Michel Legrand
Image Credit: Samuel Kirszenbaum

With its three golden knights each holding a sword, Michel Legrand’s château is the best guarded in the region. Never mind the fact that these Hollywood statuettes, stranded in the Gâtinais, are only 34 centimetres high. At 86, there is nothing to suggest even the slightest lull in the composer’s busy schedule. For example, there is some unfinished business dating back to the 70s, pet projects such as the stage adaptation of Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin) this autumn at Théâtre Marigny, followed by a stage production of his famous song L’Amour fantôme in 2019. “The texts were written by my good friend Stephen Sondheim. Have you heard of him?" Michel Legrand begins with gusto, testing the waters. “Um, remind me, maestro…” He was of course the lyricist of West Side Story. The owner of this Loiret château has just finished his memoirs with the perfect partner in crime, French film music archaeologist and soundtrack curator, Stéphane Lerouge. The result is incredibly entertaining (the five pages devoted to Michael Jackson definitely were a trip to the Twilight Zone). But how could it be any other way, when the subject is iconoclast extraordinaire, Michel Legrand? A man who brought rock and roll to France under the pseudonym Mig Bike alongside Boris Vian and Henri Salvador, which earned him a mention in the Pléiade library of literary classics (he appears in Je me souviens by Georges Pérec).

Boris Vian and Michel Legrand, 1958
Boris Vian and Michel Legrand, 1958

His catalogue of works is huge, an expanding universe that links the music of Oum le dauphin (jingle for France’s version of the Milkybar), the soundtrack to The Thomas Crown Affair, the films of Jacques Demy and even the music for the cartoon classic The Smurfs and the Magic Flute. That almost makes one film soundtrack for every hectare in his property, a total of 250. An gargantuan body of work for someone who, unlike Balzac, has no recourse to natural stimulants. “I haven’t had a drop of coffee since 1970, says the musician, I’m nervous enough as it is!”

CitizenK Arabia: Having worked on hundreds of films, you have just taken on something unprecedented, writing for a great director who is dead.

Michel Legrand: His name is Orson Welles and his film, The Other Side of the Wind. This note was found in his diary from back in the day: “Call Legrand for the music”, so how could I refuse? So I wrote the music, even though there was no space for it, the actors talk non-stop. The film is very strange and confusing. It is the story of a director, played by John Huston, who brings all his friends together and ends up killing himself. A true testament of despair. I can safely say that Orson was a profoundly desperate soul at the end of his life. He used to tell me that he spent 98 per cent of his time finding the money to make his films, and 2 per cent filming them. But this film is incomprehensible for me and for everyone who worked on it. Probably for the general public too.

And yet, you worked with Jean-Luc Godard, whose work is not always easy to follow.

Ah yes, Godard, that’s fairly straightforward. On the contrary, he is very clear. Orson is a thousand times more incomprehensible!

Michel Legrand at Radio-Luxembourg with Jean-Luc Godard, April 1964, Paris
Michel Legrand at Radio-Luxembourg with Jean-Luc Godard, April 1964, Paris

As for you, why did you wait so long to write your memoirs?

Because you’ve got to have something to say when writing your memoirs. If you do it when you are 35, there is nothing to talk about. At 85, I’ve lived through a lot, and at that point you can talk about things that are a little juicy, funny and succulent. That is what Stéphane Lerouge and I did. It really looks at my life in a kind of fluid, unrestrained way, because we didn’t want to write a book of memoirs beginning with childhood, my first words… all that is just bullshit!

What kind of child were you exactly?

I hated the world of children. I didn’t like playing with them because with boys, between the slow-witted hulks and a few little guys who are brilliant and intelligent, it is always the punch that triumphs. At the same time I hated the world of adults, who treat children like dogs, always telling them to eat or go to bed. I used to ask them: “But why do you treat me like this? I want to spend time with you, I’m listening to you, I find it super interesting…” I refused to go to school and I used to stay alone all day listening to the songs of Mireille and Charles Trenet on the radio, which I would then pick out on the piano with just one finger. When I was 10, in the middle of a war, I finally discovered my planet by entering the conservatory on the Rue de Madrid!!!

In 1942, the year before he entered the Paris Conservatoire, Michel Legrand’s mother, Michelle, registered him with Jeunesses Musicales de France
In 1942, the year before he entered the Paris Conservatoire, Michel Legrand’s mother, Michelle, registered him with Jeunesses Musicales de France

Ultra-conventional studies before learning about jazz…

You can't learn jazz! It is funny because there are schools of jazz everywhere, but you can’t teach it. You are either born with it or you are not. Like voodoo, it’s a kind of witchcraft, and I was lucky enough to be born into this cauldron.

Your album Legrand Jazz from 1958, is being reissued in vinyl. How did you, this 26-year old French kid, manage to pull off the feat, never to be achieved again, of bringing John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Bill Evans together in the studio?

Michel Legrand with Miles Davis, Newport Jazz Festival, 1958
Michel Legrand with Miles Davis, Newport Jazz Festival, 1958

After the success of my instrumental record covering famous songs about Paris, which sold eight million copies in the first week, Columbia Records was very embarrassed. Since I only received a flat fee of $200 with no royalties, they offered to let me make my dream album. So I wrote a list of names. That is how I created this perfect little world for an album whose re-release is still in the works!

You must also have high standards when it comes to your songs being performed. Though it may be a disappointment, let’s not forget that Catherine Deneuve was dubbed in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

Apart from Danielle Darrieux, everyone was dubbed. The great difficulty is to find voices that match the physical features of actors and actresses. Catherine wanted to sing, but since her voice was limited and I was asking a lot of it, I told her she had no talent for singing. She was really disappointed. She was dubbed by an amazing singer (Anne Germain, who died in 2016). Everything that I write for voice seems easy, but the range is huge.

Michel Legrand with Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac in rehearsal for Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, 1966
Michel Legrand with Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac in rehearsal for Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, 1966

In your book, you also offer an innovative way to silence bad musicians playing on restaurant terraces…

It was a beautiful summer day, after I’d been riding my scooter along the Seine, and I stopped for lunch at a restaurant. And just as I sat down, a violinist started making his instrument screech just five metres from me. This dreadful musician played so many wrong notes that I said: “I won’t be subjected to this torture for my whole meal.” Then, to stop him playing, I invited him to lunch. We had a lovely time and he told me how he worked, July in Vienna, then the Cote d'Azur, etc. It was the life of a nomad and amazing adventurer.

Speaking of nomads, Django Reinhardt offended you when you heard him exclaim: “Oh Jesus, you should have seen the bird I was with last night!”

In the late 40s, when I was 17, my father took me to a recording session with Django Reinhardt at the Decca studios. That day, my disillusionment matched the heights of my admiration for him. Django could come up with musical phrases that were so shockingly inventive and full of emotion, but between takes he really overdid the vulgarity. Django Reinhardt was a guy who was completely uneducated. He couldn’t write and used to sign his name with a cross. But like Stéphane Grappelli, gypsies are a little like family to me. If I have a problem somewhere, I give them a call. They come straight to my aid and the problem is quickly solved!

You are a bit of a nomad too, having spent a large part of your life on aeroplanes. Is it true that you need three seats so you can spread out your scores?

In the 60s and 70s, planes were almost empty. When I was working on an American film in New York or Los Angeles, I used to get a tourist class ticket and occupy three seats so that I could unfold three tray tables. Since I was al-ways behind in my writing and the flights take up to 13 hours, I completed a large number of scores on aeroplanes. That way, a lot of musical phrases would come to me, with my nose glued to a window. There were moments when the plane would lurch, then I would wait a little before writing.

Witnesses have even seen you get out your keyboard in the middle of a flight...

It's a silent piano for practising fingering. Steinway made this model especially for me around 40 years ago. It reproduces the touch of my piano keys to perfection. Even when the plane was full, I would spread out this four-octave keyboard that overlapped into my neighbours' space. People going down the aisle would wonder who this weirdo playing the piano was.

Is this a good way to get over the fear of flying?

To get rid of that fear, which I had for 10 years, I got my pilot’s licence on a Cesna. In the 50s, I could take the boat to accompany Maurice Chevalier to New York, when I was his musical director. But to go to Los Angeles, Tokyo or Buenos Aires, it’s impossible.

Since making your autobiographical film Cinq jours en juin, do you have any other film projects planned?

I wrote a script with Didier Van Cauwelaert that is now in the hands of a few producers in Paris. The title is La Baguette magique (The Magic Baton). It's the story of a conductor who is suddenly conducting a orchestra in the provinces. A very good symphony orchestra with musicians who are pushing 60, retirement age. According to French law, it is impossible to get rid of these musicians who have the status of civil servants, before the fateful age of retirement. In America or in England, it can be done, but in France it is forbidden. Also, there are musicians who are nearly 55, drink a little too much and don’t perform as well, and sometimes very badly. I have seen it before, in every French orchestra, there are always three or four musicians who ought to be replaced. So the conductor, who will be played by Pierre Richard, dreams of a perfect orchestra. As he is a bit crazy, he is going to kill all the bad musicians.

Serge Gainsbourg, Alain Goraguer, Jacques Brel and Michel Legrand at the Alhambra in Paris, 21 April 1960
Serge Gainsbourg, Alain Goraguer, Jacques Brel and Michel Legrand at the Alhambra in Paris, 21 April 1960

This time you are proposing a radical solution!

But he doesn’t just kill them any old way! For example, the harpist is going to get caught up in the harp strings. Finally, after having removed four or five musicians, this conductor will end up with a superb orchestra. An orchestra “beyond category” to use a favourite saying of Duke Ellington.


by Michel Legrand & Stéphane Lerouge, Fayard

Crédits: Photos: Michel Legrand Collection, Copyright DR; Photos: Jean-Pierre Leloir/Gamma-Rapho / Michel Legrand Collection, Copyright DR; Photos: Stan Wiezniak/Universal Music France / Gamma-Rapho / Ciné-Tamaris / Hélène Jeanbreau