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Stripes (Elmer Bernstein)

July 16, 2017


Elmer Bernstein, Varese Sarabande
20 tracks, 39:03

Elmer Bernstein became one of the most sought-after composers for comedies throughout the 80’s. Will Stripes provide any insight as to why?

Review by Luke Bunting

What is it?

The biggest comedy blockbuster of 1981, Stripes has remained one of the decade’s most beloved films. Launching the Hollywood careers of John Candy and director Ivan Reitman, the plot follows Bill Murray as John Winger, a former cab driver in need of a career reboot. Desperate, Winger grabs his best friend Russell Ziskey and joins the army. Comic hi jinks ensue as the duo make it through basic training and over to Europe, where they instigate international incidents and end up being hailed as heroes.

What does it sound like? And is it any good?

Elmer Bernstein’s score doesn’t deviate much from what you would expect given the plot, but is elevated by his consummate professionalism.

Unsurprisingly, the film’s main theme is a Sousa-esque military march, very much in the same vein as Williams’ 1941. Heard at the album’s outset, it establishes an appropriately light-hearted and marshal attitude. The second track introduces Winger’s theme: a minor-key rag primarily performed by the piano conveying his devil-may-care attitude and sense of desperation. It may not be a showstopper, but the theme is perfect for the character and proves to be the more memorable of the score’s identities.

Bernstein remains loyal to both themes throughout the score, reprising at least one in each track and both in a majority of them. The main theme is especially prominent, bringing some needed drive and levity to the score. Tracks like “Hair Cut” make excellent usage of the march as a rhythmic device leading up to its first full statement in “Training”. Winger’s theme is similarly prolific, popping up at least briefly in most tracks to underscore the characters involvement.

While the frequent usage of these themes is great, it does lead to a slightly repetitive mid-section.  Bernstein tries his hardest to keep the statements of the main theme interesting, but there are only so many ways to morph a march and keep it fresh and exciting. Compounding this complaint is that Winger’s theme, while effective, is static in its presentation until the finale.  The piano is effective in its effect, but the lack of variety keeps the theme from developing consistently.

Even if these middle tracks can sound a bit repetitious, Bernstein luckily injects the finale with the needed pomp and variety.  Winger’s theme is transferred to brass for “Into the Fire” as his character acts courageously and his arc is completed, while the main theme is let loose in triumph following dramatic string work and pulsing brass at the outset of “V-J-R.” As the loose ends are tied up, “Freeze Frame” gives us another chance to hear the main theme in all of its glory, followed by a short reprise of Winger’s theme on piano before being turned into an upbeat brass fanfare.

Nothing in Stripes is groundbreaking, but Bernstein’s strong themes and loyalty to them make it an easy score to recommend to anyone looking for a cohesive take on the military-comedy sound. After hearing the professionalism he brought to this effort, it isn’t hard to understand why Bernstein became one of the most sought-after composers for comedies throughout the 80’s.




1. Stripes March (2:20)
2. Winger (1:27)
3. Depression (:44)
4. Push-Ups (2:13)
5. Hair Cut (2:39)
6. Training (1:54)
7. Hair Cut (2:39)
8. Training (1:54)
9. Missing (1:44)
10. Home (:48)
11. Graduation March (2:24)
12. Italy (1:17)
13. Gone (2:27)
14. Captured (1:30)
15. Into The Fire (2:55)
16. Rescued (1:50)
17. V-J-R (2:33)
18. Freeze Frames (3:32)
19. End Credits (1:36)
20. Stripes Trailer (2:07)

Review (C) 2017 Synchrotones
Guest review by Luke Bunting.

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