Michel Legrand died a fortnight ago, of sepsis after contracting a pulmonary infection. He was 86, which is a grand age, but he was very active and had a full concert schedule booked for the spring. So one resents somewhat, as I mentioned re Albert Finney yesterday, the randomness of fatal affliction in otherwise healthy old men. Sometimes with the advancing years a writer starts to sound written out - as if everything he has to say has already been said. Legrand didn't sound like that to me. My pal Jessica Martin was in his last show, Marguerite, in the West End a few years back, with a story by Boublil & Schönberg (of Les Misérables) and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, and Michel's music was better than 95 per cent of the alternatives playing London that season. Round about the same time Jess and I made a record of one of Legrand's hits from the early Seventies, "Sweet Gingerbread Man", mainly 'cause I felt not enough fellows sing it these days.
Michel's father, Raymond Legrand, was a pupil of Fauré who became a moderately successful conductor, accompanying Maurice Chevalier, Georges Guétary and the like. For a man with so quintessentially French a name as Michel Legrand - or "Big Mike," as a mutual friend used to call him - Big Mike was, in fact, half-Armenian on his mother's side. A couple of years after Michel's birth in 1932, Raymond abandoned the wife and kids, and spent the next decade or so consorting with other women and indeed the Vichy regime. One wonders about the psychological dynamic between Legrand père and Legrand fils - the so-so musician effortlessly outpaced by the brilliant son he left behind. By the age of eleven, Michel was studying at the Conservatoire de Paris with Nadia Boulanger; by his twenties, he was an in-demand jazz pianist, playing with Miles Davis and Stan Getz; at thirty-two, he had composed a bona fide masterpieces Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, whose through-composed score foreshadow the pop operatics of Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera a quarter-century later, and gave a young Frenchman his first worldwide pop standards in "I Will Wait for You" and "Watch What Happens".
Pianist, conductor, arranger of other men's music, composer of his own, Legrand could easily have made a full-time living at any of those occupations. Thus he was a fitful songwriter because he had many other things to do. But the songs he left us are a splendid if select catalogue. This week's selection was his first big American song for a big American movie, in 1968, with Steve McQueen at the height of his powers, and written with a husband-and-wife team who would become lifelong collaborators. A year earlier, Michel had made a film called Les Demoiselles de Rochefort - French composer (Legrand), French director (Jacques Demy), French setting (Rochefort), and, of course, French demoiselles (real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac). But they brought over a Hollywood guy to give it a bit of transatlantic appeal - Gene Kelly. And, when Kelly got back to California, he mentioned the movie's composer to a tennis partner of his. Here's how Alan Bergman told it to me a couple of years ago:
There was a place in the Sixties that I played tennis every weekend, and Gene was one of the players. And he said to Marilyn and I, 'I just finished a picture in France. There's a young composer coming over here to do a little work on it with me, and I think you and he could write great things together. I'm going to introduce you to him.' And he introduced us to Michel Legrand. That's how it happened... That's almost fifty years ago.
The Bergmans had had a few hits, notably "Nice 'n' Easy", a song Gene Kelly loved. But Kelly's matchmaking was to take Alan, Marilyn and Michel's careers to a whole other level.
Their first assignment was a picture called The Thomas Crown Affair, in which Steve McQueen (the eponymous Mr Crown) pulls off a bank heist and then finds himself playing cat-and-mouse with a savvy insurance investigator, Faye Dunaway. It is a cool film - not in the "hey, cool, daddy-o" but in its generally understated tone: McQueen is rich and bored and robbed the bank for sport, and Miss Dunaway knows it. Yet she is attracted to him and he to her, albeit in an unhurried, low-simmer kind of way. It's about the mutual allure of devious minds, to the point where Jewison pulls off something extremely rare: a sexy chess game.
A few years earlier, faced with Sinatra and the object of his affection taking it "Nice n' Easy", Alan and Marilyn Bergman had written:
The problem now of course is
To simply hold your horses...
But in The Thomas Crown Affair neither McQueen's character nor Dunaway's character had any problem holding their horses. So the picture's score did not call for ardor or passion or "Hey, look at me, I'm in love!!!" The director, my fellow Torontonian Norman Jewison, had a scene in which the wealthy playboy fighting vainly the old ennui is up in a glider, circling among the clouds. (For the benefit of my fellow Granite Staters, it was shot in Salem, New Hampshire.) He wanted a song to accompany it, and he ran his first edit of the sequence to a Beatles song, "Strawberry Fields Forever". When John Lennon had first played the song on acoustic guitar, to his producer, George Martin had said he thought it conjured "a hazy, impressionistic dreamworld", which might not seem inapt for a glider scene.
Jewison wasn't sure what he wanted, but he knew what he didn't want. He called in Alan, Marilyn and Michel and told them to write a song for McQueen in the clouds, but it wasn't to be a song about the plot or the character or a song about falling in love, the kind of ring-a-ding Hollywood theme song Sammy Cahn could have written in his sleep. Because of the film's and the character's coolness, Jewison wanted something that hinted at a restlessness or anxiety underneath the scene: Thomas Crown is gliding, relaxing ...but he's also thinking about pulling off a big-time robbery. It's what Marilyn Bergman called "a dream for a songwriter": There's no dialogue, no sound effects, nothing to get in the way of the song; just Steve McQueen in a glider in the sky... So the three writers played the scene over and over, and then set to work.
To this day, Mr and Mrs Bergman prefer to have the tune first, because in their view it makes the rhymes and rhythms more interesting. With Michel Legrand, as they would come to learn over the decades, his English is very good but somewhat Gallicly accented. So, if you give him a lyric to set, it comes back, as Alan said to me, "like a calypso song" - or, as Frank Loesser once wrote, "you put the ac-CENT upon THEE wrong sylLABle and you si-i-i--i-ing a tropical song". So with a French composer it pays for an English lyricist to get the tune first. Legrand, out of whom melody seemed to pour, sat down at the piano and rustled up a few. "Michel played us seven or eight melodies," recalled Alan. "We listened to all of them and decided to wait until the next day to choose one." After sleeping on it, all of them woke up with a different favorite from the night before. "All three of us had independently chosen this oddball melody," said Marilyn. "Almost baroque in feel."
That's a good way of putting it. Legrand had written a circular piece of descending fifths, which is a harmonic progression you'll know (as the composer certainly did) from Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and any number of baroque blokes - or, alternatively, from "I Got Rhythm", "Falling in Love Again", "Spanish Flea" and "The Long and Winding Road". But in the context of Legrand's minimally varied melodic theme the effect here is much closer to the baroque - to the Fortspinnung (spinning forth) of a single musical motif that modulates, rises, falls, but is confident enough never to stray too far from its original statement. (That's also a favorite Michel Legrand technique, already well established in Umbrellas of Cherbourg.) In this case, Legrand's descending fifths at a certain level literally track Thomas Crown in his glider, but at the same time it's a notey, urgent tune of pairs of quavers that, even up there in the blue, conveys troubled, unsettled undercurrents.
Alan and Marilyn had no problem figuring out what the first word of the song should be. It's often overlooked by listeners, and many times unsung by singers, because it sits apart from the great flow of consciousness that follows. But there it is on the first downbeat:
And everything that follows goes round and round and round - because, as Marilyn Bergman said to me over lunch many years ago, "anxiety is circular":
...like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space...
Here's how it all came together in The Thomas Crown Affair - music, text, pictures:
Alan Bergman once made a sharp point to me that I think about more and more as the years go by. He'd been watching one of these all-star galas on TV where a bunch of contemporary performers have been brought together to salute Sinatra or Tony Bennett or whoever. And he was bemoaning the way that singers can no longer act - that's to say, they can sing the text but they can no longer play the sub-text. Which is very necessary for, say, "One for My Baby". That's one reason why we have all these stupid "controversies" over old songs. The distaff half of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" doesn't want to go, she wants to stay, and her protestations to the contrary are pro forma ("My sister will be suspicious... My maiden aunt's mind is vicious") because courtship rituals require that she be reluctantly talked into it. But the Internet appears to have made us all plonkingly literalist so the nitwits who police our culture are incapable of comprehending sub-text. Speaking of seasonal songs, that's also why virtually every version of "Santa Baby" since Eartha Kitt's is utterly charmless - because, without Eartha's kittenish teasing and sly wit, it's just a pampered mega-celebrity reciting a grotesque list of demands.
At any rate, that's what Alan, Marilyn and Michel do above - play the sub-text. At first Legrand's circular descent and the Bergmans' imagery is simply a musicalization of what we're looking at. The descending fifths are a musical circle, an aural articulation of the affect of gliding, or at least a hawk, per Rodgers & Hammerstein in "Oklahoma!", making lazy circles in the sky. So a circle in a spiral, a wheel within a wheel, an ever spinning reel, turning carousel, rings around the moon... And then, seamlessly, it evolves into a sense of psychological isolation:
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In The Windmills Of Your Mind...
"The windmills of your mind"? Where did that come from? Well, it was just an image somewhere along the way. And at the end the three writers ran down the song and liked what they had, but Michel said, "What do we call this? It hasn't got a title." And they combed through what they'd written, and this line leapt out ...because there's no other title like it, or anywhere close to it. And then they rewrote and reprised the line to make it more prominent. Legrand wanted a French lyric and asked Eddy Marnay, a very great writer whose career stretched from Édith Piaf to Céline Dion (and one of whose loveliest songs I've sung myself). Marnay wrote it up as "Les Moulins de mon coeur" - "The windmills of my heart", which, as Alan Bergman said to me, "isn't the same thing at all".
No, it isn't. According to Marilyn, they wrote it as a "stream of consciousness" - or, in Alan's phrase, a "mind trip". It may sound like that to the listener, but it's surely more considered than that. As we noted, Legrand's melody is mostly pairs of quavers - B B, C C, B B, E E, B B - and, excepting that "like a", the Bergmans match the coupled quavers with bisyllabics - circle, spiral, ending, spinning, snowball, mountain, turning, running, sweeping, whirling... Marilyn described it as trying to fall asleep at night but your brain's too alert, and vague blurry shapes come cascading through, and always descending deeper and darker, as the circular imagery turns linear:
Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone...
Andy Williams was asked to sing it on the soundtrack, but thought it too weird. So, for reasons not entirely clear, it was offered to Noel Harrison. Noel is the son of Rex Harrison (as in Doctor Dolittle, of which more anon) and, for those who remember PBS upscale Bloomsbury lesbian telly romps, the father of Cathryn Harrison, who starred in the BBC's 1990 series Portrait of a Marriage, portraying Violet Trefusis in her torrid affair with Vita Sackville-West. Just about the only time I've ever rewritten something to avoid giving offense was back around then, when I was doing something on Noël Coward, who, upon being mistaken for Rex Harrison in the street, is said to have replied witheringly, "Do I look like a second-hand car dealer from the Euston Road?" I'd sent it to the editor, and that evening chanced to find myself at a party with Miss Harrison, and she was such delightful company that I slunk back home and asked my boss to excise the line about her grandpa, as gloriously snobbish as it was.
Before we drift too far from the point, Cathryn's dad, Noel Harrison, was not a second-hand car dealer from the Euston Road. He was, in fact, a former slalom champion who'd skied for Britain in the '52 and '56 Winter Olympics and afterwards decided to become a singer and actor. At the recording session for "Windmills", he was flummoxed: While Legrand was rehearsing the strings, Harrison asked the Bergmans, "What the hell's this about then?" Having had the song explained to him, he sang the above couplet - "tunnel of its own"/"sun has never shone" - in British style. In the old country, the sun has never shonn; in the new world, the sun has never shown:
"It's our language," said Harrison.
"But it's our song," replied the writers.
On the record, you can hear who won that one.
What happens when you follow the tunnel to another tunnel down a hollow to a cavern? You come out in the third verse, when the circular and linear imagery cease and the song turns personal and questioning and borderline psychotic:
Keys that jingle in your pocket, words that jangle in your head
Why did summer go so quickly, was it something that you said?
Lovers walk along a shore and leave their footprints in the sand
Is the sound of distant drumming just the fingers of your hand?
Pictures hanging in a hallway and the fragment of a song
Half remembered names and faces, but to whom do they belong?
"It didn't seem like a big deal at the time," said Noel Harrison years later. "I went to the studio one afternoon and sang it and pretty much forgot about it." You can hear a bit of that in the performance. Compared to many of the more intense versions that followed, Harrison's voice and interpretation can seem a bit lightweight and offhand - and it's also mixed so that Harrison seems disconnected from the orchestra, much as Steve McQueen is alone freewheeling in the clouds. But Harrison's record was enough to put "Windmills of Your Mind" in the UK Top Ten.
And so fifty years ago this spring, at the 41st Academy Awards, the "young composer" from France Gene Kelly had introduced to the Bergmans found himself with three Oscar nominations: Michel Legrand's music for Thomas Crown lost out to John Barry's for The Lion in Winter when it came to Best Score for a Picture (Non-Musical), and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort lost to Oliver! and Johnny Green on Best Score for a Musical Picture. That left Best Song.
It wasn't a bad year: The other nominees were all title songs - for Funny Girl, Star!, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and for a forgotten film called For Love of Ivy, the last by Quincy Jones (whom the Bergmans have written with many times in the years since) and Bob Russell (who was Marilyn Bergman's mentor as a lyricist, and who wrote everything from "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" with Duke Ellington to "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" for the Hollies). But, as it does not always do, the Academy made the right choice, and the Bergmans' old friend from "Nice 'n' Easy" and "Ol' MacDonald", Frank Sinatra, came out on stage to present the "kids", as he always called them, with the Oscar for Best Song. For trivia buffs, it marks the only occasion in film history when the Oscar-winning songs of successive years were introduced by father and son: first, Rex Harrison with "Talk to the Animals" from Doctor Dolittle; then, Noel Harrison with "The Windmills of Your Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair.
In the ensuing half-century, everyone and his second-hand car dealer from the Euston Road has sung the song, a lot of people you'd expect to (Johnny Mathis, Petula Clark) and even more that you wouldn't (Vanilla Fudge, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Swing Out Sister, Edward Woodward, the Muppets). In the fullness of time, Hollywood decided to remake The Thomas Crown Affair, with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. It's boring just to do the exact same thing the other fellows did thirty years earlier, so changes were made, some of which are rather good: instead of Steve McQueen's long-distance bank heist, Brosnan strolls into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and steals a Monet. But it has to be said the glider scene suffers by comparison to the original: instead of the enigmatic McQueen alone in the air, Brosnan takes Miss Russo up with him - and leaves "Windmills of Your Mind" down on the ground. It's heard instrumentally at other points in the drama, but not until the end credits do we hear it sung. Ever since Dusty Springfield's somewhat reluctant recording of this song, I've felt that generally the ladies have had the best of it where this number's concerned. But Sting's version is awfully good:
You'll notice that, like Noel Harrison, he sings "the sun has never shone" in Britannic fashion. I don't know whether the writers again took issue, but, as a very finicky stickler for pure rhyme, I confess I quite enjoy "own"/"shonn" as a kind of classically poetic off-rhyme. (Off-kilter vowels are always more appealing than mismatched consonants - "time"/"mine", etc.)
I've warmed up to the song, too: At one point it seemed to be playing in eight out of ten elevators, and when you're on hold for twenty minutes trying to make an appointment with the dentist, all of which got in the way of its value as a song. It's an artfully poised piece: I can see why Dusty Springfield complained at the recording session that she couldn't get into the lyric - it trembles on the brink of overwrought self-conscious artiness. But it tiptoes back to just the right side, and does its job brilliantly in the picture.
It was the first Oscar for a new songwriting trio. Alan, Marilyn and Michel were nominated the following year for another great song, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" and in 1982 for "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" and twelve months later for a couple of numbers from Yentl. But "Windmills" is the song in which the Bergmans found their distinctive lyrical voice, and it was the hit that made Michel Legrand a hot property in Hollywood. There's no song quite like it, and, if you ever heard the composer play it in concert, you'll know that the pianist and conductor and arranger in him understood that, too. I always liked this couplet, in which for just a brief moment conventional pop-standard songwriting appears to meet and gently brush the psychedelic hallucinations of rock lyrics:
When you knew that it was over you were suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair...
So many of them are gone now: Steve McQueen, Noel Harrison, Michel Legrand... We are suddenly aware that the autumn leaves are turning. Rest in peace.
~Mark and Dennis Miller will be deep in the windmills of each other's mind on their first ever stage tour together. Miller and Steyn will be kicking things off on Friday February 22nd at the Santander Center in Reading, Pennsylvania (where tickets are disappearing fast), followed by Syracuse, New York on February 23rd at the Crouse-Hinds Theatre (where they're not disappearing quite so fast), and then Rochester and Wilkes-Barre the following weekend. And remember that with VIP tickets you not only enjoy the best seats but you also get to meet Dennis and Mark after the show, have a picture with them, and take an autographed gift home. We hope to see you there!
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: