Windmills of His Mind: Michel Legrand’s Score to Orson Welles’s Lost Film

By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications  •  December 20, 2018

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“It's alright to borrow from each other. What we must never do is borrow from ourselves.” That deathless quote comes from fictional director Jake Hannaford in The Other Side of the Wind, the “new” film from revered film auteur Orson Welles, released via Netflix in late 2018, 48 years after filming began and 33 years after Welles’s death.

In one of the film’s many in-jokes, the first music we hear is a self-borrowing, of a sort. Michel Legrand - the three-time Oscar-winning composer of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Yentl, The Young Girls of Rochefort, “The Windmills of Your Mind” and countless others - composed nearly two hours of wildly original music for Wind. But underneath the opening voiceover is “Les Delinquants,” a cue from Legrand’s score to the 1959 film L’Amerique Insolite, by Francois Reichenbach – the same director whose work was the basis of another Welles/Legrand collaboration, F for Fake.

As the only living composer who worked on an Orson Welles feature film during the director’s lifetime, Legrand was uniquely positioned to bring musical life to The Other Side of the Wind. “I knew him very well,” he tells us over the phone from his home in Paris. “I tried to write what I thought that Orson would ask me to write for the movie.”

The Other Side of the Wind defies easy categorization. Its main action centers on the final day of Hannaford’s life, as he invites hundreds of filmmaker colleagues, followers and random hangers-on to a desert ranch for his 70th birthday. But the story surrounding the party is just one element of a complex narrative layer cake. There’s also a separate narration by Hannaford’s acolyte Brooks Otterlake (played by Peter Bogdanovich) that sets the story in motion. And then there’s the unfinished film-within-the-film that Hannaford screens for his guests. All of these layers required Legrand’s scoring expertise. 

Legrand says that Welles “wanted to have...classical and jazz mixed together...with different atmospheres, with different colors, different tempos.” While his score makes great use of a bop jazz trio (fronted by the brilliant pianist Hervé Sellin) and a swinging big band, Bachian fugues and orchestral boleros also swim through the score’s “Chapters,” as Legrand calls them. “The movie is dialogue from beginning to end,” Legrand says. “I followed as much as I could what was said, and I tried to capture what everybody was saying and put it in the music.” On some cues the orchestra and jazz band intertwine seamlessly and play off of one another, like the badinage of the guests at Hannaford’s endless party.

On the other end of the spectrum is the dialogue-free film-within-the-film, a highly stylized send-up of 1960s European arthouse cinema that follows a nude woman (played by Oka Kodar, Welles’s partner and screenwriting collaborator) being chased by a young man (actor Bob Random) through a variety of expressionist backdrops. Legrand composed a hair-raising cue of orchestral dissonance, bongo solos and a brass section that sounds like it’s melting into the piano. “It’s extraordinary,” he says of the film-within-the-film. “It’s never been done before. So you had to invent something that goes with it.”

Ultimately, the editors of Wind weren’t able to use all of Legrand’s music in the final cut. Preserved is much of the jazz during the party scenes, and all of the outré material, about 45 minutes of original Legrand in all. There is a score album in the works that would feature much more of his music, and Variety reports that a forthcoming Blu-Ray edition may feature an alternate cut of Wind with more of Legrand’s music.

In the meantime, Legrand is more than satisfied with his work on The Other Side of the Wind. “I’ll never know if Orson would like it, but I think he would. Really I do.”

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The Other Side of the Wind, Watch Now on Netflix.