When he died this past weekend, the prolific composer Michel Legrand left behind a large and varied body of work, one that won him not just five Grammy awards but, for the films he scored, three Oscars as well. Though he composed the music for more than 200 films and television shows, many cinephiles will remember him — and generations of cinephiles to come will know him — as the man who gave the French New Wave a sound. Having appeared on camera as a pianist in Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 in 1961, he went on to score The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the beloved 1964 musical (and a musical without any dialogue spoken at all, only sung) directed by Varda’s husband Jacques Demy.
Legrand also composed the music for Demy’s next film, the also-musical The Young Girls of Rochefort, in 1967. That same decade, without a doubt the headiest for La Nouvelle Vague, he worked with no less a cinematic rule-breaker than Jean-Luc Godard on 1962’s Vivre sa vie and 1964’s Bande à part (also known as Band of Outsiders).
“I can’t help wondering whether, since the music is dubbed in, so are the claps, foot-stamps, and finger-snaps,” writes New Yorker film critic and Godard scholar Richard Brody of the well-known dance scene in the latter, “or whether, for the take used in the film, there was no music playing at all, and the trio” — none of them trained dancers — “did their dance to the time of music playing in their minds.”
Brody names as “the greatest flourish in the sequence” the moment when “the music cuts out, and Godard speaks, in voice-over: ‘Now it’s time to open a second parenthesis, and to describe the emotions of the characters.'” The way the director’s words interrupt the motion of the visuals, and of Legrand’s score, “distinguishes the scene from so many scenes in so many films where so many filmmakers are so concerned with bringing out their characters’ emotions solely by means of action,” the reason for the dull fact that “many movies — and many wrongly hailed — give a sense of being constructed as illustrations of script elements, the connections of dots planted in just the right place to yield a particular portrait.”
Legrand did, of course, compose for a few such less artistically adventurous films as well, but that just goes to show how wide a variety of cinematic visions his musical aesthetic could accommodate. He scored such memorable and even influential pictures as the original The Thomas Crown Affair and Summer of ’42, as well as Orson Welles’ decades-awaited The Other Side of the Wind, which came out just last year as what Brody calls a “belated masterpiece” and “one of the great last dramatic features by any director.” Legrand’s music could fairly be called romantic, even sentimental, but like few other composers working today, he knew exactly what it took — and exactly whom to work with — to keep those qualities from turning saccharine or banal.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.