Classic film composer Leonard Rosenman died of a heart attack on Monday, March 3, at the age of 83, ending his long battle with Frontotemporal Dementia, a disability that attacks the brain. While Rosenman's Oscar wins were for films in which he acted as a musical compiler, his signature work was elsewhere, scoring the James Dean features East of Eden (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) in addition to films such as Fantastic Voyage (1966) and the TV adaptation of Flora Rheta Schreiber's book Sybil (1976) starring Sally Field. The vaunted Hollywood studio system of old was finished by the time Rosenman entered the picture business, and he â€“- along with his contemporaries Alex North, Earle Hagen and Elmer Bernstein -â€“ represented the first composers in the "New" Hollywood, working on independently produced features supported by the studios, for international productions and in television. Rosenman's music was uncompromisingly contemporary in style, and was among the first film composers to utilize advanced compositional techniques such as serialism and microtones in major motion pictures. It was an achievement that was rather low-key; however, as even many film score buffs weren't even aware of Rosenman's work until the release in 1996 of Nonesuch's outstanding The Film Music of Leonard Rosenman, conducted by composer John Adams.
John Adams, London Sinfonietta - Rosenman: "Knife Fight" from Rebel Without a Cause
Born in Brooklyn, Rosenman seemed well on his way to having a conventional career as a modern composer when he met James Dean. He had studied with Roger Sessions and with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles; when Rosenman first encountered Dean he had just completed a master class at Tanglewood with Italian serialist Luigi Dallapiccola. "We met at a party," Rosenman remembered in 1997. "[Dean] heard me play the piano, and about a month later, my doorbell rings about 11 o'clock at night. I open the door, and here's a guy I don't remember all dressed in leather, motorcycle stuff. I said, 'What can I do for you?' And he said, 'I'd like to study piano with you.'" The street-smart, intellectual Brooklyn composer and the soft-spoken and shy but thrill-loving actor from Indiana became unlikely friends, and later shared a flat. Dean convinced director Elia Kazan to use Rosenman on his first assignment, East of Eden, which he only accepted after both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein urged him to. Rosenman's fears for his classical cachet proved well founded, as according to him, "The year I did my first film, I had five major performances in New York. The minute I did my first film, I didn't have a performance [in New York] for 20 years. I couldn't get performances of my works. They would never say, 'I don't like them.' They wouldn't look at them."
Rosenman's rÃ©sumÃ© reads like a "what's what" of offbeat film projects: he scored Edge of the City (1957), the film that broke actor/director John Cassavetes, Budd Boetticher's quirky gangster picture The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), the Oscar-winning avant-garde documentary The Savage Eye (1960), Robert Altman's first film, the realistic space drama Countdown (1968), the revisionist western A Man Called Horse (1970), gritty war dramas such as Pork Chop Hill (1959), Hell is For Heroes (1962), and the TV show Combat! (1962-1967), not to mention Ralph Bakshi's animated version of The Lord of the Rings (1978). Rosenman was a "go to guy" when it came to special kinds of film productions, and he never minced words when it came to producers or directors whom he felt had the wrong idea about a scene. His forthrightness in such instances caused Rosenman's firing from some films, but it was well established in the business early on that when you hired Rosenman, you were getting the best â€“- and that was enough for many producers in the industry.
The bold experimentalism of Rosenman's film scoring is easy to recognize divorced from the screen, but his work has the highly desirable quality of invisibility â€“- no matter how "advanced" his language, the music sinks right into the mood of the picture. This is part of the reason Rosenman's work was so slow to gain critical recognition, at least in comparison to Alex North or Elmer Bernstein. For all of Rosenman's achievements and his widely ranging methodology, it is hard to say that in his film work that he ever topped Rebel Without a Cause. It's an old film now, but doesn't feel like one, and a large measure of that success is due to the timeless modernism of atonal, jazz-inflected musical score, which sends the tragic events onscreen right to one's gut. However, Rosenman continued to compose concert works right alongside his film music, which stretched into the 21st century. These remain little known, but titles such as his Dinosaur Symphony (1996) sound intriguing; perhaps if anything of Rosenman is left to exceed the ginormous status of Rebel Without a Cause, it will be found in the concert hall rather than in the screening room.