One of the most classic composers of film music passed away yesterday. Michel Legrand was 86 years old. He gained international recognition with his scores for Jacques Demy films, which took him to Hollywood. One of the Oscars he won was for this haunting song, “The Windmills of Your Mind”, heard in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) while Steve McQueen is flying a glider. Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote the lyrics, Noel Harrison performed it… and it’s likely the first tune that comes into your mind when you hear the name Michel Legrand.
Born in Paris, Legrand came from a musical family and also studied music, becoming an accomplished pianist and composer. In the 1950s he built a career as a songwriter and musician, working with among others Maurice Chevalier. In 1961, he wrote the music for Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 and also appeared in the film as “Bob the pianist”.
He broke through in the world of film music with his scores for Jacques Demy’s films The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1966). Both films are musicals, in the first case so much so that all the dialogue is performed as songs. The films are colorful, stylized and romantic – in other words, perfect for Hollywood. And out into the world he went, writing scores for films like the British The Go-Between (1971) and the American Summer of ’42 (1971); the latter won him his second Oscar, after “The Windmills of Your Mind”. 1971 was a pretty intense year for Legrand; he also had a Billboard hit with the theme for a TV movie, Brian’s Song (1971), which also featured lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
Legrand won a third Oscar for Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (1983), a film that also featured more memorable songs from Legrand and his lyricist partners, the Bergmans, including “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”. You could say he worked with Orson Welles a couple of times; he wrote the music for F for Fake in 1974, and when The Other Side of the Wind was finally completed last year (many years after Welles’s death) he contributed a brand new score. Legrand was active in many different fields of music, including musical theater, writing the score for “Amour”, which opened in Paris in 1997 but later came to Broadway.
Talents in both music and the cinema expressed grief on the news of Michel Legrand’s death, including Varda (who wrote a tribute on Eye for Film) and Tony Bennett:
Michel Legrand wrote the music for one of my most treasured songs to perform, “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” His music will last forever and we will keep singing it. He was a wonderful composer and beautiful human being and
he will be missed.
— Tony Bennett (@itstonybennett) 26 januari 2019
And, of course. A tribute like this is not complete without a Spotify list of my own Michel Legrand favorites: