in the control tower.

Part of this effect lies in the fact that Airplane!, as well as spoofing numerous films of the airborne disaster genre popular at the time, borrows much of its plot, and indeed dialogue, from the 1957 film Zero Hour!, the rights to which were owned and granted to the filmmakers by Airplane!‘s distributor, Paramount Studios. Retaining a certain faithfulness to this film in terms of spirit as well as structure and playing up the seriousness with which its scenario would once have been dealt reinforces the sense that it is, in fact, the overwrought and preposterous narrative not only of the original, but of other similar films, that provides Airplane!‘s real comedic meat, to which its hailstorm of verbal and visual gags is merely the sauce and dressing. It speaks volumes, for example, that Dr. Rumack’s line stressing the importance of ‘finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner’ stems not from the minds of ZAZ, but from Zero Hour!‘s actual script.


Elmer Bernstein; © 2016 The Bernstein Family Trust.

At the same time, however, the cast’s by-and-large serious delivery of an inherently ridiculous script also lends the film a certain sense of dignity, rather than allowing it to degenerate into full-fledged farce. The musical score provided by Elmer Bernstein (pronounced Bern-STEEN, incidentally) makes an equally significant contribution in this regard, poking fun at insipid Hollywood clichés in a manner that is equal parts knowing and appreciative, and it is conceivable that ZAZ approached him for the same reason as the actors listed above. Indeed, having made a name for himself with his scores and themes for films including The Magnificent SevenThe Great Escape and The Ten Commandments – which, although ultimately earnest in tone, are not without their quirks – Bernstein had just recently been approached by director John Landis (who also directed ZAZ’s previous vehicle The Kentucky Fried Movie) to contribute the score for the then in-production Animal House. Rather than attempt to adapt Bernstein’s signature style to his film’s raucous antics, however, Landis encouraged him instead to ‘treat it as a drama’ and to compose an appropriately straight-laced score, an effect that heightened the comedic impact through its sheer incongruity.

Bernstein composes to similar effect in Airplane!, taking cues from the various genres and individual films that it parodies and “playing them straight”, and furthermore does so right from the off. The swirling woodwinds, declamatory brass and tattoo-like percussion of the film’s opening title (“Main Title, 0’27”), for example (to say nothing of its literal quotations from Jaws), establish an effectively tense and portentous atmosphere that would be equally well suited to a conventional disaster or thriller movie, highlighted further by the ticker tape-style credits that flash across the screen in all capitals. The use of a solo trumpet for the main theme, especially in its higher register, is in itself an instantly recognisable trope used for its piercing and expressive quality by composers as diverse as Nino Rota (The Godfather), Ennio Morricone (Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy) and John Williams (JFKBorn on the Fourth of July). Yet while this graceful melody continues to play in the background, this ostensibly serious tone is punctured almost straight away by the film’s very first lines, as the two (husband and wife) tannoy announcers’ quibble over the respective designations of the red and white zones gradually evolves into a domestic argument concerning birth control.


Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen, l.) and Captain Oveur (Peter Graves) discuss the situation.

There are numerous other instances where Bernstein’s score plays on long-established film-scoring clichés to create a dissonance between its own seriousness and the ridiculous or surreal events on screen, yet one that never fully resolves into one extreme or the other. As Dr. Rumack examines the film’s first food poisoning victim, for instance, the mysterious and suspenseful accompaniment, with muted brass chords and an angular, menacing chromatic ostinato in the piano and low strings played over a pedal F-natural (“Eggs”, below), would be more suited to an espionage or political thriller.

While certainly somewhat appropriate for the strange symptoms his patient experiences, as one egg after another appears from her mouth, it also makes the viewer more plainly aware that Rumack’s “examination” is in fact just a well-known magic trick, which finishes with a flourish as he cracks open one of the eggs to reveal a live bird that swiftly flies away. At the same time, however, the gravitas with which the cast plays this scene is such that a suitably earnest score is the only appropriate accompaniment, even if the ongoing events are inherently ludicrous.

In keeping with the film’s satirical look at the disaster genre and the film industry in general, Bernstein often takes this approach still further to parody the role of the musical score, especially in earlier big-budget studio productions, in illustrating as unequivocally as possible the emotional reaction demanded and expected from the viewer towards the attendant dialogue or scenario, which in many cases runs the risk of over-egging the pudding and makes the result seem kitsch or overblown. The off-screen lightning flashes and the thunderclaps heard on the diegetic soundtrack immediately following Dr. Rumack’s ‘fish for dinner’ line, for instance, are joined by characteristic Psycho-esque “scare chords” in the strings and brass. Yet rather than heighten the drama of this “shocking development”, it merely reveals how much of a damp squib it is.

Another musical decision, which may well be that of ZAZ rather than Bernstein, that has a similar effect is the jaunty military band tune that plays over the closing credits. With a tone and feel strongly reminiscent of light-hearted or morale-boosting marches such as Eric Coates’ from The Dambusters, on one level it serves as a perfectly upbeat accompaniment to the film’s happy ending, having previously been heard over Rumack’s pep talk with Stryker, which girds him with renewed determination to land the plane. Seen in the context of a straight-laced drama such as Zero Hour!, the strong military associations and unashamed major-key triumphalism of this particular tune suggest that Stryker, as an ex-military pilot, has heroically turned his fortunes around and is finally able to redeem himself for the air strike in which he lost his squadron and overcome his traumatic memories. Keen listeners will be aware, however, that it is in fact the “fight song” for the University of Notre Dame.

Roger Ebert (appreciatively) used the term ‘sophomoric’ to describe the humour of Airplane!, and this use of a college football chant to accompany this pivotal turn of events consciously lowers the tone that the mock-serious acting and scenario, with all its airs and graces, attempts to create literally to sophomore level. Furthermore, regardless of the nature of this triumphalism, it nonetheless rings hollow in the knowledge that the moment it accompanies is essentially a deus ex machina, as Stryker’s depression and lack of self-belief suddenly pivot on the conveniently timed, yet utterly coincidental revelation that one of his squadron members, whom Rumack treated following the raid and whose death in particular haunts Stryker throughout the film, praised and vindicated the decision that ultimately lost him his life. Far from being a purely comedic device, however, cinemagoers will recognise this sort of contrivance in hundreds of film scripts both before and since; just some of the examples are listed on the Deus Ex Machina entry on TV Tropes.org (spoiler alert).


Ted Stryker (Robert Hays, r.) tries in vain to talk Elaine (Julie Hagerty) around.

The film’s well-known “Love Theme”, which follows Ted and Elaine’s romantic history as well as their rekindling romance, provides the best example of Bernstein subverting popular conventions. In many respects, it is archetypal Hollywood Romanticism, with a lush orchestral texture featuring espressivo high-register strings, heavenly soprano voices, undulating counter-melodies and sweeping harp arpeggios, and a harmony replete with compound sevenths and ninths. With the addition of a solo piano part, it could easily serve as a homage – appropriately enough for the passionate, if contrived, love affair at the heart of the story – to the use of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in Brief Encounter. Moreover, as the title suggests, it is more of a recurring and developing theme rather than merely incidental, a nod this time to the technical rather than musical facets of standard film-scoring practice and another way in which Bernstein continues the score’s “serious” conceit.

As well as paying homage to these traditions, however, there are numerous moments where Bernstein’s score thumbs its nose at them too. The theme’s syrupy lyricism is in full flow, for example, during a flashback in which Ted and Elaine canoodle on a beach in an obvious parody of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s famous embrace in From Here to Eternity. While the passionate and sensuous nature of the original scene is at first effectively recreated in both the staging and the musical accompaniment, this is swiftly extinguished when the rolling waves that contribute to the romantic setting are somewhat too effective, completely swamping the oblivious Ted and Elaine and leaving them bedraggled and covered with seaweed.

Their final, longed-for kiss at the very end of the film (“Resolution”) is also marked by Bernstein taking the Romantic orchestration mentioned earlier and ratcheting it up to ludicrous extremes, as if turning the sentimentality of the scene all the way up to 11. Following a technique popular in film and pop music alike – often, a cynic might say, and to which Bernstein may well be referring, to stretch out a tune or song without having to add any new material – the score cycles around the main melody of the theme and modulates upwards each time, from C-sharp to E to G major. Rather than compensate for the increasingly higher key, however, Bernstein’s score merely transposes the material upwards as well, to the extent that the female chorus, instead of having the music rescored to better fit their range, are forced literally to scream in order to reach their top note.

While such knowing gestures are the defining characteristic of Bernstein’s score, at the same time, it avoids the temptation to insert the kind of musical hallmarks frequently used in comedy films to disrupt the prevailing atmosphere and to draw attention to characters, scene changes or other elements that do not belong or in some way constitute otherness. For instance, although the two African American passengers essentially serve as parodies of stereotypical characters and mannerisms from Blaxploitation films, and are clearly marked as such by their fashion sense and distinctive “Jive” patois (unintelligible to all, of course, except the elderly white passenger played by Billingsley), the funk grooves and wah-wah guitar characteristic of these films are conspicuously absent on the soundtrack. So too are any sudden “Jewish” musical cues coinciding with the appearance of the Air Israel plane seen towards the film’s close, despite the aircraft itself being kitted out with obvious Hasidic facial hair and kippah.


Having since been aped and imitated countless times, these effects will present nothing new in themselves for present-day viewers. Similarly, there are musical and cinematographic in-jokes aplenty in Airplane!‘s comedic predecessors; in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, for example, the film’s protagonist not only strolls through the desert atop his horse to the tune of the Count Basie Orchestra’s “April in Paris”, but a sudden zoom out also reveals the presence of the on-screen Basie and Orchestra, in both full swing and full regalia. While Brooks achieves this effect by emphasising the stylistic dissonance and anachronism of a 20th-century big band not only playing on the soundtrack to, but also appearing in the diegetic world of a 19th-century-set Western, Bernstein’s score for Airplane! essentially stays in character, choosing, much like the film’s script and story, to derive its comedic material from the clichés and conventions that even at the time were recurrent to the point of self-parody. At the same time, however, and again in keeping with the overall tone of the film, its self-aware seriousness is sufficiently convincing for the viewer, at least temporarily, to suspend their disbelief as to the (deliberately) absurd contrivances of the plot without being drawn in completely. This is all the more impressive given that Bernstein, as an in-demand Hollywood composer, was as aware as anyone else of the pitfalls presented by the sheer volume of films and film scores turning what were once original ideas into hackneyed clichés:

“One of the sad things that happens is that certain elements of music become so familiar to the audience that they become a form of intellectual communication and thereby lose their value as emotional communications… The minute a musical device becomes so well known that it telegraphs information to the viewer, it has lost its ability to work subliminally where it could do the most good.”  (retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/musimoviimag.6.3.0023)

The idea, then, of seeking to bring these various tropes and conventions to the audience’s attention while still purporting to use them to enhance their experience on an emotional level is not only brave, but incredibly clever.

This balance is ultimately where the true effect and success of Airplane!‘s score (and of the film as a whole) lies: it takes itself neither too seriously nor too lightly; it is acknowledging without being derivative; and its obvious satire also displays a certain affection for and indebtedness to the genres and practices it pillories so effectively. Just as stars Nielsen and Bridges were able to launch career changes into comedy on the back of Airplane‘s success (respectively in the Naked Gun and Hot Shots! series, all in some way involving Abrahams and/or the Zucker brothers), Bernstein would go on to compose scores for a slew of 1980s comedy films, including Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters and Landis’ Trading Places and Spies Like Us, as well as the 1982 sequel to Airplane!. As much as the film’s enduring legacy more than thirty-five years on is largely down to its infinitely quotable lines and thick-and-fast delivery, it is difficult to imagine its success as a whole without the contribution made by Bernstein’s music, one that deserves to be remembered just as fondly.



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