French composer Michel Legrand died yesterday at the age of 86 and I’ve found myself playing a lot of his music today, my little way of thanking him. That means film soundtracks, because Legrand is probably more responsible than anyone else for my love affair with film music. His music was everywhere when I was a child. As a teenager, while everyone else was listening to Joni Mitchell or Led Zeppelin, I was lost in a soft-focus world where the repeated chords from “The Go-Between” would transport me to another world.
That’s what film music always was for me – a means to escape into another world, a soundtrack to my dreams. It wasn’t something I’d have admitted to, of course, because film music was seen as rather infra dig. Thankfully, attitudes to film music have changed. In a world where the boundaries of rock, jazz, classical, lounge and New Age are blurred, film soundtracks are now revered, and even seen as important milestones for serious composers like Philip Glass. Film music lost its taint of Mantovani muzak in the 1980s when ‘The Piano’ and ‘The Mission’ made people realise that film music was actually cool. Soundtracks were re evaluated and a new appreciation grew. Legrand sat astride the line dividing brilliant from naff – experimental and jazzy so often, but prone to the ickiness of soaring strings at times.
It was Jacques Demy’s ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ that sent him my way. That song – “I will wait for you” – and its repeating motif, building in emotion each time, is classic Legrand. Frankly it’s wonderful, even if once it’s in your head it’s not easily shifted. The film is a marvel, too, popping with colour, and with the young Catherine Deneuve showing why she’s a star. The entire film is sung, for heaven’s sake! It was still classic French cinema – swarthy boy and blonde girl in love, swarthy boy leaves for the army, everyone is sad, the end. As story lines go it’s hardly edge-of-the-seat stuff but French films are best when they deal with the little nuances of life and Legrand’s music encapsulated all of it. The follow-up, “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”, with Deneuve again, is the campest thing you’ll ever see, with snaky-hipped George Chakiris (from “West Side Story”) adding a bit of Hollywood glamour, although I keep expecting Cliff Richard to pop up, singing ‘The Young Ones’, as the film is geared more towards Britain’s swingin’ sixties groove.
I loved Noel Harrison singing ‘The Windmills of your mind”, too, the timbre of his spoken voice, and again that wheeling, turning, progression of emotion. Legrand’s music always touched me because it started low and built gradually until you’d feel a tiny uplift in your heart and even the prick of tears in your eyes, despite yourself. And even when everyone was sick to death of hearing “The Summer Knows” from “The Summer of ‘42” piped through hotel lounges, restaurants and lifts, I couldn’t help thinking its rising rhythm and repetition was rather marvellous.
Everyone told me that “Yentl” was pretty naff with all its Jewish stereotyping so I didn’t bother going to see it when it came out. I knew the music, sort of, and it did seem overly earnest. And so I was surprised to watch it recently and find that it was rather good. I mean, Streisand isn’t bad, the music works, the whole thing has heart.
Legrand was an accomplished jazz pianist, working with many of the greats, including Miles Davis. His tendency to sing was rather off-putting, though – a thin, reedy voice, singing English lyrics like a phony Frenchman. But always a memorable tune.
In 2006, I rediscovered my great love for all things French after a fabulous holiday in Provence (my first time there since the early 1990s). Back in Australia, I found myself buying a wide variety of Legrand soundtracks, discovering films I’d never heard of, and music that showed why Legrand is so revered. And it’s these I’ve been listening to today. When I hear the good (“La baie des Anges”), the bad (“Ice Station Zebra”) and the downright schmaltzy (“Paris belongs to lovers”), I feel soft and sentimental. I’m not sure Legrand was the best French film composer (I’d hand that gong to Georges Delerue) but his music has coloured my thoughts about France for most of my life – overblown at times but always tender. I know his music will continue to accompany me as I write at my desk.
A bit of France, a bit of ham, a bit of beauty, and a lot of who I am. Thank you, Monsieur Legrand.