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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Somewhere his music (1924-2009)

A while back movie composer Maurice Jarre told a film executive that he was thinking of weaving two themes by Bach into a score.

The exec wanted to know what Bach’s latest hit had been.

Okay, Jarre was apparently joking when he told this story, which was recounted in his UK Guardian obituary. But there is a point to the story, and it’s one we all know. The suits are clueless, and it’s a miracle that any true art ever makes its way through the medium of popular film to us in the mass audience. But it does, although it seems like it used to do so more in the olden days.

Make no mistake, there are lots of great composers out there working on Hollywood movies. I particularly enjoy listening to any film that has been scored by Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer, and Thomas Newman always does a fine job. And you certainly cannot call the music of Philip Glass, which sometimes finds its way into movie soundtracks, anything but artistic. And few film composers’ music has more weight than that of John Williams.

But there was something majestic about the composers who scored the cinematic epics of a half-century ago, like those movies themselves, that seem out of reach in the past and beyond the current generation’s ability to duplicate. There’s nothing wrong with that. Every generation has to have its own voice or voices. But that happenstance is also a surefire guarantee for nostalgia, as we remember fondly the voice of the earlier generation.

If we associate Jarre with movie epics, maybe that’s because he won his three Oscars for scoring David Lean films. The only movie that Jarre scored for Lean that did not win him an Oscar was Ryan’s Daughter, and maybe it should have. I think it is the only movie set in Ireland that I have seen that did not make use of traditional Irish music on the soundtrack—and the score was all the better for it. The first Oscar was for Lawrence of Arabia, and that is his most celebrated film score. Reportedly, Lean wanted to extend the sequence during which Peter O’Toole enters the desert to rescue a lost man rather than half to trim the music Jarre wrote for it. His next Lean film and Oscar win was three years later with Doctor Zhivago. That’s the one that radio bulletins excerpted to accompany the news of Jarre’s death. After all, few film melodies are as instantly recognizable as “Lara’s Theme.” (“Somewhere my love…”) It would be nearly two decades before the two would collaborate again, winning the composer his final Oscar. That would be Lean’s final movie and one of his less remembered ones, A Passage to India.

But Lean was only one of many filmmakers that Jarre worked with. After all, he scored more than 150 movies. He collaborated five times with Australian director Peter Weir—with every resulting movie having a memorable soundtrack: The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society and Fearless.

The Lyon-born composer spent the first decade or so of his film-scoring career working mainly on French movies, collaborating with the likes of Georges Franju, Jacques Demy, Alain Renais, Jean-Pierre Mocky, Marcel Camus and Pierre Chenal. His first Hollywood movie was Richard Fleischer’s 1960 film Crack in the Mirror, starring Orson Welles. A couple of years later, he scored the star-studded WWII extravaganza about D-Day, The Longest Day. In the four decades that followed, Jarre would work with John Frankenheimer (The Train), Henry Hathaway (5 Card Stud), John Huston (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Man Who Would Be King), Paul Newman (The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds), Elia Kazan (The Last Tycoon), Clint Eastwood (Firefox), George Miller (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Jacob’s Ladder), Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist), Paul Mazursky (Enemies: A Love Story) and Alfonso Arau (A Walk in the Clouds). He even worked with the zany Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker team of Airplane! fame (on the spy spoof Top Secret!, starring Val Kilmer) and scored Jerry Zucker’s solo directing effort, the hugely popular Ghost. That one was a rare case where the music we remember from a Jarre-scored film was not his but a licensed song (“Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers).

Always the contrarian, I find that of all the lovely pieces of Jarre’s music I have heard in movies over the years, the ones that I remember most fondly are not the obvious ones. For some reason, the music from The Year of Living Dangerously always sticks with me. But the one that I really cannot get out of my head, even years after last hearing it (and I mean that in a good way), is the light, simple French-flavored melody that was the theme of a major international blockbuster that did not find critical or commercial success on its release in 1966. It was directed René Clément and starred the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Jean-Pierre Cassel, George Chakiris, Alain Delon, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Yves Montand, Anthony Perkins, Simone Signoret, Robert Stack, Jean-Louis Trintigant, Orson Welles and scores of others. It was Is Paris Burning? and it recounted the story of the German withdrawal from Paris in 1944 and how the Nazis were under orders to burn the city to the ground rather than surrender it to the Allies. Find the movie or the soundtrack and listen to it, and I defy you to get it out of your head.

But I accept that it is the epics for which Maurice Jarre will always be remembered, particularly the Lean ones. So let me steal a nicely evocative paragraph from Jarre’s obituary in The Times of London:

“It is dawn in the Arabian desert and the first rays of the Sun are slowly penetrating the darkness. The woodwinds and drums are softly swirling and heralding a new day with a sense of awe. As the sun rises, so does the music, to a dramatic climax, bursting into the romantic strains of one of the most familiar melodies of the 20th century.”

-S.L., 2 April 2009

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