As the Images Unwind: Farewell, Michel Legrand

French composer Michel Legrand had a remarkable two-decade streak of immortal film scores. From 1964’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg to 1983’s Yentl, few in his profession could claim such a record of admired work.

Jacque Demy’s Cherbourg scored Legrand his first Oscar nominations. Three in total for song (I Will Wait For You), original score, and the now defunct category, adapted score. Another three nods came just three years later. Legrand was nominated twice(!) for original score with both The Young Girls Of Rochefort (Demy again) and Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair. He and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman won best song for the classic The Windmills Of Your Mind.

Windmills is likely his best remembered single composition. Sung by Noel Harrison in the film, the song has been recorded countless times since. While Dusty Springfield’s version is probably the best regarded, the eclectic list of those that have covered it encompasses all manner of singers (Jose Feliciano, Vanilla Fudge, Barbra Streisand, Petula Clark, and Johnny Mathis are among the many).

I came to it a bit later in life while watching John McTiernan’s excellent remake of Crown from 1999 starring Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan. I saw the second version before the original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Perhaps sacrilegiously, I prefer the newer film to the original — although I think Jewison’s is quite good too.

Regardless, Sting sings Windmills over the credits and I was immediately enchanted. The melody and the lyrics mesh in such a way it’s hard to believe the song was a collaboration. It reads and sounds like something that could only come from a singular source of genius.

Legrand was honored with Oscar nominations the following three years as well. In 1969 and ’70 for songs from The Happy Ending and Pieces of Dreams. In 1971 he won his second gold statuette for the memorable score from The Summer of ‘42. A 12-year drought would follow until a nom for best song from the otherwise forgettable Burt Reynolds/Goldie Hawn vehicle, Best Friends.

Arguably his greatest triumph cane the next year with Barbra Streisand’s Yentl. Two Oscar nominations in the category of best song (Papa Can You Hear Me and The Way He Makes Me feel) and Legrand won his third and final Oscar for the film’s score.

Over a 20-year period, Legrand was nominated for 13 Oscars, 14 Golden Globes (winning one), and two Emmys.

Aside from those aforementioned scores, Legrand also composed the music for such films as The Swimming Pool, The Go-Between, Le Mans, Lady Sings The Blues, Breezy, The Three Musketeers, Atlantic City, and Connery’s final Bond film, Never Say Never Again. Hell, he even made Bo Derek’s cringeworthy Cinemax After Dark “classic”, Bolero, sound good.

Legrand continued to work with consistency all the way through 2018. Not much of his post-Yentl work is all that memorable (Although I do recommend 1999’s La Buche). His work can also be heard on the recently assembled version of Orson Welles’ never quite completed The Other Side Of The Wind.

It’s somewhat odd to think of how seldom Legrand is mentioned among the all-time great composers for film. I think it’s possible the final thirty-plus years of his career simply lacked the soaring quality of output the previous twenty did, and robbed him of his luster.

That strikes me as unfair though. After learning of Legrand’s passing, I played three versions of The Windmills Of My Mind for my fiancée. Harrison’s original, and The Springfield and Sting version. All three are decidedly different. Harrison’s is the softest, Springfield’s the most dynamic, and Sting’s the jazziest. One thing was clear to us both, the melody was not toyed with on either of the two covers.

Because, my god, how could you? It’s as perfect as any cascade of notes that has ever hit one’s ear.

Michel Legrand died yesterday. He was 86 years old.

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