9 Favorite Film Scores of Michel Legrand

Over the past year I had the privilege of exploring the music of Michel Legrand in more depth. Between writing the liner notes for Intrada’s releases of THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT and SUMMER OF ’42/THE PICASSO SUMMER, and delving into Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of The Essential Jacques Demy, 2014 turned into a wonderful year of further discovery of Legrand’s music. And with the release of LA RANÇON DE LA GLOIRE in January, at nearly 83, Legrand’s talent is as strong as ever. As Legrand’s film career enters its seventh decade, now seemed the perfect time to celebrate the music of this three-time Oscar-winner.

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9. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

Donkey Skin

One of the pleasures of Criterion’s Jacques Demy box set was discovering films I had foolishly never seen or even heard of. DONKEY SKIN falls into the latter category. Based on a classic French fairy tale, Catherine Deneuve plays a beautiful (duh!) young princess who, with the help of her fairy godmother, disguises herself in the skin of the king’s prized donkey to avoid marrying her grieving father. Though the premise is a little creepy (as are a lot of fairy tales) and the film is certainly a product of the period, Demy brings a sweetness to the tale, enhanced by Legrand’s Baroque-flavored score. Demy’s striking visuals calls for a musical hodgepodge and Legrand works in some charming period pop-inflected songs (in particular Deneuve’s lovely “Recipe for a Cake of Love”), among the harpsichord and Hammond organ. It’s an odd mixture but it works.

8. ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968)

Ice Station Zebra

Legrand wasn’t often given a chance to score big action flicks, but if ICE STATION ZEBRA is any indication, perhaps he should have been. Based on Alistair MacLean’s bestseller, Rock Hudson stars as a submarine commander in charge of rescuing a band of international personnel from the Drift Ice Station Zebra, a British civilian scientific weather station in the Arctic. Legrand’s music for this cold war-era espionage thriller is obviously much darker than many of his scores. But with a memorable heroic main theme, the score surfaces as a lesser-known Legrand gem.

7. SUMMER OF ’42 (1971)

Summer of ’42

Speaking of memorable themes… Herman Raucher’s autobiographical wartime coming-of-age story struck a chord with audiences, thanks in no small part to Legrand’s popular theme. The monothematic score never deviates from the haunting melody, which seems to have an amber glow that matches Robert Surtees’ hazy cinematography. But the theme never grows tiresome thanks to Legrand’s deft orchestrations, which subtly pull at our heartstrings without drowning in sentimentality. Given the theme’s popularity on the radio (and in its vocal version “The Summer Knows”), Legrand’s Oscar must have seemed a foregone—and deserved—conclusion.

6. THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT (1976)

The Other Side of Midnight

In the 1970s, grocery store check-out counters and airport kiosks were filled with bestsellers written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Sidney Sheldon. His novels spanned the globe with that successful combination of wealth, intrigue, and sex—in this case, the story of a Greek tycoon’s mistress (Marie-France Pisier) seeking revenge on her ex-WWII lover (John Beck). Legrand composed yet another gorgeous sweeping main theme, while the Greek and French locales provide local musical color. The novel and film are trash, and not even particularly enjoyable trash. But Legrand’s soaring romantic score elevates the tawdry tale far above what it deserves.

5. THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967)

The Young Girls of Rochefort

Jacques Demy’s second major musical attempts to recapture the magic (and success) of his previous THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. While it can’t match the former’s heartbreak, ROCHEFORT is bright, colorful, and just as musically enjoyable. Legrand and Demy abandon CHERBOURG’s through-sung concept for a more traditional musical, with dialogue and dance interspersed among the songs. Catherine Deneuve and real-life sister Françoise Dorléac (who died at age 25 in a car accident shortly before the end of filming) play twins in the French seaside town of Rochefort who fall in love with traveling carnies George Chakiris and Grover Dale. From the cool-jazz opening to the wistful finale, Demy and Legrand once again prove a winning combination.

4. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

The Thomas Crown Affair

From the classic Oscar-winning song “The Windmills of Your Mind” to the equally memorable “His Eyes, Her Eyes,” and with his signature melding of orchestral and jazz, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR is the quintessential Michel Legrand score. The Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway crime caper, from its split-screen cinematography and Faye Dunaway’s trend-setting fashions, offers slick entertainment. Legrand’s music, though very much a product of the period, remains fresh thanks to his clean, crisp orchestrations. Nearly 50 years later, Legrand and his music are still the epitome of film music “cool”.

3. THE PICASSO SUMMER (1969)

The Picasso Summer

Based on a Ray Bradbury short story, architect Albert Finney experiences a mid-life crisis and, along with wife Yvette Mimieux, travels to France to find Pablo Picasso. The film went through a myriad of crises (including Bradbury using a pseudonym for the screenplay and disowning the film) and was relegated to late-night TV rather than being released to theaters. Lost in the shuffle was one of Legrand’s most glorious scores. The film’s many montage sequences of Finney and Mimieux traveling through the French countryside offered Legrand the opportunity to score pure music sequences, anchored by yet another memorable main theme (known as “Summer Me, Winter Me” in its vocal version). A handful of animated sequences gives the Legrand the chance to musically interpret some of Picasso’s most famous artwork. The film, not surprisingly, is a mess. Legrand’s score is not.

2. YENTL (1983)

Yentl

If YENTL is a Streisand fan’s wet dream, the same can be said for Legrand’s score in relation to film music fans. With one gorgeous tune after another (two songs were nominated for Oscars and the score deservedly won in the now-defunct Original Song Score category), Legrand easily adapts his pop sensibilities into the Hebraic musical landscape. (It’s too bad Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition didn’t include its trademark isolated score, no doubt due to legalities with Streisand and the studio.) Streisand’s voice soars (particularly in the spine-tingling finale, “A Piece of Sky”), but it’s in the quiet moments that the story and the music are most affecting. Even though I’m not a fan of the film, I have great fondness for the score.

1. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Call it a through-sung musical or pop opera. Whatever label you stick on it, the success of THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG is thanks in no small part to Legrand’s wall-to-wall music. Jacques Demy punctuates the film with pops of color, while Legrand scores the simple love story with music that breaks your heart. From the simple flute solo over the main titles to the gut-wrenching train goodbye and the wordless choral finale, the score revolves around Legrand’s memorable main theme—the Oscar-nominated “I Will Wait for You”. But the score (which was double-nominated in the original AND adaptation/treatment categories) is so much more than this deceptively simple tune. The music swings and soars with a youthful energy from two artists totally committed to a cinematic experiment that 50 years later still captivates.

What are your favorite Michel Legrand scores?

3 comments

  1. I’m partial to his score to ICE STATION ZEBRA
    and THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG.
    Sometimes he’s a too romantic or French for my taste but there’s no denying Legrand’s a great talent.
    Are you familiar with his piano driven, almost baroque score for Joseph Losey’s THE GO BEWEEN. Without doubt my favorite Legrand score.
    Here’s a sampling.
    http://youtu.be/CpSYLNmPQAY

  2. I’m partial to his score to ICE STATION ZEBRA
    and THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG.
    Sometimes he’s a touch too romantic or French for my taste but there’s no denying that Legrand’s a great talent.
    Are you familiar with his piano driven, almost baroque score for Joseph Lossy’s THE GO BEWEEN. Without doubt my favorite Legrand score.
    Here’s a sampling.
    http://youtu.be/CpSYLNmPQAY

  3. I agree enthusiatically with Mr. Marazakes’ highlighting of “Ice Station Zebra” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” as two of his favorite film scores by Michel Legrand.

    In my opinion, the score for “Ice Station Zebra” is a musical force of nature that made the experience of watching a rather long-playing film feel like a 90-minute thriller. I remember clearly and powerfully when the film premiered on ABC’s Sunday Night Movie in Chicago during the middle 70’s, I think. The score has everything that could arouse the excitement of a film score aficionado: a towering and majestic main theme, cues for action scenes that are absolutely striking for their elastic tempos, dynamic orchestration, novel instrumental effects and more. Even now, the muscles in my body tighten sympathetically as I recall the suspense and excitement of the music underscoring the main title sequence, the music that shouts out the triumph of the submarine Tigerfish fisting up through the formidable polar ice, and the nail-biting, harrowing rescue of the soldier trapped in the crevasse.

    What could one say about “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” that hasn’t been said before? I would only add that when I think of what makes “romantic” music “romantic”, I would cite the score of “Umbrellas” as one the finest examples of such music. It’s not only because of the lovely, wistful melodies, but also the way in which the music celebrates the feeling of hearts bursting with passion, the “I couldn’t possibly live without you!” feeling that I hope many of us have experienced in our lives.

    I’ve got to add “The Piccasso Summer” to the list, also. For me, the film is a gorgeously romantic/dramatic travelogue that has a visual texture all it’s own, and Mr. Legrand’s music crowns it with another deeply emotive, colorfully orochestrated musical score. One of the things that sets Michel Legrand’s film music contributions apart is their sheer exuberance, the joyously unmitigated love of living that fills up every scene in the film that is scored with music. If Mr. Piccasso watched the film, I would love to know what he thought of the music that accompanies the animated sequences. I, for one, believe that it should be considered the first (and the finest, so far) example of operatic music composed for filmed animation.

    Lastly, though the music didn’t make it into the released film, Mr. Legrand’s stark, almost unbearably dark and monothematic score for “The Appointment” haunts me like the memory of a moment of irrational romantic jealousy that almost led me personally to do something to a woman that I’m glad I ended up not doing. Yes, the music was that much of a revelation for me. As Lukas Kendall explains so insightfully in the notes of the booklet that accompanies the Film Score Monthly release of the CD, the score’s instrumentation is “sublime: flutes, marimbas, harpschicords, guitar, piano — all things people play by themselves, alone, like Federico (the late Omar’s Shariff’s character in the film). You can feel the breath in the flutes, the fingertips caressing the guitar. Festishizing.”

    Though I definitely don’t agree with their decision, I can understand why the MGM executives rejected the score. In its implacable repetitiveness and downward-spiraling, subterranean soundings, the theme pokes and probes relentlessly at some very dark and troubling emotions such as jealousy and guilt, obssession and possessiveness. It’s like someone you’ve emotionally wounded following you around everywhere you go, always just out of sight, at the very periphery of your vision. I can’t think of another film music score that so clinically exposes — in the language of musicl — certain heavily shrouded and vigilantly guarded corners in the minds of men who, like me, have regrets about the way they’ve treated a woman, or women, in their lives.

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