Legendary Legrand

Michel Legrand, the French composer, conductor, arranger and jazz pianist who turned his “hand to everything, not just a bit of everything,” died Saturday in Paris at 86.

A ceaseless romantic, Legrand’s lyrical eclecticism and tireless invention resulted in scores for 200 television shows and films. He won three Oscars (out of 11 nominations) and his tunes appeared repeatedly in popular music’s top 40.

All That Jazz

Legrand trained as a classical musician in a Parisian conservatory where he was tutored by composition guru Nadia Boulanger. He was also influenced by the lyricism of such French Chanson singers as Édith Piaf and Lucien Boyer. By the 1950s, he was working as accompanist and music director for Maurice Chevalier.

American jazz held a significant place in Legrand’s lexicon – and not just through imported recordings. Beginning in the 1920s, African American jazz musicians, seeking both creative opportunity and increased social acceptance, flocked to France.

In 1959, the 27-year-old Legrand released a US album, Legrand Jazz, featuring his arrangements of jazz standards. The record included the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, Phil Woods, Ben Webster, Herbie Mann, Milt Hinton and Teo Macero on baritone sax.

Award-Winning Film Music

In 1968, Legrand won the best original song Oscar for “The Windmills Of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), sung by Noel Harrison.

He then won best score Oscars for The Summer of ’42 (1971) and Yentl (1983).

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg)

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is a simple love story of two lovers tragically separated by France’s involvement in the Algerian war.

The singers (including a dubbed Catherine Deneuve) are naturalistic and conversational.The soundtrack catapulted Legrand’s fame in the United States, and produced a hit parade of American pop standards:

“Recit de Cassard”

Or, some may know it as “Watch What Happens,” as covered by Frank Sinatra and arranged by Don Costa.

Perhaps Umbrellas’ most memorable tune was “Je Ne Pourrai Jamais Vivre Sans Toi.”

American audiences might recognize it as “If It Takes Forever, I Will Wait For You,” as performed here by Connie Francis:

Describing Umbrellas‘ score as “operatic” is a bit misleading, as the music’s tone has the contemporary feel of 1960s’ Legrand.

That said, the film’s use of continuous music was sophisticated and revelatory, earning Umbrellas such awards as the Palme d’Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival.

Legrand’s masterpiece (with direction and screenplay by Jacques Demy) was probably the first organically created, through-composed film score.

Legrand continued working on film projects into 2018. His last work was for the questionable, but long-awaited completion of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the the Wind (recently discussed here in The Savvy Screener).

Streaming Michel Legrand

The Thomas Crown Affair is available to rent starting at $2.99 from Vudu and other providers.

The Summer of ’42 is available from $2.99 on YouTube, Google Play and Vudu.

Yentl is free, with ads, from Vudu and Tubi TV. You can also stream it, sans commercials, with an Amazon Prime subscription; or rent it from YouTube and others starting at $2.99.

The Other Side of the Wind can be streamed with a Netflix subscription.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is available from the free library streamer Kanopy. If your library isn’t a Kanopy participant, you can rent it for $3.99 from Amazon or iTunes.

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Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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