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Remembering Academy Award-Winning Composer Michel Legrand


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to remember Michel Legrand, a French pianist and prolific composer of film scores and songs. He died Saturday at age 86. Over his career, which spanned six decades, Legrand won three Oscars for his music in "Yentl," "Summer Of '42" and "The Thomas Crown Affair." He also won five Grammys.

I spoke with Legrand in 1996 after the release of a restored version of the film "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg," which is one of my favorite films. It's sung through, which is to say all the dialogue is sung. Legrand composed all the music. The film was written and directed by the late Jacques Demy and first released in 1964. It made a star of the young actress, Catherine Deneuve. The film tells the story of two young lovers who are broken apart when the young man, Guy, is drafted and sent to Algeria for two years.

In this scene, the broken-hearted Genevieve, played by Deneuve, begs him not to leave her. He promises to love her for the rest of his life. This part of the score was adapted into a song with English lyrics called "I Will Wait For You" that became a hit in America.


CATHERINE DENEUVE: (As Genevieve Emery, singing in French).

JOSE BARTEL: (As Guy Foucher, singing in French)

DANIELLE LICARI: (As Geneviève Emery, singing in French).

BARTEL: (As Guy Foucher, singing in French).

LICARI: (As Geneviève Emery, singing in French).

BARTEL: (As Guy Foucher, singing in French).

GROSS: Michel Legrand, how did Jacques Demy first describe to you his idea of a movie in which all the dialogue would be sung? I'd like to know your reaction when Jacques Demy said, well, let's do it like an opera where everything is sung. Did you think, hey, what a great idea? Or did you think he was a little crazy?

MICHEL LEGRAND: No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, because Jackman wasn't a crazy man. No, no, I said, (speaking French) I think it's a good idea. We should try. And then we tried. And I couldn't fight because, you know, when I started to work on it, it was very complicated, you know, classical - very modern classical music. And I said - Jacques and I, we said to ourselves, you know, it should be - if we do something like that, it should be - music should be readable and understandable. The first time, Jacques said to me it should be like a song - one song from the beginning to end, like one aria, one thing because, he said, people will have to understand it the first time they hear. You know, so I changed my mind. I changed my pencil. And I tried, and finally we came up with what you know.

GROSS: And, yeah, it's jazz and ballads.

LEGRAND: Yeah. But mostly it's melodic, you know, from beginning to end.

GROSS: Very melodic, beautiful chords also.

LEGRAND: Yeah, because, you know, we have - you know, they exist, so we will have to use them.

GROSS: What's that?

LEGRAND: The chords - I mean, you know, we have to use the chords, which are existing, so we use almost all of them.

GROSS: Now, in a lot of ways, this - in a lot of ways, "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg," to me, is like if you made an ordinary life into an MGM musical, and you took the sets of an MGM musical and combined that with the gas station on the corner - what would you get? - because it takes the scenes of ordinary life and kind of elevated to the beauty of an MGM musical. Was that what you both had in mind?

LEGRAND: No. We wanted to do a very ordinary story - the, you know, the ordinary triangle because, you know, this beautiful young girl, she does not wait for her lover to come back, and she marries someone else. At the same time, we wanted to use very ordinary, everyday language - simple, very simple. So the music had to be very melodic but exactly like one song from beginning to end, you know. And then the color will be very exaggerated. So it's a huge dream in a very ordinary life.

GROSS: Now, was the dialogue written first? Did Demy give you the dialogue and say, OK, now you can compose a score around it?

LEGRAND: Yeah, because Jacques - you know, originally had written the dialogues on every scene since - you know, since the time we wanted to shoot it as a normal movie without music, without you know, singing. And so we took scene by scene and, you know, I come up with the tempo, with the melody. And then we changed - in every scene, we changed all the dialogue. I said, Jacques, no, here - (singing) da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. So he adopted everything, and then he put one syllable under every note that I was proposing to him.

GROSS: Now, I'm wondering if it was difficult for you to set the scenes that aren't the more romantic or disillusion scenes but just the more everyday scenes. Like, in the very beginning, there's a scene where Guy, you know, the romantic lead is working at the gas station, and he's just fixed a customer's car. And, you know, Guy says finished, and the customer says it rattles a bit when the motors cold, but that's normal. That's not the typical stuff that people set to music.

LEGRAND: No, absolutely not. Now, this is why - and also, you know, when we decided to to start, you know, the film with jazz, with loud, you know, blaring jazz, you know, tune to really shock the people for a few minutes and then come back to, you know, a nice and more romantic melody. We wanted to shock first.

GROSS: Why don't we hear the music from that opening scene in the gas station where Guy has just finished working on a car?

LEGRAND: Yes. And, you know, it's funny because the movie starts with (speaking French) - it's finished. So we laughed. You know, Jacques and I said, we start with it's over.

GROSS: Right. And he sang it's finished to the customer whose car had just finished. OK, here it is.


PHILIPPE DUMAT: (As garage customer, singing in French).

BARTEL: (As Guy Foucher, singing in French).

DUMAT: (As garage customer, singing in French).

BARTEL: (As Guy Foucher, singing in French).

JEAN CHAMPION: (As Aubin, singing in French)

BARTEL: (As Guy Foucher, singing in French).

CHAMPION: (As Aubin, singing in French)

BARTEL: (As Guy Foucher, singing in French).

GROSS: That's music from the opening scene of "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg," composed by Michel Le Grand who died Saturday. We'll hear more of our 1996 interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1996 interview with pianist and composer Michel Legrand. He died Saturday at age 86. I spoke with him after the release of a restored version of the 1964 film "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg." All the dialogue is sung. He composed all the music.


GROSS: Even though you weren't setting out to write songs, there were a couple of songs from "The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg" that became very famous on their own and had a life outside of the movie. And I'm thinking from the main theme, which is known, I think, to a lot of Americans as "I Will Wait For You," and "Watch What Happens." Were you surprised that these became songs and became hits on their own?

LEGRAND: Very much surprised, I'll tell you, because, first of all, Jacques and I, we couldn't find any producer in Paris who would put one franc in an adventure like that. Nobody believed in it. We went. We auditioned, you know, to every possible producer in Paris. And nobody wanted to produce it because they said no; you're a couple of young, you know, nice guys, but I don't believe that the audience will stay for 90 minutes, you know, in a dark theater while people on the - you know, on the screen are singing (singing) you give me the sword and singing...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEGRAND: They said, no, it will never work. So hearing back-and-forth about a year because, you know, we auditioned about - for a complete year - Jacques and I, we knew that, you know, our movie, if by any miracle we could make it, would be a flop for sure.

GROSS: And of course the movie was not a flop, and neither was the music.

LEGRAND: The opening night, right away, it was a success. So we were the first one amazed about it.

GROSS: Now, I believe that none of the actors in "Umbrellas Of Cherbourg" did their own singing. I believe each actor had a singer that dubbed for him or her. Is that right?

LEGRAND: Yes, absolutely, because Jacques wanted to have the exact, you know, actor or actress for each role. And I wanted to have the best singer, male or female, for each character. But it was easy, you know, because nobody is speaking one word in that movie. So we could choose any kind of singing voice, you know.

GROSS: When you were shooting the movie...


GROSS: ...And the actors had to lip-sync...


GROSS: ...To the singers, was it hard for the actors...


GROSS: ...To get it just right...


GROSS: ...And to really be - 'cause so many movies where you know - where it's dubbed like that, it looks really phony.

LEGRAND: No. But, I mean, you know, we had - I was very, very careful with it because when we recorded the singers, we asked the actors to be there at the recording studio. And we said to the actors, you have to do - you have to say (singing in French); how would you say that if you had to talk? So I said, (speaking French). So we said to the singer, so you have to, you know, listen to the actor and try to sing in the speed that the actor would normally say it. So we worked very closely, you know, actors and singers together. All the actors were there when the singers were singing their parts in the studio with the orchestra. And after that, you know, we did some acetate discs. And we forced every actor and actress, you know, in the cast to work for a couple of months every day - and I was there with them almost every day - to learn very well, you know, the music, the score.

GROSS: What did it sound like when the actors, in order to be convincing, were actually singing even though you weren't recording their voices 'cause their voices were being dubbed? But they had to actually sing so that they'd look convincing. Did they sing well, or was it funny to listen to?

LEGRAND: (Laughter) It was funny to them because they don't sing well. But I said, you know, you have to sing; don't just, you know, move your lips; sing; scream even if it's out of key; I don't care, but we must see, you know, you singing and acting. So they did it very well - very well.

GROSS: I wish I could hear what that sounded like.


GROSS: I wish there was a recording of that.

LEGRAND: No, no, no. I'm glad that you never heard

GROSS: Instead, why don't we hear some more music from the original recording? This is one of the beautiful melodies from "Umbrellas Of Cherbourg" that you composed. This is - Americans will know it as "Watch What Happens" (laughter). But this was so interesting to me 'cause I knew the song first as "Watch What Happens," which...


GROSS: ...You know, was a very kind of popular pop hit. It's such - the second time it's sung in the movie, it's a song of such longing and disillusionment and love. I mean, there's - I'll just explain. There's a diamond merchant who's fallen in love with the leading lady. And he knows that she's in love with somebody else. But he knows that she was made for him. And he goes to her mother and says this. Once I loved a woman, but she did not love me; her name was Lola; once disillusioned, I tried to forget; I left the country and went to the end of the world, but life was meaningless; then I - by chance, I met you; and the moment I saw Genevieve, I knew she was made for me. And it's sung to this melody - a beautiful melody. Why don't we hear it, and then I'll talk to you about writing it?



UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (As character, singing in French).

GROSS: Michel Legrand, what did you think about when writing this lovely melody?

LEGRAND: You know, I thought of - this is what the film wanted at that moment. You know, for me, the quality of a melody should - even if the melody is very complicated by itself, should sound to you like it existed for thousand years already. It should sound so natural. It should float naturally like a bird singing a song. So I always try to - even if it's torn, you know, if it's complicated or sophisticated, it has to sound to you very natural. This is why I'm always looking when I write a melody in any style, you know, in any discipline. And then this is what I tried on "Cherbourg," too.

GROSS: Earlier when you were talking about how you and the director, Jacques Demy, were first conceiving of "Umbrellas Of Cherbourg," you said that one of the difficult things when you were thinking it would be a conventional musical was how do you get from the speaking parts to the singing parts. That transition on film always looks awkward.

LEGRAND: Yeah, that's true.

GROSS: People always have a hard time with that.

LEGRAND: That's true.

GROSS: Have you - what has it been like for you to do musicals where you do have to make that transition from speaking to singing, where it's not sung all the way through?

LEGRAND: We did because right after "Cherbourg" - I mean, the success of "Cherbourg" - every producer who refused to produce "Cherbourg" came to us - said, oh, great; you guys...

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEGRAND: ...Make us another "Umbrellas Of Cherbourg." And we said, no, thank you; we've done it once; it's over now; we'll do something else. And then we did a conventional or so-called conventional musical called "The Young Girls Of Rochefort" with spoken parts and singing parts. And that, I think, we achieved pretty well - you know, the transition between what's said and what's sung.

GROSS: And was it hard to make that transition between what's said and what's sung?

LEGRAND: Hard. Yes, everything is hard. But it - you know, we - you have to be extremely keen and extremely, you know, subtle to bring the music when - you know, to end suddenly and when naturally someone starts to sing - not easy.

GROSS: Michel Legrand, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEGRAND: Oh, Terry, it was a pleasure.

GROSS: My interview with Michel Legrand was recorded in 1996. He died Saturday at the age of 86. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel about a teenage girl who feels most like herself when playing basketball. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMASO & RAVA QUARTET'S "MONDO CANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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