When Michel Legrand begun composing for the movies he had already established a great name in jazz and orchestral music not only in France but worldwide. His great albums – and huge sellers at the time – “I LOVE PARIS” (1954), “APRIL IN PARIS” (1956) and “LEGRAND JAZZ” (1958), among others, revealed his unique talent in creating unforgettable melodies while introducing a very personal and musically complex and sophisticated style. It was obvious that his music was influenced by Baroque and Romanticism but it was also clear that Legrand admired classic composers of the musical theatre and the “condemned” American jazz artists of the Hard Bop. His genius created an unparalleled blend of these musical influences that was ultimately the Legrand style. The style of Michel Legrand, the film music composer.
It was the 1960s when Michel Legrand begun his career and later reigned as the first major European composer, who moved to Hollywood as the first of a bunch of famous European film music composers who in the later years – especially the 70s – made significant career in the American and International Cinema.
It started by the end of the 50s…
After a couple of minor movie assignments, Michel Legrand was involved in a documentary by two of the most influential movie artists, Francois Reichenbach and Chris Marker. “L’AMERIQUE INSOLITE” (1960) made a great impression due mostly to the visionary directorial style of Reichenbach, unique narrative of Marker and the bold musical pluralism of its composer Michel Legrand. This score caught the attention of the “Nouvelle Vague” enfants terribles!…and then filmic history was made.
Let’s follow Michel Legrand’s steps – during the 60s – to success, fame and the birth of a film music legend.
L’AMERIQUE INSOLITE (1960)
“After several months of uncertainty, Francois contacted Chris Marker. And then a miracle happened” – Michel Legrand interview to Stephane Lerouge.
According to Legrand, his music for L’AMERIQUE INSOLITE was his passport to the Nouvelle Vague, the Cinematic Revolution a few talented French directors and thinkers introduced to the world. Legrand had great freedom composing for Francois Reichenbach’s and Chris Marker’s documentary about the American way of life. He was greatly inspired by Marker’s innovative style and composed some excellent music that was an ideal introduction of his talent to the demanding and experimental auters of the New Wave of French Cinema.
Barclay label, one of the pioneers in film music soundtrack releases, released a four track EP in 1960 that was later presented in the excellent Universal France cd release “MICHEL LEGRAND NOUVELLE VAGUE” with two additional tracks.
Below you can listen to a theme from the film, distinctive of Michel Legrand’s orchestral composing style.
“Are you joking? How can you even hesitate? LOLA is an exceptional film! You can’t say no to Jacques!” – Agnes Varda verbally attacking the composer after his initial denial of working for LOLA.
Jacques Demy’s first full feature film, “LOLA” was a big sensation when it was released. Michel Legrand was introduced to Jacques Demy by Francois Reichenbach after the initial choice – the great Quincy Jones – abandoned the project, leaving serious musical issues to the director. Legrand was impressed by the unusual directorial style of Jacques Demy, the overexposed black and white Cinemascope world of the heroine, and the creative freedom, but faced a seemingly unmanageable problem to solve. There was a song that the leading actress Anouk Aimee cited like a poem during the film’s shooting due to lack of music, since the film didin’t have a composer. He spent a whole day trying to match Aimee’s lips movement with the recorded vocals and music. As the composer himself put it then…”That kind of challenge didn’t scare us, we were beginners, full of energy and enthusiasm”.
Below the famous LOLA song.
UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME (1961)
«You’ve filmed a musical without knowing it. If you want I’m going to slip music in everywhere, including over, under, and in between the dialogue.” – Michel Legrand to Jean-Luc Godard when he first saw the movie.
“UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME” was the first collaboration between Godard and Legrand. It was a year after the groundbreaking “A BOUT DE SOUFFLE” and the director was experimenting with new forms and aesthetics and out of the cannon of the traditional film making. He created a very intriguing movie, Legrand saw a musical and together with Godard decided to fill the movie with music, with the director manipulating its function by turning down or rapidly increasing the music volume, unexpectedly and deliberately cutting and placing music in various moments of the movie and creating spontaneous song or dance sequences. “UNE FEMME EST UNE FEMME” was cinema verite in its prototype form, a spotlight in the history and evolving of Cinematic art and the function of music in a movie, and it was inevitable that Legrand and Godard would continue what they begun.
Below you can see a sequence from the first minutes of the movie, and notice how Michel Legrand’s score transforms Jean-Luc Godard’s visuals into a musical comedy.
VIVRE SA VIE (1962)
“Here I have a script!! I’d like a theme with eleven variations!” – Jean-Luc Godard to Michel Legrand about his new movie.
Obviously, Jean-Luc Godard did his thing again with Legrand’s music. The composer created a sad three minute theme for the heroine of the movie, the vulnerable Nana and her descent into prostitution, but the director used only about 20 seconds of it effectively placed in various sequences of the movie. As Michel Legrand put it..”I gave him my music and he appropriated it, he manipulated it, cut it up, stuck it together again upside down and made the silences longer…it was a kind of recreational re-creation, always intelligent and inventive.” The paths of the two men were crossed many times throughout the 60s. In his next movie, “BANDE A PART” (1964), Godard proclaimed – perhaps ironically – in the title sequence…”for the last time (?) in a movie the music of Michel Legrand” . In 1964 they also worked together for the omnibus film “LE PLUS BELLES ESCROQUERIES DU MONDE” in the segment “Le Grande Escroc” but ultimately the distributor deleted the Godard segment from the movie. Finally, in 1967 they worked together for the last time for a segment of the omnibus film “LE PLUS VIEUX METIER DU MONDE”.
This is the opening title sequence from the movie. You can notice here the way Godard uses Michel Legrand’s sad theme. The effective use of only a few seconds and the long silences in between the music create a huge dramatic impact.
CLEO DE 5 A 7 (1962)
“Cleo contains a tragic song, a playful song and an ironic one. They’re like so many plays in miniature” – Michel Legrand about the composing process for the movie.
Agnes Varda didn’t make many full feature films in her career but “CLEO DE 5 A 7” is considered as one of the rare gems of International Cinema. Michel Legrand worked in the film not only as the composer but also as an actor, and his performance as Bob, Cleo’s maestro was perfect! His music for the movie was not actually an underscore but was consisted by songs that were the repertoire of the heroine, a famous singer. The use of these songs by Varda has a distinctive dramatic impact in the movie. There is a specific pivotal moment in the middle of the movie, when Cleo performs a sad song about death, “Sans Toi”, a song that not only reveals her tragic condition – she is expecting the results of a serious medical examination – but also functions as a herald of her personality change. Certainly one of Legrand’s best moments of his movie career.
Below you can watch the pivotal scene of the song performance. A wonderful tune by the great Legrand who can be briefly seen in the beginning of the video.
LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG (1964)
« I wanted to make a film that would borrow nothing from the American musical comedy or the French operetta. A film entirely sung in free verse, with dialogue that would be clear and direct, with simple themes and, why not popular and generous, as if the opera had followed the evolution of jazz” – Jacques Demy about his movie
“LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG” was Jacques Demy’s dream project that came true among many difficulties and burdens. As it was described by Demy and Legrand, the two men that together were the heart of this project, the whole movie was constructed during a very long period that exceeded a year while both were isolated in the island of Noirmoutier. It was a very long time of composing music and lyrics, structuring entire sequences and trying to adapt music into dialogue. Even harder, was for them to find a financial supporter for their project. As Michel Legrand once told…” For a whole year, we presented the project to producers. I was playing the piano, singing all the roles, the bass, the sopranos … Jacques turned the pages. After a few minutes we heard snoring in our backs!”. Against all odds and with the aid of producer Mag Bodart “LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG” was the triumph that made Legrand and Demy famous worldwide winning them the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and five Oscar nominations.
Below you can watch the wonderful instrumental main theme from the opening sequence of the movie.
LA VIE DE CHATEAU (1966)
“Legrand’s music gave the film a sort of sentimental background. Real charm comes from the marriage between the romanticism of the music, and the black and white photography of Deneuve riding a bicycle along the hedgerows in Normandy. To me that first approach was terrifically instructive. Legrand really taught me how film music could be understood.” – Jean-Paul Rappeneau on his collaboration with Legrand.
In 1966 Legrand collaborated for the first time with Jean-Paul Rappeneau for a charming romantic movie starring the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve in a rural France setting a while before the end of World War II, having three men struggling for her attention. The movie is built around the actress who is stunningly beautiful and even the main title opening sequence showcases her flawless face in various poses and angles. Michel Legrand composed his music around Deneuve’s stunning presence all around the film…and this obviously worked big time.
Below you can watch the opening credits of the movie with Michel Legrand’s beautiful theme accompanying stunning photos of Catherine Deneuve’s flawless face
QUI ETES VOUS POLLY MAGGOO (1966)
«The film is not about fashion, it’s about media.Fashion is part of media. It is also something that is pretty funny, graphic and inventive.” – William Klein on the concept of his movie.
Funny, graphic and inventive. These words that came out of William Klein, the innovative artist, fashion photographer and film director, summarize Michel Legrand’s inspiration behind his score for “QUI ETES VOUS POLLY MAGGO”. A satire about media focused on the surrealistic and celebrity obsessed world of fashion in the 60s. There is a specific moment in the movie, a surrealistic fashion show held in a pit while the models parade wearing metal costumes, that Michel Legrand composed with a baroque choral piece that highlights the irony, the graphic and the humor behind William Klein’s direction in an amazing way.
An extended play vinyl with four tracks and the superb “Ballade de Polly Maggoo” as the highlight was released by the time of the movie’s theatrical release that is actually – beside the music – a work of art with groundbreaking and unique for its time design.
Below notice the irony in the baroque music Michel Legrand used to accompany the surrealistic metallic costume fashion show. After the fashion editor pronounce the model as “magnifique” a triumphant choral “magnificat” begins and closes in a humorous way when the chorus blends with the loughter of the audience after the “glorious” parade of Polly in a metallic costume ends in a fiasco.
LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (1967)
«That theme…maybe that can become the main theme…only once the film is finished will we feel which theme will be the main theme” Jacques Demy listening to Michel Legrand rehearsing “Chanson des Jumelles”. – Jacques Demy upon listening to Michel Legrand’s themes performed solo on the piano.
Jacques Demy begun working for “LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT” in 1964 a little after he finished with “LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG”. Michel Legrand entered the project in 1966 and their passionate and committed collaboration produced one more masterpiece. Demy wanted to create a homage to American musical and the final outcome was a fantastic feast of color, amazing music and countless references to Classic Hollywood musicals from “GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES” to “WEST SIDE STORY” and “ANCHORS AWEIGH”. Michel Legrand composed hours of music for the movie and managed to get one more Oscar nomination for his music. The time had come for him to leave France for Hollywood.
Below you can watch the excellent sequence with Gene Kelly’s dance on Michel Legrand’s magnificent tune “Chanson d’Andy”, a sequence Kelly choreographed himself citing two of his classic performances in “ANCHORS AWEIGH” (the sailors) and “AN AMERICAN IN PARIS” (the kids).
ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968)
“I love that way of scoring. John Sturges said he wanted everything scored, every emotion, every fear, and I had great pleasure in doing it.” – Michel Legrand on composing for the movie.
“ICE STATION ZEBRA” was a gargantuan project. It was the first assignment Michel Legrand took over that had such a large scale of production and the odd thing was that it was totally different of what the composer had composed for the movies since then. As the composer himself told, “That was a huge score. It took me months and weeks of nights orchestrating. At that time there was a mode of huge, three-hour movies with intermission, in a big theater on a huge screen, and the music was recorded on many different tracks, speakerswere behind and in front of the audience, and it was the first time for me doing something of that scope.” The composer of the French Nouvelle Vague, the collaborator of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy found a new creative path in Hollywood. The most prolific period of Michel Legrand was just beginning. His name was already established as one of the big ones in International film music. It was the year of the Oscar.
Below you can listen to the overture.
THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)
“Take six weeks’ vacation before you do the editing. While you’re away, I won’t look at a single frame, but I’ll write you an hour and a half of music. I’ll just let it come without the time constraints, and the impressions I had today will carry the music.” – Michel Legrand convinces the director Norman Jewison and editor Hal Asby to let his genius take over.
A few months after Michel Legrand arrived to Los Angeles, he was involved in “THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR”, a romantic thriller directed by Norman Jewison. The director wanted Henry Mancini to compose the score, having in mind Mancini’s superb music for Stanley Donen’s romantic thrillers “CHARADE” and “ARABESQUE”, but the composer was committed to another project and proposed “The young Frenchman who had just arrived in L.A.”! The level of chemistry between Legrand, Jewison and the editor Hal Ashby was ideal and led to perfection, a totally new filmic experience where music and editing functioned as the driving force. “A film where form prevails over content, and style wins over the rest” as director Jewison put it. Michel Legrand composed freely and without restrictions the music and together with Jewison and Ashby worked around the five hours of material that had already been shot and should be filled with the composers music. It was something Legrand had made before with Jacques Demy – in much more difficult conditions – and the result was a triumph. The beautiful song “The Windmills of your Mind” that was played during the opening titles gave the first Oscar to Michel Legrand, after four nominations he had earned with Jacques Demy’s wonderful musicals.
Watch below the infamous “Chess scene”
LA PISCINE (1969)
“I wrote the main theme for two voices, my own and that of my sister, Christiane. It was like a vocal transposition of the Delon/Romy Schneider couple, a harrowing, heart-broken duo. The choruses gave breadth to it, a timeless graveness, an almost religious dimension.” – Michel Legrand on his main theme for the movie.
Michel Legrand was very enthusiastic on the offer to make the music for Jacques Deray’s “LA PISCINE”. He had already been in the States for two years, and the perspective to work again for a French movie was really intriguing for him. According to Jacques Deray..”I could already hear his music when I was writing LA PISCINE with Jean-Claude Carriere”. A potentially ideal relationship actually begun with problems. Michel Legrand composed a very sophisticated and complex score focused on voices and Deray was a bit perplexed with the composer’s decision. He finally used around 20 minutes in the movie, but what really stands as an outstanding accomplishment is the title music theme with Michel and Christiane Legrand wordlessly singing the tune to an unexpectedly dissonant finale…”My intention was to give the impression that a volcano was rumbling, and that it could sweep everything away”. Legrand and Deray worked together in two more movies including the magnificent “UN HOMME EST MORT” in 1972. The bizarre thing with the soundtrack of “LA PISCINE” is that even though the movie was very popular in France, the only LP soundtrack release was in Japan, in a United Artists edition that quickly vanished and became one of the most collectible soundtrack LPs.
Check below the amazing vocal performances of the original opening sequence of the movie.
CASTLE KEEP (1969)
“When the music was added in the film one of my intentions took shape: the music makes you understand that the soldiers are no longer part of this world. Or that they’re leaving it”. – Sidney Pollack on Legrand’s score for his movie.
The director of the movie, Sidney Polack, wanted to create a surrealist war movie and the orientation of Michel Legrand’s score was both medieval and contemporary in style. The final score was a mixture of medieval harmonies and tunes and…jazz! As peculiar Even if it sounds peculiar, the score works perfectly in the movie, from the title sequence until the finale. There are numerous moments in the movie that the music makes one believe that he watches a movie with knights and princesses, like a medieval fairy tale. Unfortunately the score was never released in any format and only a couple of themes exist in the excellent four cd box set “LE CINEMA DE MICHEL LEGRAND” that was released in 2005 by Universal France.
The following sequence contains some hauntingly beautiful score by Michel Legrand and depicts his approach towards the movie, an elegant medieval style, with contemporary orchestration.
THE PICASSO SUMMER (1969)
“Legrand sat down at the piano and out poured forth the lushest, most voluptuously romantic sounds imaginable” – Wes Herschensohn on the music of the film.
Certainly one of Michel Legrand’s most beautiful and haunting movie works was for a movie that suffered greatly after its completion and finally lost into oblivion, remembered only for Legrand’s exceptional score.
The film was telling the story of a disillusioned architect who becomes obsessed with the legendary painter Pablo Picasso and goes to France to find him. The film’s special – and perhaps most interesting – characteristic is the long animated sequences that were drawn by the famous animator Wes Herschensohn, sequences that were enhanced with Michel Legrand’s complex symphonic music. The composer found great inspiration in the movie and his score is based both in Iberian music idioms and 20th Century Symphonic forms. With this score, Michel Legrand closed a decade of acknowledgement and success, the years that catapulted him to stardom not only in film music but as one of the most significant personalities of International Cinema.
Below, thanks to youtuber “Vilignal” i present here the animated sequence from the movie composed brilliantly by Michel Legrand.
Our tribute will be continued with his 70s works.