How do you keep the music playing?
That's not just the title of an Oscar-nominated song Michel Legrand wrote in 1982, it's a question he has been asking all of his life.
Born in loneliness, raised in strife, the 77-year-old musician survived a painful childhood to write some of the most hauntingly lovely melodies of our time.
Torontonians will have an opportunity to hear many of them up close and personal on Nov. 13 and 14, when Legrand will make a rare appearance at the Winter Garden Theatre, along with dynamic Quebec vocalist Mario Pelchat.
Legrand has won three Oscars and been nominated on 10 other occasions for songs like "The Windmills of Your Mind," "The Summer Knows" and "I Will Wait for You." He has worked with everyone from Jacques Brel to Barbra Streisand and Nadia Boulanger to Miles Davis, but his sound has always remained uniquely his.
And what is it? The fading shadows of a Saturday afternoon in November? Someone waving goodbye from a distant train? The fleeting scent of perfume reminding you of a love lost many years ago?
"We carry so many things inside us," he says from a Montreal hotel room. "So many tragic scenes, so many brief moments of happiness. We never know which ones will last."
But for Legrand, it's easy to tell that the images that endure are the hurtful ones from his youth.
He was born in a Parisian suburb in 1932. His father, Raymond, a popular musician, walked out on the family when Michel was 3, leaving him with his mother and his older sister, Christiane.
"I hated the world of adults, which was, `Sit down, go to bed, we have no time for you.' And I hated the world of children, which was so cruel, always finding where you were weakest and striking there."
He was miserable until, one day, he noticed an old piano in the corner. "It was one of the few things my father forgot to take when he left. I sat down and put my two hands on the piano and began playing, trying to recreate a song I had heard on the radio.
"It became my only friend, my only love and, very quickly, my mother realized it was all I could do with my life."
Legrand began taking lessons at the age of 4 but, for the next five years, life was difficult as he struggled with his peers. His voice rises as he recalls that time. "The world of little boys is always cruel. It is to fight. It's always about, `I am stronger than you.' I detested my life."
The minimum age for admittance to the Paris Conservatoire was 13 but, in Legrand's case, they made an exception, letting him enter at 9.
"My life started then," he says, sighing with relief at the memory. "The only thing was music. Not who was weaker or stronger. Just music. It was happiness."
His guiding light was Nadia Boulanger, the legendary teacher whose pupils form an extraordinary list, including Philip Glass, Ned Rorem and Aaron Copland.
"She did not just teach me about music, but about philosophy, about life, and how all three should be connected together."
Legrand won numerous awards at the Conservatoire for his classical studies but his heart was already turning towards another master: jazz.
"It entered my life very early and I loved its rhythm," he says, "but during the years of the German occupation, American jazz was forbidden, so it really only came alive after the war.
"I remember that I went to hear Dizzy Gillespie in 1947. He gave two concerts in a row in Paris. I attended both and felt I had discovered another world, another planet."
A hit 1954 Legrand album called I Love Paris brought him to America and he finally began recording with the greats of the jazz world.
"I was recording with Miles, Coltrane, all the giants there in New York. I was lucky. But after a year or two, I was sick and tired of just doing arrangements and orchestrations, and I came home to France to compose."
His American jazz credentials made him attractive to the New Wave filmmakers in his native land and he wound up scoring seven films for Jean-Luc Godard, whom Legrand recalls as "marvellous! I would give him 10 themes to choose from, he'd say he loved them all, then play 16 bars from one theme a dozen times and somehow it would all be fantastic."
But his real breakthrough was with director Jacques Demy, who asked him to compose the score for a quirky romantic film called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in which every single line of dialogue would be sung.
"Everybody was so miserably against it," Legrand remembers. "No one wanted to release it but Jacques and I believed in it."
So did the moviegoers of the world when it was released in 1964. Its major love theme, fitted with English lyrics to become "I Will Wait For You," was Legrand's first giant success and made him a hot ticket in Hollywood.
But his next few projects failed and it was only when director Norman Jewison, working with Legrand on The Thomas Crown Affair, introduced him to the lyric-writing team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman that things really clicked.
For that film, they came up with "The Windmills of Your Mind" and, in the 42 years since, they've written dozens of hits together.
"(In) 99 per cent of the cases," Legrand says, "the music comes first and it always is inspired by what I have seen in the movie."
But, sometimes, the inspiration goes even deeper. When Legrand and the Bergmans worked with Barbra Streisand on Yentl, both the composer and the star brought their past lives to the table.
Streisand's father died when she was an infant; Legrand's father abandoned him. Working together on the song that would become "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" stirred profound emotions in both of them.
"We carry our memories inside us for so many years," he says, "and then, one day, perhaps, we let them go forever in a song."
Legrand has no idea if a tune of his will become a worldwide hit or a quickly forgotten failure, and he thinks that's as it should be.
"I never ask a melody to go into the world and be embraced by it. If it fits the story that inspired it, that's all I ask it to do."
by Richard Ouzounian