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.”
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.