How Michel Legrand (RIP) Gave the French New Wave a Sound: Revisit the Influential Music He Composed for Jean-Luc Godard & Jacques Demy’s Films

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Jean-Luc Godard Lib­er­at­ed Cin­e­ma: A Video Essay on How the Great­est Rule-Break­er in Film Made His Name

An Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Luc Godard’s Inno­v­a­tive Film­mak­ing Through Five Video Essays

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

Jacques Demy’s Lyri­cal Mas­ter­piece, The Umbrel­las of Cher­bourg

Watch the New Trail­er for Orson Welles’ Lost Film, The Oth­er Side of the Wind: A Glimpse of Footage from the Final­ly Com­plet­ed Film

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.

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