The Life and Legend of Michel Legrand
French by birth but Armenian by roots, the legendary composer Michel Legrand didn’t just sweeten some of the great films of the 20th century. He defined them.
February 20, 2019 | by Anush Ter-Khachatryan
On January 19, 2019, at the age of 86, the composer Michel Legrand died. That is when he became a legend. With more than 200 film and television scores to his name, a shelf full of Oscars and Grammys, and a career of collaboration with such directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, and Orson Welles, Michel Legrand now rests in the pantheon of the great film composers. Here are just a few reasons why.
1. Les Parapluies De Cherbourg | 1964 | by Jacques Demy
The collaboration of Michel Legrand with French New Wave director Jacques Demy became the key ingredient of the latter’s 1964 Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, a musical with sweet-soaked, candy-colored imagery starring Catherine Deneuve. Together the two artists were able to turn a seemingly banal and overly sentimental story into one of the milestone musicals in the history of cinema.
“Jacques and I had to work really hard to get this project off the ground,” Legrand once remarked. “The producers showed us the door saying: 'You're a couple of nice young guys, but do you really think that people will spend an hour-and-a-half listening to characters singing life's little platitudes!'”
Legrand molded those platitudes into a wondrous creation, which in 1964 went on to be awarded the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
2. The Thomas Crown Affair | 1968 | by Norman Jewison
Legrand’s collaboration around Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair gave birth to the iconic song The Windmill of Your Mind and awarded him together with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman an Oscar for best original song. The song famously appeared in the opening credits of the film, but also in a vital scene that portrayed the inner conflict of a character preparing to commit a crime. Legrand’s subtle baroque melody gave depth to the character and created empathy toward him.
As the Bergmans recall, “The recording of the song took place on a huge sound stage at Paramount, with the accompanying film clips running on a giant screen and Michel blowing kisses to the orchestra.”
3. The Happy Ending | 1969 | by Richard Brooks
In his scores for Richard Brooks’ 1969 drama The Happy Ending, Legrand creates a whole relationship between music and film, a relationship which attributed a new layer of meaning to the film when contrasted with the relationship of the characters. The film tells about the idyllic love of two young people who eventually get married. Their wedding, resembling the utopian weddings one encounters in films, eventually loses all its utopian flavors, leaving behind a crumbled reality. Legrand’s composition is heard twice in the film, once in the prime of love and once in the end, without any change in words or melody, which however conveys entirely new emotions.
Legrand wrote six to eight songs for this task, but none were chosen. But when lyricists gave him a line - “what are you doing the rest of your life?” - to start the song with, everything changed. What Legrand did afterwards amazed them — he just sat down at the piano and instantly played a fully-formed composition, which was exactly what was needed. Fortunately, the cassette player was going and recorded it.
4. Wuthering Heights | 1970 | by Robert Fuest
Legrand’s next collaboration was around the 1970 screen adaptation of Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights, a classic that required masterful scoring. He brought the music of the classic tale to life with a gorgeous orchestral score, which conveyed earthy and haunting sentiment to the film.
Eventually Legrand won a Golden Globe for the Best Original Score and the same year the soundtrack was released by American International Pictures.
5. Yentl | 1983 | by Barbra Streisand
As musicals were going out of fashion in the 80s, Michel Legrand’s and Barbra Streisand’s collaboration somehow resurrected the genre and even won them an Academy Award for Best Original Score.
The compositions differed from Legrand’s usual style, serving the story first of all. The film told the story of a young woman disguised as a man in order to study at a Jewish religious school. As such, the musical is full of prayers.
Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.