Love Story

Love Story

LOVE STORY was the Number One film of 1970 and probably the most famous three-hanky tear-jerker of all time. Harvard law student (and millionaire) Ryan O’Neal meets Radcliffe music student (and self-described “social zero”) Ali MacGraw and the two quickly (way too quickly) fall in love. There’s marriage, a few fights, and success in law before the Grim Reaper shows up at the door and audiences around the world disintegrated into puddles of tears. Francis Lai‘s massively popular theme squeezed every last drop out of even the driest of tear ducts.

The film saved Paramount Studios from financial ruin and turned O’Neal and MacGraw into stars. Screenwriter Erich Segal quickly churned out a bestselling novel based on the screenplay which helped propel the film into a hit.

Because Lai spoke no English and director Arthur Hiller spoke no French, Hiller sent a long letter to Lai with explicit instructions as to what kind of music he wanted and where he wanted it. This is a rare instance in which the director spotted the music with no input from the composer.

The main theme is based in the piano, Jenny’s (MacGraw) instrument at music school, and represents her tragic demise. In Lai’s words, “[The piano is] what gives color, gives emotion—the emotional side of the film.”

“Skating in Central Park”
“Theme from Love Story (Finale)”

In one memorable (and dated) cue, Lai combines the main theme, harpsichord (for Jenny’s love of Mozart), and a rock rhythm (for her love of the Beatles) as Oliver (O’Neal) literally runs all over Cambridge looking for Jenny after she has stormed out of the apartment following an argument.

A wordless female vocal and the rock beat accompany an improvised frolic in the snow. The melody is later used in strict waltz time as during the skating in Central Park scene, Jenny’s last scene of happiness before “the end.”

In February of 1971, the “Theme from Love Story” made history. For the first and only time in pop music history, three versions of the same song were in the top 40 at the same time: Henry Mancini’s instrumental version (#14), Lai’s instrumental version (#33), and Andy Williams’s vocal rendition (#35), “Where Do I Begin” (lyrics by Carl Sigmon). The album was successful as well and went double gold.

I grew up playing the Love Story theme on piano and I’ll admit it’s a beautiful melody. And not surprisingly, yes I shed a tear or two at the end of the film (though maybe I was just happy I didn’t have to watch MacGraw’s amateur performance anymore).

It’s no surprise that the general Oscar voter was swept along by Lai’s sentimental tune. But it still shouldn’t have won over Jerry Goldsmith’s infinitely more complex and superior work on PATTON.

  1. It won because of its 1 memorable theme. very similar to Brokeback Mountain winning the award for its 1 memorable theme.

      1. In those days, Love Story played almost everywhere around the globe. That melody has (and still is?) part of the collective memory. Not many film scores composers can really say that one of their cues or melodies had such an impact. ( I feel a list of 9 brewing!!!)

        About self flagellation, I need to go and rent the movie now.
        Then I can feel guilty!

        1. You have a very good point that no matter my opinion on Lai’s LOVE STORY melody, it’s a part of the collective memory (or consciousness or whatever you want to call it). Much like TITANIC became years later, STAR WARS, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, and a handful of others. Not many composers get that kind of recognition.

          1. I remember once, while nosing around a Parisian music-box shop, finding a music box mechanism (you could pick your song to put in your favorite box) for Johnny Mandel’s, Oscar winning, The Shadow of Your Smile. I thought “MAN! That is writing some music!”, and set off immediately to write something that would have such an effect on the whole world that it would end up in people’s music-boxes. Meh, I’m still working on it. But yet there is something about writing “…the song that the whole world sings” (that song excepted).

            I did obtain and watch Love Story, and besides the nostalgia for my-era Harvard Square, I found it not that very bad that I feared. Maybe like my big song, they’re still working on it.

            1. That’s a lot of pressure! I’ll keep my fingers crossed on your big song. :)

              If you can get beyond MacGraw’s acting, you’re right. The movie is not that bad.

  2. It seems to me that by 1971, the fifty years of modernist practices in the composition world had created a distaste for the overtly sentimental (schmaltz), and had bred an resentful suspicion of the obviously manipulating. This kind of writing was NOT being taught in composition departments of the 60-70s. Of course the audience, not having had the benefit of their tastes being educated, responded like gangbusters.

    Personally, I am much more fond of Lai’s A Man and a Woman (1966), although there are also a bunch of wonderful Brazilian composers to thank for that as well. I find it a precursor for the perhaps, over-touted The Graduate (1967), and certainly Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) in its meta-diegetic use of music.

    1. Hi Peter, I’m with you that I prefer A MAN AND A WOMAN, or LIVE FOR LIFE. As for the overly sentimental and manipulative, I’m as susceptible to (and suspicious of) it as the next person. But I’d prefer that to a lot of the musical compositions that came out of academia during the 60s and 70s (and beyond). I can certainly appreciate them on an intellectual level and often, with enough study, I can see what they’re trying to do. But who is that composition speaking to? Often there is such a disregard for the audience that it’s off-putting. And that’s fine if that’s what the composer wants, just don’t expect it to be remembered and/or performed. I think that’s why film music speaks to me on such a primal level. All of this is a gross simplification and generalization, and I’m not even sure if it’s what you were talking about. The good thing is that there’s room for all types of music and the people who appreciate them. But back to LOVE STORY, boy, has that aged badly. LOL

  3. Uncle Oscar, who cares what he thinks. The Academy in their wisdom thought this mediocrity was a better love story, nay a better film, than David Lean’s brilliant and magisterial Ryan’s Daughter.

  4. Having come of age in 1960s Boston, I can appreciate the most astringent music known to humankind, a regular protestant self-flagellation of music. Add a scalding, feminist critique and I am in my salad days. Please pass the doughnuts DOH! :-)

    Geez thanks, as you were the second to comment about Love Story in the last week, from locations and backgrounds far apart, I went and ordered it (the DVD, I am one of those purists who thinks evaluating “soundtracks” is like taking the paint off of a house and hanging it on a wall and judging it as art. Without the image/narrative you are dealing with some rump ephemera). Well, it will be fun to see the Cambridge of my day.

    And I’m with Gary when it comes to wacky ol’ Uncle Oscar (LOL Gary, I will use that appellation in the future, if you don’t mind).

    1. “a regular protestant self-flagellation of music”… LOL Cracked me up. And having had my share of astringent music thrown my way through my 9 years of undergrad and grad school, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Hmm, I wonder what’s in the air if LOVE STORY is getting all this discussion lately.

      I understand what you mean about evaluating soundtracks as opposed to the score within the film. I much prefer to hear it within context too. It’s not always possible but I do my best. :)

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