Thursday, March 15, 2012

March Madness March of the Day: "Stripes March" by Elmer Bernstein

Quien es mas sexy? P.J. Soles o Sean Young?
There are two fantastic pieces of music that director Ivan Reitman's 1981 military comedy Stripes introduced to me. One is "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," a song from way before my time that soldiers adopted as a marching cadence after watching Bill Murray and Harold Ramis choose it as their cadence in Stripes ("The first time we screened this for a real movie audience, people started applauding as soon as they started singing 'Do Wah Diddy,'" recalled Reitman during the Stripes DVD commentary). The other is the spirited "Stripes March" by Elmer Bernstein, whose iconic Great Escape score Reitman utilized to temp-track Stripes before Bernstein recorded the Stripes score.

That march is so tied to the misfit likes of John Winger (Murray), Russell Ziskey (Ramis), Ox (John Candy), Cruiser (John Diehl) and Elmo (Judge Reinhold) that when it wound up as trailer music for another military comedy, 1994's Renaissance Man, I thought, "Hey, that belongs to Stripes, man! Don't be claiming that. That's like if the Beetlejuice TV ads copped Ray Parker Jr.'s 'Ghostbusters.' Get your own soundalike shit!"

The cinema blog Radiator Heaven posted a really good overview of Stripes a few years ago. It pointed out how superb all the major players in the film's cast were, from the perfectly cast Warren Oates as drill instructor Sergeant Hulka to Murray. His Second City training was put to great effect, like in the film's first few minutes, in which a cab-driving Winger has to put up with a snooty old socialite (Fran Ryan) who's his fare, or the improvised scene where Hulka (who, as we realize in this scene, isn't the film's villain--that would be John Larroquette as incompetent Captain Stillman) has Winger and the other recruits introduce themselves ("Chicks dig me because I rarely wear underwear, and when I do, it's usually something unusual").

The Radiator Heaven post doesn't mention Bernstein's catchy Stripes march, but it does acknowledge how effective Bernstein's score is during an early scene that straddles the line between comedy and drama ("Bernstein’s first musical cue appears and it is a slightly sad, whimsical tune"). Winger--whom Community(*) creator Dan Harmon named Joel McHale's study group leader character Jeff Winger after as a shout-out to both Murray and a film that must have influenced how Harmon sometimes has Community bravely and effectively straddle the line between comedy and drama--is dumped by his girlfriend (Roberta Leighton) right after quitting his cabbie job. He's then forced to deal with the fact that the lack of purpose in his life has driven away his girlfriend and is the reason for the rut he's in. "Interestingly," noted Radiator Heaven's J.D., "no music plays during this scene so that the gravitas of the scene, if you will, is not undermined by manipulative music. Bernstein’s whimsical score only returns when Russell arrives and the two banter back and forth."

J.D. also noted that Stripes' anti-authoritarian-misfits-in-an-authoritarian-setting template "would prove to be so successful that it was exploited in films like Police Academy." Sure, Michael Winslow's beatboxing and sound effects gags always elicit a chuckle, but everything else the Police Academy movies did, Stripes did it better. And that includes the soundtrack.

(*) Hell yeah, Community's back on the air tonight!

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