Afew minutes before I’m due to press the buzzer on the door of Michel Legrand’s apartment building in Paris, the announcement of Aretha Franklin’s death comes through. He greets the news with a sigh. Many years ago, he remembers, he had a plan to team Aretha with Ray Charles on a new recording of Porgy and Bess, updating the version made by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in 1958. He sighs again. It would have been wonderful, he says.
His anecdote hardly comes as a surprise. Legrand seems to have worked, at one time or another, with practically every figure of consequence in popular music and film since the end of the second world war, from Maurice Chevalier to Sting and from Orson Welles to Jean-Luc Godard. And he has stories about all of them.
The interview was supposed to take place in his country home, the Château de la Mothe, south of Paris, where he lives with his third wife, the actor Macha Méril, whom he married in 2014, four decades after they first met. When a dental emergency forced a postponement, he asked to meet instead at his apartment in the Marais. He needed to be in Paris, he said, for a meeting about a new theatre production of Peau d’âne, a film he made with Jacques Demy almost 50 years ago, a musical that followed their great box-office successes with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. “Big production,” he says. “Big orchestra. Some writing.”
At 86, Legrand continues to live up to the saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. He is a little frail now, and occasionally he has trouble remembering the name of a friend or a film from long ago. But nothing – not even an illness that struck him during a flight on a Russian airliner, putting him in a coma – will make him pause to rest on the laurels amassed, in particular, from writing the scores for more than 200 films, winning Oscars and Grammys while lodging such songs as The Windmills of Your Mind (from The Thomas Crown Affair) and What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life? (from The Happy Ending) in the global memory.
Towards the end of the interview he tells me that he now divides his professional life into distinct chapters. The first was in the 1950s, when he was an arranger for famous singers, including Chevalier and Jacques Brel. In the 60s he wrote music for important films by the French new wave directors – Godard, Demy, Agnès Varda and so on. Then he moved to the US and scored dozens of Hollywood movies, from Joseph Losey’s The Go-Betweenand Welles’s F for Fake to Steve McQueen’s Le Mans and Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-porter, as well as popping back to Europe to work with Andrzej Wajda, Claude Lelouch and others. Next he concentrated for several years on writing musicals. “When I hit 80,” he concludes, “I knew that the last chapter of my work would be classical. So I wrote a piano concerto that I recorded myself, a cello concerto, a harp concerto, some sonatas. I wrote a huge ballet. I’m very proud of that. It’s a good final chapter.”
And during the last chapter – if that is really what it turns out to be – there is also time for a series of concerts, including one in London this month, when he will conduct orchestral arrangements of music from his soundtracks. And, no doubt, play a little piano and sing a couple of the famous songs on which he collaborated with a variety of lyricists, providing glimpses of a talent that, as he remembers, could have gone in many directions.
“When I finished at the Paris Conservatoire,” he says, “I was 20 and I felt I could do everything. I could write symphonies. I could be a virtuoso classical pianist, but to do that I had to work 12 hours a day. I could be a jazz pianist – I liked that very much, because you’re free and I know how to improvise. I could be a singer. I could be a conductor. So I said my dream in my life is to do it all.”
At the centre of that dream was a belief that melody trumps everything. “It comes from a long time ago,” he says, recalling an education that began when his father, a composer, left his mother, a conductor’s daughter, when he was three years old. “By instinct I knew that I didn’t want to waste my time learning things that I didn’t give a shit about. So I said to my mother, ‘I will never go to school.’ I fought. I was on the floor, screaming. And I never went to school. My mother had to work, so she wasn’t there. My older sister was at school. I was alone, in a small apartment in Paris. So I listened to the radio. This was 1935-36 … people like Charles Trenet and Mireille [Hartuch], they were writing very interesting songs. So on the lousy piano that my father forgot to take with him, I found the melodies and then I found the harmonies and I’d reconstruct the songs.
“I taught myself to write music, so that when I was five or six years old I was very much ahead. Finally my mother saw that I was interested in the piano and nothing else. So in 1942, in the middle of the occupation, I went to the Conservatoire. You go to that building for the first time and when you open the door it’s music and nothing else. I was 10 years old and I said, ‘That’s my world.’” Among his teachers was the celebrated Nadia Boulanger, whose later pupils included Astor Piazzolla and Philip Glass. “I hated her sometimes because she was so demanding, but she was extraordinary. She made me.”
Another door opened in 1948 when a friend gave him a ticket to see Dizzy Gillespie’s revolutionary big band at the Salle Pleyel, a concert that became a legend in the French jazz world. “It was the first time I heard the new style. Jazz was with me all the time after that. I listened to Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Erroll Garner. And then I heard Miles [Davis]. And I had a chance to work with him. Shall I tell you how?”
It’s the story of a pivotal moment in his career. In 1954, a friend who worked at a record company told him that its US partner, Columbia Records, wanted to make an easy-listening orchestral album with a Parisian theme. None of the big-name American arrangers was interested. The 22-year-old Legrand jumped at the opportunity, despite being told that he would be paid only $200, with no royalties. I Love Paris, as it was titled, topped the charts and sold millions. So when he visited the US as Chevalier’s musical director in 1958, Columbia offered compensation in the form of paying for an album of his arrangements of jazz standards featuring top American jazz musicians, including Davis. Released as Legrand Jazz, it established his credibility.
He and Davis became friends and collaborated again in 1991, shortly before the trumpeter’s death, on a film called Dingo, directed by Rolf de Heer. “Miles called me up and said, ‘Michel, you’d better bring your fucking ass to Los Angeles next week because we’re doing a film. I agreed to do it on condition that you are with me.’ So I push all my work away. I go to his house in Malibu. We talk a lot, we drink a lot, we eat a lot. Friday arrives, the sessions are starting on Monday, and we haven’t written anything yet. Miles says, ‘We shouldn’t do it.’ I say, ‘Miles, that’s not nice, a young man is counting on you. OK, I have an idea. I’ll go to my hotel and I’ll compose everything in four days and four nights. On Wednesday I’ll record the orchestra and Saturday you come.’ He says, ‘Michel – I knew you were a genius.’ That bastard. An adventure! I love this very much.”
Before saying goodbye he returns to the subject of the London concert, in which he hopes to conduct his compositions against projections of the scenes they originally accompanied. When I mention the highly charged seven-and-a-half-minute chess game between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in The Thomas Crown Affair, he mentions that the director, Norman Jewison, cut the scene to fit the music, which begins with a solo harp and ends with a big band playing a jazz waltz.
“I want to try to explain what happened, to tell the audience what I’ve done,” he says. “Every movie that I’ve scored, I’ve tried to be original, to be different from what we’re used to listening to. When I write music, my music talks. It’s not a music that says nothing, a tapestry where nothing happens, like most of the composers. I think I’ve been an adventurer – in life, in my work, too.”