One of the great experiences of my life was sitting in a small classroom with 19 other students and listening to Elmer Bernstein describe the way he came upon the theme for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ – and watching as he played it to us on the piano.
He said that he struggled to find the voice of the film at first. He couldn’t hit upon the right approach, tried lots of ideas and wasn’t satisfied with any of them. Then it occurred to him that the protagonist of the film was not an adult and that therefore, perhaps he should put aside the wisdom and objectivity of the narrator (Scout as an adult, for those who don’t know the story) and imagine the story from her perspective as a child. So he decided to try to capture the innocence and the naiveté of Jem and Scout as children, watching events unfold without any understanding of their deeper significance.
When he thought about instrumentation, he decided to work with instruments that were reminsicent of childhood… piano, accordion, harp, celeste, flute… so that the music was oblivious to the adult world with all its anger, prejudice and confusion. The result is this sublime soundtrack with its perfect theme, first played to Robert Mulligan with trepidation – but, of course, loved by him upon first hearing.
I adore everything about this opening credit sequence (designed by Stephen Frankfurt). I love hearing Scout singing and sighing to herself, seeing the objects being taken out of the treasure box and lovingly examined… the crayon, the rolling marble, the tearing paper. Even the font of the credits contributes to the beautiful, economical way that the essence of the whole film is captured. When I watched this film for the first time, my heart was broken before the story even began, due to the quiet power of this opening. It feels both timeless and utterly contemporary, even now.
Elmer Bernstein’s exquisite theme – beginning in close-up, showing us Scout and Jem’s things, giving us a sense of their nature… before soaring up to express the scale of the story and its profound message – is a masterpiece.