When Michel Legrand's score for Steve McQueen's existentialist racing film was released by Columbia on LP in 1971, it was a godawful concept platter that ruined the beautifully mastered stereo cuts with sound effects - mostly announcer reports and screeching mono engine noises, wipeouts, and crashes (with lo-fi distortion) – and left off was a lot of music, capping the LP's running time to just a hair under a half hour. The Columbia album was later released on CD in the U.S., but it took 36 years before the score, minus most of the intrusive effects, premiered on disc via Universal France, albeit with some major flaws.
The most important aspect of this CD, which double-bills Le Mans with McQueen's final film, The Hunter (1980), is that it offers the complete cues, several of which were trimmed to fit the shorter LP.
Those well-familiar with the old LP will sense something's very off about this CD, and a comparison between the LP and CD reveals two very different sound mixes of the same score. The Columbia release seems to have been mastered from the original multi-track elements, but to avoid a clash with the sound effects, all the instruments in the midrange were dialed way down. When the effects were interpolated into the mix, the emphasis was on crisply directed positions for brass, percussion, and strings, with major volume jumps happening after the effects were done – thereby creating a one-two sonic punch that had the music's bass frequencies hitting hard after something like the screeching car tires in “The Race, First Laps.”
The French release seems to be a relatively flat two-channel mix-down, which lacks the warm bass frequencies of the LP, and worse, in tracks like the aforementioned “The Race, First Laps,” the opening bars are in mono, with minimal stereo imaging allotted to the bursts of brass and strings. The cue is longer and has Legrand's original closing bars, but anyone familiar with the composer's suspense/action scores of the era – whether Le Mans or The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) – knows his original master recordings were often impeccably engineered with a fine balance between all low, mid, and low frequencies; when the electric bass stepped in, the sound was fat, soothing, and very funky – something completely lacking in the Universal France disc.
Le Mans : the score
The pairing of Le Mans with The Hunter is probably due to the two Legrand scores Universal could pack on one CD, but they're very different animals from very different decades.
Le Mans is the close cousin of Legrand's Thomas Crown (also a McQueen film), and fans of the latter will find a similar collection of breezy cues and introspective dramatic cuts, although the Thomas Crown LP and subsequent CDs were from a re-recorded session, and the original soundtrack recording (which differs significantly in several cues) has never been commercially released (except at part of a music and effects mix on MGM/UA's last laserdisc edition).
Le Mans' main theme, first heard on both albums in “Delaney's Arrival,” is an ethereal, almost free-form piece for chamber strings, chiming xylophone, string bass. The main melody is gently delivered on muted soprano sax and clarinet (both in separate phases, or commingling near the end), with a gentle closing use of harp. On the LP, however, the cue has been edited with “Le Mans (Opening Credits),” whereas the CD keeps both cues unedited and separate.
The credit music is very evocative of Legrand's Thomas Crown music (the opening particularly recalls “The Chess Game” cue ), but it also introduces the score's racing music, which is very loose and non-melodic: rising above the drums and tambourine is a trumpet solo, flaring brass, rising swishes of strings, and rapping rhythmic patterns that end which“The Race, First Laps” picks up in its opening bars.
“The Race, First Laps” is the score's first punchy action cue that underscores the debut race as we see McQueen drive his beautiful sleek machine past other drivers.
Legrand follows the countdown with a loose cluster of percussion, mostly metallic taps on bells and cymbals, bongos, and tympani, before a clean switch to a funky jazz organ ostinato, with thick electric bass and gradual additions of strings and muted brass, but being Legrand, the approach is extremely unusual: a half beat before each ostinato pattern, wordless male singers chime a prolonged chord, sticking to the cue's A-A-B-A order, after which Legrand slams in two 3 brass and percussion hits, between which he sandwiches an Americana jig using his full bank of strings.
The ostinato returns (the LP features a longer version that's either an alternate take, or an edit meant to expand the cue to stretch out the sound effects), and Legrand adds more muted brass (mostly trumpets and low brass to mimic a 3-beat bass hit). Instead of the bass locked to the rhythm, and more traditional instruments given room to shine, Legrand chose to arrange the orchestra in fairly rigid order and do double-duty for the bass, leaving the bassist free to perform some wonderful improv.
The effect works extremely well for the sequence, because bass notes are warm, kinetic, and propulsive, and the bassist's improvising compliments the physical movement of the massive vehicle as rises and falls over hills, and adds further momentum to shorts of spinning wheels. More importantly, the film is largely free from dialogue.
Le Mans is mostly montages of scenes, with an extreme emphasis on capturing and adoringly photographing vehicles in motion; Legrand therefore had more freedom to write music that not only nailed the elegance of a racer in motion, but comment on the quiet periods where it's just the driver, the car, and whatever private thoughts might be going through his/her mind – something many racing-themed films often ignore in favour of plot-driven melodrama. Le Mans is mostly devoid of that nonsense, and it gave the composer an opportunity to be free of the conventions that can restrict a score's spontaneity.
The overt “Love Theme” rendition is mostly via high pitched strings, with a sitar tapping out each note, and an electric keyboards finishing off the final bars. Like the LP, the CD includes an insipid vocal version, “A Face in the Crowd,” sung by Peggy Taylor Woodward, that's mercifully short, but retains an intro sound effects cluster from which the first lyrics arise.
A second vocal cue, “The Shooting Gallery,” has singer Gene Morford singing lyrics like a jazz solo, but the cue bears a striking resemblance to Blood, Sweat & Tears' famous “Spinning Wheel” tune, although the rhythmic pattern is basically a more detailed verbalization of the ostinato the guitar plays in “Delaney Takes a Break” – a somewhat melancholic tune that creates a moment of peace and tranquility in the score, and for the only point at which the film makes use of any spoken dialogue. (The CD flips the LP order of these vocal tracks.)
“Loneliness in the Crowd” is a 3-part montage of cues, beginning with a wonderfully jazzed up version of the love theme, and a dominant electric violin; a slow lounge version follows with vibes duel trumpets, guitar, and rhythm section; and a breezy extrapolation of the theme with screeching trumpet, violin, vibes, and some very weird effects on violin close the cue. Unfortunately, each third is bridged with roaring car engines, but the bleed-through isn't as severe as the prior cuts on the LP
“Last Preparations” restates the love theme in the concluding bars, whereas the opening two thirds are mostly chord statements on duel flutes that swerve into jazzy cascades of tumbling notes, while the brass stick with low, slowly rendered harmonics, highly evocative of an early morning rise.
In the last racing cue, “The Race, The Final Laps,” Legrand again breaks with convention and doesn't opt for long stretches of structured action music; there's a few anchor points – such as a revolving brass pattern in the cue's middle – but he sticks with flowing improv statements that glide into mini fugues performed by peripheral brass and woodwinds, with the addition of strings near the end to extend harmonic tension.
Is it dated? In some ways it is, because it's also indicative of Legrand's penchant for sometimes being overly ornamental in the way he cyclically trades rhythmic mobiles with groups of instruments, but it's an approach that mostly works for the scene without dating it too badly, and the improv segments actually compliment the various forces that McQueen has to be ready to tackle as he aims to reach the finish line.
The last cut, “Finale,” recaps the love theme in two waves: at first gently with orchestra, followed by solo violin and piano (exceptionally melodramatic and weepy) before a romantic swelling and short lament with female wordless chorus; and finally in an orchestral pop version with drums and strings spiraling to the Heavens. The latter quickly slows down, veers into drippy romanticism, and ends with a return of the chorus, and a suitably somber theme restatement from flute and trumpet, while cymbal hits mimic a once fast-moving wheel finally coming to a complete stop.
In spite of the flat dynamics and wan stereo imaging, the CD does beef up the score's running time with extra cues not on the LP - “Love Theme,” “Loneliness in the Crowd,” and “Last Preparations” – but until some enterprising label attempts a proper remastering, the Universal CD will be an adequate albeit disappointing stop-gap.
The Hunter: a quick wrap-up
Having not seen most of The Hunter, it's hard to tell from the album whether Legrand's mix of classical orchestral and fusion jazz works, but it's very familiar to Never Say Never Again (minus a blah theme song), with cues switching from one idiom to another.
Apparently the foreign language release versions of the film used a score by Charles Bernstein, but one cut for a train chase is present in the English dub track. (Unlike the Region 1 DVD, Bernstein's score is present on the foreign dub tracks that are included on the European DVD releases, allowing one to flip between tracks and compare each composer's approach.)
Legrand's score seems far too buoyant and energetic for a film about a bounty hunter, but he loosely quotes the love theme from Le Mans in “Dotty's Pregnancy” and “Dotty Leaves,” which may be one reason why this score was paired with Le Mans.
“Looking for Tommy Price” is an orchestral rock confection with electric guitar and waves of agitated strings, and a funky sax solo in the final half. The same style is applied to “The Final Chase,” but like “Chicago Chase” (the scene rescored by Bernstein), Legrand switches between rock and classical, and the effect lacks the innate kineticism of his Le Mans cuts.
Legrand's score is a product of its time, but with the exception of the odd use of classical flourishes (which did work very well, a la Stravinsky, in Thomas Crown), there's stylistic similarities to the orchestral big band sound of Jerry Fielding's music for The Gauntlet. On the plus side, Hunter is free from disco (which is rather surprising), and there's no drum sequencer farting in the background.
There's also the tight dramatic “Houtson Fight,” which manages to convey tension and nervousness in spite of overzealous strings, and a somewhat comical trombone and “Ooo-Wah!” vocals paired with strings. A breezy lightness also radiates from "Chicago Chase," wherein Legrand melds male vocals to brassy waves, using vocal stylings reminiscent of the noxious Don Elliott Voices.
The last cue, “The Hunter (End Credits) begins on a comical note, but Legrand switches to a lush orchestral rendition of Dotty's theme to score the quirky finale that has McQueen holding Dotty's newborn. The final half is Manciniesque, albeit with a bizarre, twittering motif that's played by four separate groups of instrument.
Most of the cues are of decent length (some over 3 mins.), but The Hunter is a lesser score indicative of the uneven tone in McQueen's cinematic swan song.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan