9 Favorite Film Scores of André Previn

André Previn doesn’t like to discuss his film music in interviews, so it’s up to disciples like me to champion his output. Like all great film composers, Previn’s music bears an unmistakable sound. Tricky, syncopated rhythms often populate his scores, along with lush, unsentimental melodies and some kickass French horn writing.

Perhaps it’s his Germanic roots or the post-war sensibility, but along with contemporaries like Alex North and Leonard Rosenman, Previn’s music is anything but traditional, presenting a dry mid-century harmonic challenges that eschewed the excesses of the Golden Age. So it’s ironic that Previn won his four Academy Awards for musical adaptations—GIGI, PORGY AND BESS, IRMA LA DOUCE and MY FAIR LADY—that follow along more traditional lines.

Much of Previn’s music wasn’t available on disc until Lukas Kendall and Film Score Monthly came along. The imminent demise of the FSM label (but not the FSMO magazine) next spring probably means that what has been released so far is all we’re going to get, unless someone like Bruce Kimmell at Kritzerland (who has released some of Previn’s music in the past) or some other label takes up the mantle. Previn’s output as composer isn’t massive, but there are still some delectable scores such as THE CATERED AFFAIR and DESIGNING WOMAN that deserve to see the light of day.

Hopefully, Previn’s contributions to film music will be properly appreciated one day. Until then, here are nine fantastic scores by a master of his craft.

9. THE 4 HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1962)

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This WWII drama starring Glenn Ford, Charles Boyer, and Lee J. Cobb spans the globe from Germany and France to Argentina, giving Previn a chance to flex his musical muscles in a variety of styles. With a beautiful, memorable love theme, the score covers a lot of ground but comes across a bit scattered on album. Still, if you’re looking for one score that covers that breadth of Previn’s dramatic output (and if you can find the out-of-print Ryko CD), this is a good place to start.

8. IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)

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The 1956 musical ran for four years in Paris, and in London’s West End for three. The Broadway incarnation ran for a year and a half in the 1960-61 season, and was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, winning a Best Actress Tony for its star Elizabeth Seal. When it came time for IRMA’s delightful star hooker to strut her stuff on the silver screen in the form of Shirley MacLaine, director Billy Wilder excised Marguerite Monnot’s songs, leaving only their delightful Gallic melodies for Previn to work with. Previn won his third Oscar for adapting this melodic romp. The old Ryko CD is long out of print and is more than due for a rerelease.

7. THE SUBTERRANEANS (1960)

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Previn’s love of jazz riffs through the entire score of this adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical 1958 novella. Hollywood changed the book’s African American female love interest to French white girl Leslie Caron as she and George Peppard live and love down among the jazz clubs of the budding Beat scene in San Francisco. Jazz greats like Carmen McRae, Gerry Mulligan and Art Pepper lends their talents, adding to the score’s authentic, smoky atmosphere. With a haunting main theme, Previn’s music takes us underground with drive and drama. The FSM release expands the original LP to include the complete score.

6. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)

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Spencer Tracy plays the one-handed stranger who exposes the racism in a tiny railroad-side town in the middle of nowhere. With its harsh, minor-key harmonies, driving sixteenth notes, and belching brass, Previn supplies this tight, taut film with a score that is every bit as dramatic as the lean, mean story it accompanies. The Ryko CD is long out of print but well worth picking up.

5. DEAD RINGER (1964)

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Bette Davis gets to ham it up once again in a dual role as a woman who murders her callous, wealthy twin sister and assumes her identity. Previn contributes a bit of delightful Grand Guignol with his use of harpsichord, while his theme for Edie showcases a typically lush melody and subtle French horn countermelody. The combination of a great actress and a great composer can accomplish by rising above such trashy material. The FSM CD is still in print.

4. THE SUN COMES UP (1949)

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Best known today as the swan song of MGM songbird Jeanette MacDonald, the film (written by Pulitzer Prize winning Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings of THE YEARLING fame) is one of the weaker efforts in the Lassie franchise. Previn’s first film score, written when he was still a teenager, is surprisingly mature, with a main theme that tugs at your heartstrings without descending into sentimentality, unlike the film. Using seesawing harmonic progressions that would be a signature of Previn’s film and concert music, the score was an undiscovered gem until Lukas Kendall finally unearthed this musical jewel for the FSM Lassie box set. The music overcomes the silly story and Lassie’s incessant barking (and the sound effects inherent on the FSM CD) to signal the arrival of a major talent in Hollywood.

3. ELMER GANTRY (1960)

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With one of the most explosive main titles ever written (and with shades of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK), Previn’s main title literally leaps off the screen like Burt Lancaster’s Oscar-winning turn as a conning tent revival evangelist. Previn weaves in arrangements of traditional hymns throughout this spare, short score, making every musical moment count. Inexplicably, this is Previn’s only Oscar nomination for original music. Given its Oscar connection, not surprisingly this was my first exposure to Previn’s music and a score I’ve treasured for decades. Still in print on Kritzerland.

2. INSIDE DAISY CLOVER (1965)

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This jaded look at Hollywood stardom during the 1930s combines the hurdy gurdy atmosphere of the boardwalk where Natalie Wood’s title character lives, along with a musical cynicism that has a Kurt Weill feel to it. Interspersed are deliberately overblown musical numbers and cues that send up and make mockery of the Hollywood world from which Previn came. Haunting, dark and emotional, Previn’s score is a rich musical tapestry of an era long gone. The FSM 2-CD set is highly recommended.

1. TWO FOR THE SEESAW (1962)

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Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine play two lonely losers unlucky in love adrift in the big city. Anchored by the haunting theme (and Oscar-nominated song), “Second Chance,” and once again mixing jazz with a more traditional orchestral underscore, Previn weaves the various styles into a brilliant musical portrait of solitude and the eternal search for connection. Loneliness never sounded so beautiful.

9 comments

  1. Previn was a top-notch talent for sure; your choices make that abundantly clear. I will cheat and add THE FORTUNE COOKIE for a top ten.
    Previn also has the dubious distinction of penning the songs for VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, although that title song is really wonderful. My favorite Andre Previn songs are GOODBYE CHARLIE and THE SWINGER (delivered with sexy precision by Ann-Margret).

  2. Previn is among the world’s most accomplished and veratile musicians – able to apply ‘a master’s touch’ to every project since his teens. His film scores are solid examples of his talents – including adaptability. Of course he is uncomfortable discussing his film scores because of the kind of extra-musical elements that enter even the most perceptive critiques. Previn is a master orchestrator which surely sets him apart from most in the field. We in this world do not have that many ‘complete,’ durable and multifacted composer/conductor/pianist/orchestrator maestros and those ‘in the know’ are well aware of the fact that Previn is a rare treasure!

  3. Really? That’s the reason he won’t talk about his film scores? I would have thought it was because of his disappointment in, frustration with and his being unappreciated by the film industry. After all, look at how some of the projects he worked on turned out– SWINGER, …CHARLIE, …DOLLS– ultimately all pretty darned trashy. Don’t get me wrong– I LOVE Previn’s movie music, …FOUR HORSEMAN perhaps being my favorite. But to me, his scores always seemed a million times better than the movies that inspired his music! I always felt he deserved better, and I suspect he felt that way, too.

    1. You’re right, David. His music is usually far above the quality of the picture he was assigned. Take his first film, THE SUN COMES UP, a Lassie picture, for instance. Pardon the pun, but what a dog.

  4. Bow Wow! Still, he was so young back then. An ‘enfant terrible’– isn’t that what they call it sometimes?

  5. I’m just finding this column after doing yet another futile search for a soundtrack CD release of “The Catered Affair,” one of Previn’s early scores that you have noted above. I have listened and loved his soundtrack music for so many years starting with “Inside Daisy Clover.” I still fondly recall finding the soundtrack LP — long out of print — back in the 80s. So when FSM released that double CD I was very happy. I’m wondering if you might know of any update about any of Previn’s unreleased scores (like “The Catered Affair”) finally reaching the light of day on another label now that FSM (very sadly) is no longer putting out soundtrack CDs. Great column!

    1. Hi Richard, I too would love for A CATERED AFFAIR to find its way to CD. I know there were some rumors about it years ago. Previn isn’t an easy sell, but hopefully some enterprising label will pick it up at some point. That would make me very happy.

  6. He’s such a great film composer, not so great classical composer. I’ve only listened to 5 Previn’s so far, but all have been great.

    My top 5:
    1. The Fortune Cookie
    2. All In A Night’s Work
    3. Two For The Seesaw
    4. The Outriders
    5. The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse

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