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This French composer knows the score

Directors drawn to Legrand's memorable style

Michel Legrand scored his first film in 1957, when he was just 25. Since then, he's written music for more than 200; some have become classics, some remain classic scores. Throughout the 1960s he was involved with the leading directors of the French new wave. By the end of the decade he had become equally active in America, scoring such films as "Ice Station Zebra," "The Thomas Crown Affair," and "Summer of '42."

Legrand has won three Oscars and worked with some of the greatest directors of his time, including Orson Welles, Joseph Losey, Jean-Luc Godard, Costa-Gavras, and Jacques Demy. Through these collaborations he wrote his own page in film history.

The Harvard Film Archive pays tribute to Legrand tomorrow through May 30, screening 17 films he scored, ranging from his most famous achievement, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," to "Eva," a little-known collaboration with Losey; from Francois Reichenbach's 1958 documentary "America the Strange" through an amazing three films in 1961, Demy's "Lola," Agnes Varda's "Cleo From 5 to 7," and Godard's "A Woman Is a Woman."

Legrand had a thorough and classical musical training at the Paris Conservatory, beginning in 1942 and continuing for 11 years; he says he learned orchestration by sitting in on lessons for every instrument in the orchestra. His father was a bandleader, so Legrand was also well versed in popular music. Hearing Dizzy Gillespie in concert in 1947 was a revelatory experience. Because it was so hard to get work as a classical musician in France in the years after World War II, Legrand started working with popular singers and became the music director for Maurice Chevalier. His debut album, "I Love Paris," stylings of famous French songs that Legrand recorded in 1954, became one of the great international hits in the first days of LPs; it was one of the cool albums to own.

American film composer John Williams, who met Legrand during his Hollywood period, feels that one of the keys to Legrand's success is his skill as a singer.

"Many composers who are good keyboard players like Michel write music that lies under the hand," says Williams, taking a break from recording a film score for Steven Spielberg's forthcoming "The Terminal." "But Michel's composing is connected to his vocal talent. You can sing nearly every melody he writes; he keeps them within a vocal range of 10 or 11 notes. That's where his famous lyrical impulse comes from."

Of the films in the Harvard Film Archive tribute, Varda's "Cleo From 5 to 7" is particularly interesting. It depicts two hours in the life of a young woman, a pop singer, who is waiting for the results of a biopsy. Varda shows us the woman as the world sees her -- and as she learns to see herself, discarding the expectations of others. Legrand supplies a jazzy score and a lilting song for the protagonist. He also appears as the singer's preferred composer. Cleo has a boyfriend, but he is busy and self-absorbed. She observes that when he says he misses her, it's as if he's missed a train. So the composer is her buddy.

Legrand at 29, wearing an unbelievably hideous print shirt, is bespectacled, shambling, nerdy, and utterly charming. He calls himself "Dr. Song" and in fact music is one of the healing things in Cleo's life. It is also presumably Legrand who plays piano in a brilliant tribute to the "silent film" era (and one of the stars of the silent film is Jean-Luc Godard).

Perhaps the most fruitful of Legrand's collaborations was with Varda's husband, Jacques Demy, and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" made history -- it was the first film musical that was sung all the way through, from the opening in a garage ("The engine is still knocking but it's OK") to the bittersweet ending in a filling station, when Legrand's celebrated love theme wells up as the onetime lovers meet briefly but return to their separate lives on Christmas as snow falls; there is never a dry eye in the theater.

In Varda's recent documentary about her husband, "The World of Jacques Demy" (not part of the festival), Legrand appears again, grizzled but still rumpled and charming. He recalls how he and Demy even wrote "here comes the third hanky" into the score. They were as calculating about reducing the audience to tears as Puccini was, but it worked because they believed in what they were doing.

Legrand scored seven films for Demy, who of all film directors may have been the most sensitive to the nature and power of music. Three of the others are in the Harvard program: "Lola," "Bay of Angels," and "The Young Girls of Rochefort." "Bay of Angels" features Jeanne Moreau as a compulsive gambler. Even if you haven't seen the film for decades and can't remember the plot, you will recognize the music immediately. It depicts the fever of gambling in a roulette-wheel theme that seems built on years of practicing mechanical five-finger exercises at the keyboard.

"Lola" is the most romantic of movies, so much so that you yearn for it to be the most realistic. All of the characters in the film are living through the same parallel story of love, loss, and reunion, but each of them is at a different point in the story. The soundtrack mingles a bittersweet waltz by Legrand with the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, a flute concerto by Mozart, and music by Bach; one breathtaking slow-motion sequence unfolds to the opening prelude of "The Well-Tempered Clavier."

Welles's "F for Fake" is a card trick about magic and deception; the music is dizzying perpetual motion. The original "Thomas Crown Affair" has the Oscar-winning song "The Windmills of Your Mind"; the windmill turns with every twist of the complicated plot, which turns on the question of whether you can trust anyone. Losey's "Eva" is a dark film with a moody score; Godard's "A Woman Is a Woman" is a lighthearted tribute to the American musical comedy.

There seems to be no emotional note Legrand cannot sound. There is never too much music in one of his films, and something original and memorable in all of them -- he is very careful about not repeating himself. He told an interviewer for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers that he never composes at the piano, despite his skill; he prefers to write in silence.

At 74, Legrand remains active. Directors and producers call him when they need something with a French accent -- among his recent films are Robert Altman's comedy about the fashion industry "Pret-a-Porter" ("Ready to Wear") and the film of the popular children's book "Madeline." A French accent isn't all they want; what they're after is the sound of Michel Legrand, and what he's after is a sound he hasn't heard before. 

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