Monday, March 30, 2009

In Memoriam: Maurice Jarre

I was saddened to read about the passing of French composer Maurice Jarre at the age of 84. Even people who never pay attention to film scores could easily identify and recognize the importance of the music he wrote for such films as “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and “Doctor Zhivago” (1965).

Growing up, I was never a particular fan of his. I often found his choice of instrumentation puzzling, I didn’t care for his pioneering use of electronics in film scoring and thought his melodies rather wispy and transparent.

That was when I was young and foolish. I was quite wrong, of course, and discovered over the years how wrong I could be when it came to Jarre’s music. How pigheaded and wrong the follies of youth can be. Over the years I came to really appreciate, and love, many of his compositions and when I met him in Hollywood in 1996 I was thrilled to shake his hand and have him autograph for me a CD of his music.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is classic of course, and will always be a towering achievement in film scoring. He won the first of his three Oscars for that film (all three of his Oscars were for films directed by David Lean). Even though he won in 1962, any of the scores nominated that year were deserving of the Best Original Score Oscar. The competition that year? Elmer Bernstein for “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Jerry Goldsmith for “Freud”, Bronislau Kaper for “Mutiny on the Bounty” and Franz Waxman for “Taras Bulba.”

The mind reels at that cornucopia of musical excellence at the local cinema. (Don’t worry, I won’t make any sarcastic comments about comparing that to the drivel we’re hearing today at the local multiplex. Oops, I just did.)

Jarre won his second Oscar in 1965 for “Doctor Zhivago.” “Lara’s Theme”, course, helped make the film the blockbuster it was, but I found the theme rather simplistic and hardly representative of the red-blooded Russian romanticism between Lara and Zhivago. But the public ate it up.

Jarre’s third Oscar winner in 1984 for “A Passage to India” was the most controversial. I loved the film, but like others thought Jarre’s music was dreadful, especially the title “traveling” music that seemed woefully out of place and hardly representative of the drama to follow. The fact that it beat Randy Newman’s landmark score for “The Natural” that year, one of the greatest film scores ever, was especially galling.

My all-knowing youth was also outraged at his all-electronic score for “Witness” (1984). What was he thinking I thought. The Amish don’t work with electricity, so why score a film about them with synthesizers? The famous barn building scene was a wasted opportunity for Jarre to really show his stuff, a perfect scene to compose a beautiful piece of Copland-like Americana.

Like I said I was young and foolish. The good thing about youth is we outgrow it and while I still haven’t learned to love “Lara’s Theme”, I eventually saw, and understood, what he was doing with “Witness.” Sure the Amish don’t have electronics, but they don’t have traditional instruments either. To score the movie – and the barn building scene – with a Copland-like anthem would have been as out of place as the electronic music. But Jarre’s synthesized score for “Witness” does give the film an ethereal mood, and is a perfect realization of the Amish – they’ve always been of the earth and always will be, eternal and never changing. It works perfectly in the film.

Many people may consider the use of “Unchained Melody” in “Ghost” (1990) to be the musical highlight of the film, but Jarre composed an absolutely beautiful love theme, best used in the scene where deceased Patrick Swayze makes a coin float in the air in front of an unbelieving Demi Moore. This melody is given a luminous treatment over the end credits, sending the audience out in a wave of tearful happiness.

So I began to change my opinion of Jarre. I liked his use of exotic instrumentation in “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1983) and TV viewings of such films as “The Professionals” (1966) and “Red Sun” (1971) led me to seriously re-think my opinion of him. Of course not every score was a winner, but I was always anxious to hear what he came up with. Jarre always used a different sound for each movie he scored. The gloriously lyrical romanticism of “The Bride” (1985) sounded very different from the chilling, cold electronics Jarre wrote for “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990), but each score was appropriate for the material. He was always willing to try new sounds, and new combinations of instruments, in his scores.

In 1996 he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Society for the Preservation of Film Music (now The Film Music Society) in Hollywood, and since I was a member I got an invitation. And I went. The dinner was held on the campus of UCLA and it was a marvelous evening.

At the pre-dinner reception, I went up to him, introduced himself, shook his hand, told him how honored I was to meet him and asked, “Maestro, would you mind signing this” as I handed him a CD booklet of an anthology of his film scores. He said of course and signed it with a flourish that one would expect from a famous composer.

Leonard Maltin was Master of Ceremonies and in attendance were directors Arthur Hiller and Michael Cimino. Jarre had scored Cimino’s most recent film, “Sunchaser” (1996) and Cimino was effusive in his praise of working with Jarre and how much Jarre’s score contributed to his movie. Society President Elmer Bernstein spoke about Jarre’s incredible talents as a composer. I remember him saying, “If you’re competing with Maurice Jarre for an Academy Award, you might as well stay home.”

The evening included other speeches, a generous selection of film clips and a concert of, I believe, young musicians from the UCLA Orchestra. Jarre himself conducted an orchestral version of the aforementioned barn building scene from “Witness. It was revelatory.

David Raksin led the orchestra in a performance of the theme from “Laura” (1944), and attending composers Buddy Baker and Christopher Young were represented by selections from, respectively “The Lady and the Tramp” (1955) and “Hellraiser” (1987). (There’s a combination for you).

For the finale, Elmer Bernstein led the orchestra in a rousing version of “The Magnificent Seven”. What a thrill it was to see these masters conduct their own music. I remember well the kitchen and wait staff, almost exclusively Latino, coming out of the kitchen and lining against the wall to hear the orchestra perform the famous “The Magnificent Seven” music.

Music really is the international language. And Maurice Jarre was one of its most ablest practitioners. His talents will be sorely missed.

No comments: