Thursday 18 July 2019

Obituary: Michel Legrand

Oscar-winning composer who wrote for more than 250 films and TV programmes

Melody: Michel Legrand, an acclaimed composer and musician. Photo: Reuters
Melody: Michel Legrand, an acclaimed composer and musician. Photo: Reuters

Michel Legrand, who died last Saturday aged 86, was celebrated in his native France as a polymathic musician, composer, arranger and conductor, but he was probably better known in the Anglophone world as a writer of memorably romantic music for the cinema.

The winner of three Oscars, notably in 1968 for The Windmills of Your Mind, from The Thomas Crown Affair, he was also the composer of the sung film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which inspired La La Land.

He began his career in 1950, still in his teens and having already graduated with top marks from the Paris Conservatoire, as Maurice Chevalier's musical director.

This led to a tour of America, which he wanted to visit having been turned on to jazz by seeing Dizzy Gillespie play; by 1952, he was arranging for the trumpeter.

The Columbia label, keen to get an instrumental album on the cheap, offered him $200 to make I Love Paris (1954). All accordions and berets, it sold eight million copies in two months.

This success gave Legrand the cachet and freedom to experiment, and he used it to work with everyone from Edith Piaf to Zizi Jeanmaire, Ray Charles to Johnny Mathis. In 1956, with Boris Vian and Henri Salvador (under pseudonyms), he recorded arguably the first French response to rock'n'roll.

Two years later, he made Legrand Jazz, featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Legrand was later the arranger for Stan Getz's LP Communications '72.

Seeking a change of direction, in the early 1960s he began to collaborate with many Nouvelle Vague directors, among them Jean-Luc Godard (Une femme est une femme, 1961) and Agnes Varda (Cleo de 5 a 7, 1962). Confessing that at first he had found it impossible to write to specific timings, he became a master of the poetic intensity necessitated by the form.

It was with Varda's husband, director Jacques Demy, that he reached his creative peak, for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which starred a young Catherine Deneuve.

Legrand it was who, looking at Demy's script, suggested that the film be sung-through, albeit with a realistic narrative about love's ups and downs.

Though musicals had never enjoyed much success in France, and despite the film's tiny budget - Deneuve was paid 500 francs - it was a huge success.

It was later dubbed for an English-speaking audience, with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. This brought Legrand Oscar nominations in all three musical categories (Best Song, Score and Adapted Score), the only time the feat has been achieved.

He had to wait until 1968, however, to win the award. By then, he had relocated to Hollywood, where he much enjoyed the company of fellow film composers such as Henry Mancini. Given two months to write a score, he would spend seven weeks sailing before getting down to work, thriving on deadlines.

Legrand recalled that when he was shown the footage for The Thomas Crown Affair, the heist drama starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, it ran to five hours and no one knew how to edit it down. The composer told the producers that he would write a score at 90 minutes and they should use that to dictate the film's rhythm. Its highlight was a baroque melody which, set to words by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, became The Windmills of Your Mind. ("Melody," said Legrand, "is a mistress to whom I'll always be faithful.")

The song became a hit first for Noel Harrison and later for Dusty Springfield. Although Legrand moved back to France in search of more culture, he would win twice more, for Best Original Score for Summer of '42 (1971) and for Barbra Streisand's Yentl (1983). He was nominated 13 times and also won five Grammys.

Michel Legrand was born in Paris on February 24, 1932. His father, Raymond, was a conductor and composer for the cinema, while his mother, Marcelle, was the sister of Jacques Helian, who after the war led France's most popular swing ensemble. Michel's elder sister, Christiane, would become a singer, notably with the Swingle Sisters, and her voice would feature in several of his films.

When Michel was three, however, his father left the family, an act for which Michel never really forgave him. He then made such a fuss about going to school that he was not sent, his mother instead leaving him at home all day in their apartment. There he listened to the wireless and played on a piano that his father had left behind. By the time he was six, he had taught himself to compose music.

At the age of 10 he was accepted by the Conservatoire, where his sister was studying. He spent the next eight years there, becoming not only a virtuoso pianist but also adept on a wide range of other instruments, including trombone. His composition teacher was the famed Nadia Boulanger.

He eventually wrote more than 250 scores for the cinema and for television, among them for The Go-Between and Le Mans (both 1971), The Three Musketeers (1973), Louis Malle's Atlantic City (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983), Sean Connery's last outing as James Bond. He also worked on more than 100 LPs, wrote several stage musicals and was the conductor of several classical orchestras.

Although he kept an apartment in the Marais, Legrand preferred spending time at his chateau south of Paris, as he needed peace and quiet in which to compose. Last year he played the Royal Albert Hall and wrote the score for Orson Welles's posthumously released film, The Other Side of the Wind. He had recently published a memoir, J'ai le regret de vous dire oui.

Twice married and divorced, he is survived by two sons and two daughters, and by his third wife, the comic actress Macha Meril. The pair married in 2014, having had a week-long affair in Rio 50 years before.

© Telegraph

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