Longtime friend and agent Richard Kraft salutes Maurice Jarre
EmptyIt is almost impossible to come in contact with the music of Maurice Jarre and not become an instant devotee. While there have been many great composers for the movies, none have approached cinema with his unique blend of old-fashioned romanticism and quirky, oddball sensibilities ... often within the same score.
During the late '50s and into the '60s the storm clouds of cinematic revolution were brewing. A movement away from the conventional language of filmmaking was forming in every corner of the world. New directors with new visions needed music that steered away from the traditional symphonic styles of composing pioneers like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who had invented the conventions that were now being rejected.
As if in some planned attack, a new breed of progressive composers from every major country was unleashed to join ranks with their forward-thinking directorial brothers. In America, Alex North teamed with Elia Kazan on "A Streetcar Named Desire," Leonard Rosenman found Nicolas Ray for "Rebel Without a Cause," Elmer Bernstein met Otto Preminger on "The Man With the Golden Arm," Henry Mancini aligned with Blake Edwards on "The Pink Panther," Burt Bacharach collaborated with George Roy Hill on "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and Jerry Goldsmith joined forces with Franklin Schaffner on "Planet of the Apes." A simultaneous attack was being made in Britain as John Barry defined the James Bond series. The Italian front was lead by Nino Rota finding his musical soul mate with Federico Fellini on such films as "8 1/2" and "La Dolce Vita" as Ennio Morricone redefined the Western with Sergio Leone with "A Fistful of Dollars."
In France this artistic siege was waged by Georges Delerue in partnership with Francois Truffaut on "Jules and Jim" and by Maurice Jarre, a percussionist with a theater background who rattled conventional sensibilities with his jarring -- no pun intended -- score to Georges Franju's arresting "Les Yeux Sans Visage."
The off-kilter, hurdy gurdy main title of "Les Yeux Sans Visage" was so wonderfully unexpected in a thriller that a very young Danny Elfman, upon viewing the film as a child, was kicked out of the theater during the credits because he and his brother were convulsing too loudly with nervous laughter. It seems Elfman had never experienced something so unsettling and bizarre and his discomfort trigger this very strange reaction.
Shortly thereafter, Jarre stunned the world with his majestic score to David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia." In hindsight, we remember this score as the definitive expression of classical romanticism. But upon closer examination, while both Lean and Jarre were paying tribute to the grand, epic storytelling of the past, their vision was far more anarchistic than anything imagined by Cecil B. DeMille and his composer, Victor Young. Lean's passion for elaborately long, held-out shots bordered on fetishism, and Jarre's musical accompaniment was no less outrageous. Big, gushy, borderline-obsessive themes were plastered across Lean's canvases augmented by a battery of wild percussion.
Other renegade filmmakers soon gravitated to Jarre for his cockeyed genius. Over the years Jarre gave a musical voice to such idiosyncratic and forward-thinking directors as Lucino Visconti, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, John Frankenheimer, Karel Reisz, Fred Zinnemann, Elia Kazan, George Miller, Michael Apted, Rene Clement, Richard Brooks, Volker Schlondorff, William Wyler, Paul Newman, Adrian Lyne, Paul Mazursky and Peter Weir.
The strange thing about Jarre is that he never really scored a film the way one would expect. A perfect example is "Witness," Peter Weir's well-observed drama set in the world of the bucolic Amish. Accompanying a brilliantly staged and edited montage in which Harrison Ford's big city cop gets in the communal spirit of a barn raising, Jarre builds a hymn-like fugue performed by the least Amish-y of instruments, the synthesizer. Only the recent onslaught of "as-seen-on-TV" Heat Surge Heaters has rivaled this bizarre blend of Amish craftsmanship and modern electricity.
For the climactic, standing-on-our-chairs-to-show-our-respect finale of "Dead Poets Society," set in 1959 Vermont, Jarre sends Robin Williams off with swell of synths, this time with a distinctive Irish tinge.
For George Miller's futuristic "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," Jarre unleashes a battery of retro-1920's experimental electronics combined with church organ and saxophone.
Jarre's range and styles of music were highly eclectic (Spanish rhymed scores for "The Professional" and "Villa Rides" contrasted with the Klezmer music of "Enemies: A Love Story"). But one trait remains the same: Maurice Jarre wrote really funky melodies. There was always a slight melodic hiccup in his tunes that masterfully took the pretentious edge off of their effusive grandeur. Even his most famous melody, "Laura's Theme" from "Dr. Zhivago" has a certain madness to its melodic structure.
Growing up, I fell lavishly in love with Jarre's fearless expressiveness. As I started to collect his soundtrack albums I was taken by the sheer enthusiasm, the breathless joy that seemed to rush from his compositions. His melodies and orchestrations seemed to rush over themselves at times in an effort to express themselves.
Jarre was the musical equivalent of some of the best actors in the films that he scored. In some ways, his music resembled the matinee idol good looks of Peter O'Toole ( Lawrence of Arabia and "Night of the Generals) and Jeff Bridges ( "Winter Kills" " The American Success Company") who used their classical good looks to mask complex and eccentric personalities.
Of course, whenever any artist is willing to stick their neck out as far as Jarre was, there will be some critics sharpening their knives. I still remember music reviewer Page Cook's assassination of Jarre's music in which he accused Jarre of "delivering stale eclairs in a Mac Truck."
Ah, but what delicious, and marvelously overstuffed eclairs. "The Man Who Would be King," "A Passage to India," "Jacob's Ladder," "Ryan's Daughter," "Ghost," "Fatal Attraction," "No Way Out," "The Mosquito Coast," "Gorillas in the Mist," "The Year of Living Dangerously," "The Collector," "Is Paris Burning," "The Damned and "Tin Drum" are among his most toothsome desserts. I even savor the fact that he wrote a wickedly great score to the overheated pulp trash "Mandingo. "
I only met Maurice in his later years. We became friends, and eventually, along with my partner Laura Engel, his agent. The task of being Maurice's agent in the last years of his life consisted primarily of turning down every film he was offered. I guess after scoring "Dr. Zhivago" and doing several films with Peter Weir, it must have been really hard for Maurice to wrap his creativity around the majority of what was being made. Additionally, Jarre found himself out of alignment with the dumbed-down, temp-tracked music that had become a more prevalent trend in modern scoring.
While the monetary commissions on Maurice Jarre were less than stellar, the greatest compensation of being his agent was the wonderful lunches out at Geoffrey's by his home in Malibu. Looking into his piercing blue eyes, Laura Engel and I were transfixed by his tales of the real glory days of film scoring. All his sly and juicy stories were told with great passion and great affection, especially when he would reflect back on his collaboration with David Lean.
Maurice Jarre passed away a few weeks ago. The last time I saw him was at an American Cinematheque screening of "Dr. Zhivago." In that film, the snow melts into an explosion of spring flowers as Jarre's ballalikas serenade us with "Laura's Theme." It was in that moment that it became crystal clear that Maurice Jarre will truly live forever.
Richard Kraft weighs in on some overlooked gems in the Maurice Jarre filmography
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
John Huston turned to Maurice Jarre on several occasions, but none more glorious than their collaboration on this Sean Connery-Michael Caine "greedy strangers in a strange land" buddy pic set in the world of Kipling. Jarre's giddy military pomp blends with Indian mysticism and a dash of the Irish patriotic song, "The Minstrel Boy" thrown in for good measure. Somehow it all works.
The Tin Drum (1978)
Maurice Jarre builds a score around the title instrument adding in crazed bits of orchestral whimsy to underscore the film's sense of madness and foreboding. There is a great yearning and sadness to this score for Volker Schondorff's German masterpiece.
Moon Over Parador (1988)
Maurice Jarre loved his Latin rhythms. Scores like "Villa Rides" and "The Professionals" were driven by Jarre's sweeping melodies set against his driving, insistent beats. This style was given a wonderful comedic twist in Paul Mazursky's political romp. Another great use of Jarre's underappreciated comedic flair was demonstrated in the 1984 parody "Top Secret!"
Ryan's Daughter (1970)
Sure, everyone raves about Jarre's legendary collaborations with David Lean on "Lawrence of Arabia," "Dr. Zhivago" and "A Passage to India," but for some really crazed romanticism, my heart goes out to this one. It's got everything: demented military marches, off-kilter village idiot music boxes and a love theme so bizarrely robust fate deemed it immortalized by Liza Minnelli on her "Liza With a Z" television special. I can still see Robert Mitchum tracking down his adulterous wife's footprints along the Irish coast in a sequence that builds forever (and ever) against Jarre's obsessive and relentless score.
Crossed Swords (1977)
It's much easier to write a good score to a great picture. But Jarre could knock it out of the ballpark on even a big stinker like this umpteenth remake of "The Prince and the Pauper." Perhaps inspired by the canned ham performances of such legendary scenery chewers as Oliver Reed, Ernest Borgnine and Rex Harrision, Jarre swashes and buckles at a rate that is truly breathtaking. His action cues race along with such manic verve that you can easily imagine the orchestra passing out between takes. And to make it even loopier, he scores several of the action sequences with some poor male whistler frantically trying to keep pace.