The sublime poetry of Michel Legrand's film music

Catherine Deneuve in "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg": A towering musical achievement by Michel Legrand.
Catherine Deneuve in "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg": A towering musical achievement by Michel Legrand. (Zeitgeist Films)

In 1964, a French television interviewer asked composer Michel Legrand if writing for film is “sort of like selling your soul.”

The occasion was the release that year of director Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” with Legrand’s impeccably crafted, poignantly moving score.


At first, Legrand deflected the insulting question, responding – either out of politeness or chagrin – that he couldn’t discern what the interviewer was getting at.

“What do you mean?” said Legrand. “I don’t understand.”


The interviewer, who would go on to ask even more condescending questions as the TV program progressed, complained that writing music for film “takes away from the time you could be writing a symphony, for example.”

No longer would Legrand hold his fire.

“I don’t think one lowers oneself in any way by composing for film,” he responded forthrightly, his speaking voice as delicate as his music, notwithstanding the power of his words.

“For one thing, it’s a lot of fun if the film is interesting. It’s fun because it’s difficult. You mistakenly believe you have carte blanche. There are always constraints, and it’s within those constraints, once they’re discovered, that you must find your freedom. And that’s much more difficult than it appears, but that very difficulty makes it fascinating.”

French pianist Michel Legrand in 2005 in Madrid.
French pianist Michel Legrand in 2005 in Madrid. (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP/Getty Images)

No film composer ever finessed those challenges more elegantly or poetically than Legrand, who died last month in his native France at age 86. If you’ve been haunted by “The Summer Knows” (the main theme from “The Summer of ’42”) or “The Windmills of Your Mind” (from “The Thomas Crown Affair”) or any of Legrand’s multiple film and TV scores, you already perceive the man’s ability to evoke emotion through a few well-chosen notes.

But what the anonymous French TV interviewer didn’t realize was that Legrand’s score for “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” – the very film under discussion – itself disproved the notion that film music was innately inferior to other kinds of writing. For although Legrand would go on to create some of the most ingeniously crafted songs ever penned, including “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” (both with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), Legrand’s writing for “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” represented an artistic pinnacle for himself and for film music.

For this was much more than just a collection of memorable tunes. In “Umbrellas,” Legrand created a score in which every word of dialogue is sung, from first scene to last. Not even the greatest film musicals – including “An American in Paris,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “All That Jazz” and “A Star Is Born” (Judy Garland version) – attempted such a feat. With his through-composed score and alternation of recitative-like lines and aria-like songs, Legrand in effect created a jazz opera that had more in common with Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” than with classic Hollywood song-and-dance musicals.

Though contemporary viewers might be startled at first to encounter lovers Catherine Deneuve (as Genevieve) and Nino Castelnuovo (as Guy) softly singing – rather than rapturously whispering – to each other, the naturalness of Legrand’s phrases quickly makes one forget this conceit. In a film in which the music never stops playing, melody and rhythm become the story’s driving force. Take away Legrand’s score, and “Umbrellas” becomes a conventional tale of a 17-year-old (Deneuve) who becomes pregnant and, after much anguish, soul-searching and self-delusion, ultimately marries the wrong man.

It’s Legrand’s music that lifts “Umbrellas” into the realm of high art (in tandem, of course, with Demy’s coolly understated direction and Jean Rabier’s gently flowing cinematography).

True, observers tend to focus on the one musical theme that recurs frequently and is best known today as the song “I Will Wait for You.” And, indeed, that yearning melody embodies the film’s bittersweet tone. But it’s critical to remember that this famous tune never really is delivered as a stand-alone song, its melody instead expanding and contracting, appearing in full form here, in snippets there. Like the great symphonist that the TV interviewer wished Legrand to be, the master molded and developed his exquisite theme as dramatic scenes required.

Ditto the tune that we now know as “Watch What Happens,” this indelible melody also bubbling up, disappearing and resurfacing as the story evolves.

And those are only two of the motifs that color this film. Others surface periodically to comment on the story’s emotional progress. As if this weren’t enough, Legrand’s instrumentation shifts restlessly from roaring big band to intimate small-group jazz to lonely solo piano to terrifying church-organ music, as the mood demands. Whenever actor Marc Michel appears as Roland Cassard, a diamond merchant pursuing Deneuve’s Genevieve, the music becomes sly and slinky. When actress Anne Vernon, as Genevieve’s mother, pushes her daughter into marrying for money, her vocals become high-pitched and tense. And when actress Mireille Perrey, as Guy’s Aunt Elise, advises her nephew from her sick bed, we hear some of the most tender, introspective music Legrand ever wrote.


Even the copious lines of conversation, which were designed to facilitate dialogue and not stand out as memorable melodies, tell us a great deal about these characters. The sensuous dipping and swooning of Deneuve’s phrases, the plaintive lines of the lovelorn diamond merchant and the agitated riffs of Deneuve’s ex-lover Guy (after returning from war) attest to the specificity of Legrand’s writing. Every measure, every tempo, every detail of instrumentation illuminates the inner life of these people. That this music is characteristically, elegantly French in its orchestral transparency and lightness of tone only enhances its appeal.

So as Legrand’s annoying interviewer on the French TV show continued his attempts to demean the man and his profession, Legrand offered yet another pungent, inarguable response.

“A composer who writes music – if the music is inside him, he creates music everywhere, regardless of the form or style,” said Legrand. “All that matters is that it be good music.”

With “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” Legrand created something more than good music: a cohesive, meticulously engineered score that belongs not only on the theatrical stage (where it has been adapted in London, Paris and elsewhere) but, ultimately, in the opera house, just as “Porgy and Bess” ultimately found a home there.


Or at least an opera house where jazz is welcomed and music for film embraced.


Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.


Twitter @howardreich

Recommended on Baltimore Sun