August 6, 2013

Michel Legrand - Les Parapluies de Cherbourg

Michel Legrand is one of the most prodigious musical talents ever to come from French soil, achieving fame across a six decade career in genres ranging from film scores and instrumental jazz to French chanson and classical, and in similarly diverse roles:  as composer, arranger, singer, instrumentalist, conductor, and producer.  His prolific nature is also legendary, with over 200 film and television scores to his name, as well as recording over 100 albums.

His collaborations are also notable and far reaching, ranging from work in the Fifties with the likes of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to scoring duties for the directors of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) as well as North Americans such as Robert Kalfin (Yentl), Robert Mulligan (Summer of ’42) and Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair).

Perhaps best known in the U.S. for the rather lightweight, sing-songy “Windmills of Your Mind” from Thomas Crown, many are somewhat familiar with his greatest work, the soundtrack to the 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg), if only indirectly, through classic adult contemporary adaptations of portions of the score, namely “I Will Wait For You," which serves as a leitmotif of the joys and realities of life, bookending the film and reappearing for many emotional epiphanies, and “Watch What Happens,” popularized by Tony Bennett in a sincere (if rather foursquare) rendition.

While the reputations of dozens of films rely heavily on the strength of their soundtracks, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is unique as a musical in that each and every line of dialogue across its full 91 minutes, even small talk, is sung, providing a grand, operatic sweep, with plot-driven and/or witty banter quickly traded as recitative, with characters also afforded opportunities for longer, aria-like pieces in which over a  dozen beautiful, repeated melodies circle and interweave, often changing in tempo or tone to fit the situation, ranging from jazzy and cool to heartrending and tragic.  Despite their natural simplicity the musical subjects are remarkably nuanced and memorable – one begs for favorite themes to reappear.

While this idea might appear gimmicky or tiresome in the hands of ordinary artists, Jacques Demy, the film’s director, along with the astonishing cast, which included a luminous, unforgettable 20-yr-old Catherine Deneuve, are the equals with Legrand in forming one of the most powerfully creative triumvirates in the history of film, one that deservedly won the Palme d'Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and that continues to enthrall with a unique result in which virtually every frame of the film approaches perfection in conception, composition, acting and execution.

Many would argue for fourth and fifth elements, given the near stupefying level of art direction (perhaps the Palme d'Or should be given for the wallpaper alone) and pitch-perfect soundtrack singers (principally Danielle Licari and José Bartel), who dubbed in all vocals, and it is largely their ability to achieve Legrand’s vision that allows the soundtrack to be approached, and treasured, as a distinct entity.

While the purpose of this piece is not to review the film those unfamiliar should expect a very Gallic, reality-based tale of young love and loss as impacted by the Algerian War and the influence of class in a small northern French port town that lies, quite literally, at the ‘end of the line’ -- that is, the railway line from Paris north to the English Channel, the unmistakable images and sounds of trains and whistles ever-present in the film often foreshadowing and/or framing key events.

As with all soundtracks, the listener will want to see the film first to achieve maximum enjoyment -- not a difficult task for a work of this stature, but presenting sand traps for the reviewer, who’d like to avoid “spoiler” alerts while still serving those familiar with the Demy classic.  As a happy medium, I’ll reference scenes as generically as possible, keeping plot elements to a minimum.

The movie begins with the main theme (“I Will Wait For You”) on strings, building  slowly in volume as the opening credits appear over a clever use of rather colorful umbrellas, but quickly breaks into a loud, aggressive big band sound (think Doc Severinsen on Johnny Carson) that leads to the first scene within the auto repair shop.  Demy utilizes reflexive humor a number of times, such as the mechanic’s complaint about the amount of singing in opera and the theatre (of course, viewers who detest singing should leave at the 2:13 mark of Parapluies).

Among the dozen musical motifs, the first two introduced (in the umbrella store and at Aunt Elise’s flat) are rather upbeat and breezy, and make more reappearances than any themes save the signature “I Will Wait.”  Theme #2 is rather jazzy, a genre Legrand was certainly proficient in, and it’s interesting to see the various elements – jazz, showtunes, classical, MOR – interwoven in a libretto-like approach.

The ninth scene in the diamond shop brings us the famous “Watch What Happens” theme (the English title and lyrics later reworked, having nothing to do with the film’s plot), an expressively simple composition that fusses carefully around a few key tones and repeated three-note phrases that work their way up and down the scale, occasionally leaping upward in a graceful arc.  Unlike with “Windmills”, here Legrand avoids a lightweight result by skillfully folding the line in on itself, making the tune seem endlessly shifting, while still returning to touch home plate with each measure.

Though Legrand’s integration and knitting together of shorter phrases is remarkable throughout, it’s clearly the emotional elements of Umbrellas that are most memorable, including the first moment in which the young lovers’ relationship is threatened (and which seems to twist the light tune from the first scene into a starkly hewn black diamond) and, above all, in the famous “I Will Wait” theme which, after the opening instrumental introduction, holds off until the 15th scene (ending the first part of the film) to be reintroduced by Deneuve in a heartbreaking vocal, then resurfacing many times in the film’s Part II (as we learn the result of this ‘waiting’ for her beau Guy) until the penultimate final scene, in which the eleven-note line is buoyed by a choir and orchestral backing.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is perhaps unique in adapting the emotional, scene-lifting elements of traditional American musicals to a carefully spun, operatic approach, with recitative incorporated organically (we don’t have to ‘break away’ from the movie for the tunes – all is music).  Even more remarkable is how the reality-based French tone (with an ending that is neither happy nor sad, but rings true) doesn't mute the musical joys and sorrows, but only increases their impact.

“People only die of heartbreak in the movies” suggests the umbrella shop owner (Demy’s tongue planted firmly in cheek) to her daughter.  Parapluies calls the relationship between sound and vision (and reality) squarely into question and, given its unique construction, is one of the few in which the soundtrack represents an exact aural equivalent of the film sans pictures, standing alone as a great work of art.