Michel Legrand: A Man in a Hurry
By Jem Aswad • May 1, 1998
Beau fixe (short)
Lovers Net (Les amants du Tage)
L'Americain se detend (TV)
L'Amerique insolite (Documentary)
Terrain vague (co-composer)
A Woman is a Woman (Une femme est une femme)
The French Game (Le coeur battant)
Les Portes claquent
Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cleo de 5 a 7)
The 7 Capital Sins (Les sept peches capitaux) (co-composer)
The Winner (Une coeur gros comme ca) (Documentary)
Retour a New York (Documentary)
Comme un poisson dans l'eau
Une grosse tete
My Life to Live (Vivre sa vie)
Bay of Angels (La baie des anges)
L'Amerique lunaire (Documentary)
Histoire d'un petit garcon devenu grand
Le joli mai
Le grand escroc
L'Empire de la nuit
Love Is A Ball
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg)
A Ravishing Idiot (Une ravissante idiote)
Band of Outsiders (Bande a part)
Les amoureux du France (Documentary)
La Douceur du village (Documentary)
A Matter of Resistance (La vie de chateau)
Quand passent les faisans
Tender Scoundrel (Tendre voyou)
Monnaie de singe
The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les Demoiselles de Rochefort)
Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (Qui etes-vous, Polly Maggoo?)
The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean
Gold and Lead (L'or et le plumb)
A Matter of Innocence (Also: Pretty Polly)
L'homme a la Buick
How to Save a Marriage — And Ruin Your Life
Michel's Mixed Up Musical Bird (TV)
The Thomas Crown Affair
The Swimming Pool (La piscine)
Ice Station Zebra
The Happy Ending
Pieces of Dreams
The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart
The Swashbuckler (Les maries de l'an II)
Donkey Skin (Peau d'ane)
The Lady in the Car With Glasses And a Gun (La dame dans l'auto avec des lunettes et un fusil)
Un peu de soleil dans l'eau froide
Brian's Song (TV)
Summer of '42
La vieille Fille
A Time for Loving
(Also: Paris Was Made For Lovers)
Lady Sings the Blues
Les feux de la Chandeleur
The Impossible Object
One Is a Lonely Number
The Adventures of Don Quixote (TV)
A Doll's House
The Nelson Affair
(Also: A Bequest to the Nation)
The Outside Man (Un homme est mort)
The Hostages (Le gang des otages)
Cops and Robbers
The Three Musketeers
It's Good To Be Alive (TV)
The Most Important Event Since Man Walked on the Moon (L'Evenement le plus important depuis que l'homme marche sur la lune)
The Savage (Le sauvage)
F for Fake
Sheila Levine is Dead — and Living in New York
Cage Without a Key (TV)
Gable and Lombard
Ode to Billy Joe
Le voyage de noces
The Smurfs and the Magic Flute (La flute a six schtroumpfs) (Animated Feature)
The Other Side of Midnight
Routes to the South (Les routes du sud)
Mon premier amour
The Fabulous Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (Animated)
The Mountain Men
Bolero (Les uns et les autres)
Falling in Love Again
What Makes David Run? (Qu'est-ce qui fait courir David?)
Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid
La revanche des humanoides (Animated)
A Woman Named Golda (TV)
Never Say Never Again
A Love in Germany (Un amour en Allemagne)
The Jesse Owens Story (TV)
Micki and Maude
Love Songs (Paroles et musique)
Train to Hell (Train d'enfer)
Promises to Keep (TV)
As Summers Die (Cable)
Social Club (Club de recontres)
Three Seats For the 26th (Trois places pour le 26)
Five Days in June (Cinq jours en juin)
Escape from Paradise (Fuga dal Paradiso)
Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (Miniseries)
Gaspard et Robinson
The Burning Shore
(La Montagna dei Diamanti) (Miniseries)
Ready to Wear (Pret-a-Porter)
Les enfants de lumiere
The Ring (Miniseries)
Aarons Magic Village (Animated)
On January 26, 2019, we lost Michel Legrand - one of film/TV music's all-time great composers. To commemorate his remarkable life in music, here is an interview we conducted with him in 1998, celebrating his ASCAP Henry Mancini Award.
Michel Legrand is a man in a hurry. He has composed over 200 film and television scores (from Lady Sings The Blues to Wuthering Heights to Ice Station Zebra), several musicals (including the Broadway-bound French hit, Le Passe Muraille), and made well over a hundred albums. He has won three Oscars (out of 13 nominations), five Grammys, and an Emmy nomination. When he was 22, his very first album, I Love Paris, became one of the best-selling instrumental albums ever released. He is a virtuoso jazz and classical pianist, and an accomplished arranger and conductor who guests with orchestras all over the world. His long-time collaboration with Alan and Marilyn Bergman has resulted in such memorable songs as: "What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?," "The Windmills of Your Mind," "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?," the Academy Award-winning score from Yentl, and the list goes on.
He has worked with Maurice Chevalier, Miles Davis, Kiri Te Kanawa, Edith Piaf, Johnny Mathis, Neil Diamond, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Aretha Franklin, Jack Jones, James Galway, Ray Charles, Arturo Sandoval, Lena Horne, and Barbra Streisand, to name just a few. His songs have been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Cleo Laine, Nina Simone, Henry Mancini, Tony Bennett, and Rosemary Clooney, among many others.
He has even directed (and co-wrote and co-produced) films, including Cinq Jours En Juin, an autobiographical account of his experiences as a young musician in France near the end of World War II.
In his free time, he pilots his own small plane, rides his horse, or cruises in his boat, and spends time with his wife, children, and several grandchildren. Somehow, we got him to hold still for 90 minutes or so. Michel was born in Paris on February 24th, 1932. We'll let him take it from there....
The only thing I wanted to do in life was music. When I was young, I was home alone all day because my poor mother had to work. Fortunately, there was an old piano, and this piano was my only friend. I'd play all day long, out of boredom. I'd listen to a melody on the radio and try to find it, try to find the chords. Because music came very quickly to me, I felt it was my world.
So my childhood was very sad and solitary. But fortunately, when I was ten years old, I was able to enter the Paris Conservatory of Music. That was my home, my planet, my language, for eleven years.
Strangely enough, at that time, they had no class for orchestration. I was very interested in it, so I enlisted in every class of every instrument - trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, harp - and I audited the classes when I had time. The professors were very nice and let me play with the instruments and see how they worked. I did that for many years. Sometimes, later, I would write something and the instrumentalists would say, "But it's impossible to play that!" And I would say, "Let me show you." It's great to do that in front of an orchestra!
When I finished my classes, I had the chance to work with the greatest music teacher ever: Nadia Boulanger. I studied composition with her for seven years. She was a tyrant - I hated and admired her at the same time. Some mornings, I'd be in class playing the piano and she'd say "YOU TURNED YOUR HEAD! CONCENTRATE!" It was like that. But not only did we learn music, we learned life, philosophy, literature, painting, every possible art, and how to approach them. She was extraordinary.
During the war, jazz was forbidden by the Germans, so we had only heard old-fashioned jazz. But in 1947, I remember very well, a friend of mine said, "I have a ticket for a concert tonight by Dizzy Gillespie." We had never heard of him. He did two concerts back-to-back at the Salle Pleyel, and I stayed for both of them. I did not understand a thing! [Sings be-bop line] — my god, what is this? So my jazz life started that night, and that's when I started to buy records by Miles Davis, Stan Kenton, Count Basie, and all these people. It was an extraordinary time for me.
When I finished my classes I had to make a living. I accompanied some classical soloists, but I wasn't known, so it was impossible to get classical work. I was approached by singers — people like Henri Salvador, Catherine Sauvage, Jacqueline Fran?ois — and I started to work for them. Then for two years, I was Maurice Chevalier's musical director. He brought me to New York for the first time in 1956.
I had done an album called I Love Paris, which was French melodies that I arranged and orchestrated. Strangely enough, that record was a big, big hit in America, but I didn't get any royalties because it was my first recording - I just got a fee. So I met the record company people when I was in New York, and they said, "We've sold millions of copies of your album. We know you didn't get any royalties, so to make nice with you, tell us what album you'd like to make, whatever, and we'll pay for it." I said, "I want to make a jazz album with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ben Webster, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, and Phil Woods." That album is called Legrand Jazz.
Miles was the king of the jazz scene in New York then. Everybody said, "He'll come to the session and stand at the door with his trumpet in its case — closed. He'll listen for five minutes, and if he likes the music, he'll sit down, open his case, and play — then you're saved. If he doesn't like it, he'll leave, and you'll never hear from him again." I was 24 years old, and I was so scared I was sweating! I started to rehearse the orchestra. The door opens, and Miles listens at the door for five minutes. Then he sits down, opens his case, and starts to play. After the first take, Miles said, "Michel, are you happy with my playing?" And that was how it started. We played together many times.
Just a year before he died, Miles called me up in Paris and said, "The Frog!" — he always called me "The Frog" — "Bring your ass to Los Angeles! We're going to do a film score together!" He was doing the score for an Australian film called Dingo, which he also acted in. When Miles calls — first plane to Los Angeles! So we spent one day, two days, three days, with his trumpet, me at the piano. But instead of working, we drank a lot, we ate a lot, we talked a lot, we listened to music a lot — but we didn't work. This went on. Finally I said, "Miles, we are supposed to go into the studio in four days, there's a big orchestra waiting, and we have nothing!" He says, "Forget it, let's just have fun."
Finally, I said, "I have an idea. You stay here, I'll write the whole thing by myself, pre-record with the orchestra, and the next day you can lay down your trumpet parts." "Michel! You're a genius!" He was so lazy, that's what he wanted the whole time. I worked for three days and nights, and then he came in and played like an angel. Every time he played, he never played what I expected — not once. He'd even start with a note that I'd never dreamed of. That was his genius. God, I loved that man. Funny enough, my first jazz album was with him, and his last jazz album was with me.
In 1959, a new wave of film directors arrived in Paris who wanted to change everything about the film world. I worked with them for ten extraordinary years — Jacques Demy, Agnus Varda, Jean-Luc Godard — we made films that were really art. It was beautiful.
Jacques Demy and I did The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1963. It was the first film musical that was entirely sung — no one had ever done that before. Looking for the money to make it was another big adventure — it took a year. We were playing it almost every day for every possible producer in Paris, and the only way to do that was to sing the score. So I sang all the roles, the soprano, the bass, the tenors, and Jacques would turn the pages for me. One time, after ten or 15 minutes I heard behind me — [snores]. Jesus. Every time, the producers said, "You're very nice young guys, but it's impossible. People will not sit in a dark theater for an hour-and-a-half and see a film that is all singing. It's gonna be a flop. We won't put one franc into it!" So every night Jacques and I would be in a tiny restaurant saying, "Okay, another failure." We went through every possibility without any luck.
Then we had an inspiration. There was a newspaper owner in Paris named Pierre Lazareff. We knew him a little, so we sent him a long telegram, "Cher Pierre, we have a film, nobody wants it but we believe in it, we think it's something extraordinary, a new musical, a new way to approach music in film, blah blah blah." He was a very precise and very swift person. The next day: "All??" "Michel Legrand?" "Yes." "Pierre Lazareff. I want to see you at three o'clock." Click!
He said, "Okay, you guys, I don't understand exactly what you want to do, but one of my [friends] wants to be a film producer. So she will produce your movie, I will pay for it, goodbye!" Out! And because the film was such a success, she became one of the most important producers in France! Life is funny.
But you have to be stubborn. And all the producers who turned us down, six months later, "Hey! Mr. Legrand! Mr. Demy! How about making a new film? Come to see us!" And then we did The Young Girls Of Rochefort four years later, and we had the same problem with producers. I don't think things have changed much, unfortunately.
When I do a score, I have to live with a film for a long time. If I'm scoring a normal dramatic film, I have to wait until there's at least a rough cut to find out what the film is asking for. A script is not a book or a film, it's just a reminder for the director to not forget a shot, so it doesn't talk to me very much. What speaks to me is the action, the faces, the people, what they say, the mood, the ambiance — the film itself. I look at it every day, scene by scene, and I try things — tear up the paper, start again — until I think I've found what I'm looking for. It takes days and weeks to find the right attitude of music, the right style for this movie — "style" is a very big word for a film composer, because you have to be able to write in any possible style. Once I find the ideas and style, then the music flows. Then it's easy.
I don't write at the piano. I write in silence at the table. With an instrument you only have ten fingers, but in your imagination you have infinity. I hear the music in the silence. For examinations at the Conservatory, we were in a room without a piano, so we had to compose in the silence. You have to hear what you write, like reading a book. I think synthesizers and all of those machines are for people who can't hear the silence!
In 1967, I decided to take my chances in Hollywood. I knew some people before I moved there, like Hank Mancini. He was really like a big brother and he helped me a great deal, and we stayed very good friends. And I knew Quincy Jones very well, because he was in Paris in the early '50s, working as an orchestrator for a French company. Through him I met Marilyn and Alan Bergman.
I had scored one little comedy with Dean Martin, and then another small thing, and then I chanced to be asked by Norman Jewison to do The Thomas Crown Affair. I said to Q, "I have a film to score, who should write the lyrics?" He said, "There is a young couple, very gifted, I just finished a song with them called 'In The Heat Of the Night.'" So I went to the session with him, and that's where I met Alan and Marilyn. The song we wrote, "The Windmills of Your Mind," won the Oscar that year, and that opened everything for me.
What interests me in music is originality. I never approach a score in a safe way — I always try to find an oblique way to bring something different, and to put myself in danger. You should always put yourself in danger, because as soon as you know yourself too well, your demands on yourself are lower. And when you don't ask yourself to be at the peak of your possibilities, it's not interesting — or not interesting enough. So when you're in danger and you do something for the first time, you're scared — and if you survive that, you are a hero to yourself.
Yes, I'm an adventurer. I'm an airplane pilot, I do things like that. And when I write a score, the music that I propose is dangerously different.
I don't believe in the past. When something is behind me, I want to forget. I never listen to my own music, never, never. When I finish an album, I listen to it once to make sure the technical quality is okay, and then I don't even have it at home. For many reasons. For one, I don't want to have any regret — you know, "Why did I do that, I wish I had done this" — because you change from year to year. Nor do I want to be tempted to imitate myself: "Oh! I did that ten years ago, that's a great idea! Let's do it again!"
So — I have no past. Every morning I'm someone else. That's my dream: to be fresh and new, different, hopefully better.
[Coughs] I have a cold. Don't worry. It will pass, like everything.
Read the interview we conducted with Legrand in 2018, about his score to Orson Welles's final film, The Other Side of the Wind: https://www.ascap.com/news-events/articles/2018/12/michel-legrand-orson-welles
Read Variety's obituary of Legrand: https://variety.com/2019/film/news/michel-legrand-dies-dead-oscar-winning-composer-1203119247/