January 12, 2024

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Taking an old film score and dropping it into a new film is “like wearing somebody else’s underwear,” veteran composer Earle Hagen used to say.

Hagen, the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning composer of such classic themes as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mod Squad,” would have been appalled by the musical choices in Netflix’s “May December.”

A scene from that film, with Julianne Moore opening her refrigerator door to a melodramatic piano cue, has gone viral. It’s a funny moment if you don’t recognize that music.

But if you do, like thousands of film buffs around the world, then it’s either cringe-worthy or just head-scratching. The music in question is Michel Legrand’s score for “The Go-Between,” a 1971 English cinema classic directed by Joseph Losey from a script by renowned playwright Harold Pinter.

“The Go-Between” was a period romantic drama that starred Alan Bates and Julie Christie and has, over the years, been hailed as “one of the world’s great films” and “Losey’s masterpiece,” among other praise. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year.

Legrand’s score — classically structured as a theme and 11 variations for two pianos and orchestra, reflecting his training at the Paris Conservatory — is among the greatest works of the French composer, conductor and pianist, who died in 2019.

And while other Legrand movie scores (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Summer of ’42,” “Yentl”) and popular songs (“The Windmills of Your Mind,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”) may be more famous, “The Go-Between” is considered among his masterpieces. He often performed the entire 21-minute suite in concert, playing one of the pianos himself.

Context is everything. Legrand designed the music specifically for “The Go-Between.” It is a powerful presence throughout the 1971 film as an impressionable schoolboy (Dominic Guard) delivers love notes from an aristocratic woman (Christie) to a tenant farmer (Bates), eventually leading to tragedy.

This, of course, has nothing to do with “May December,” loosely based on the true 1990s story of a schoolteacher who had an affair with a sixth grader; Moore plays the woman and Natalie Portman is the actress who is about to play her in a movie.

Repurposing film music — especially classic film music — is never a good idea. When Michel Hazanavicius did it in “The Artist,” placing Bernard Herrmann’s music from “Vertigo” against a climactic scene, an outraged Kim Novak ran an ad in Variety declaring: “I want to report a rape. I feel as if my body, or at least my body of work, has been violated.”

She was voicing the complaints of thousands of film buffs who were distracted, mystified and annoyed by the presence of music that was created for, and is inextricable from, Hitchcock’s masterpiece. As one critic stated at the time, “It yanks you out of one film and places you in the mindset of another.”

Sci-fi buffs are still irritated, 44 years later, about Ridley Scott’s unfortunate choice to use excerpts from Jerry Goldsmith’s 1963 score for “Freud” in “Alien,” instead of the new score Goldsmith had written for him.

“May December” director Todd Haynes has benefited enormously from the fine music that composers have written for him in the past. Elmer Bernstein’s music for “Far From Heaven” and Carter Burwell’s for “Carol” were Oscar-nominated, and Burwell’s music for “Mildred Pierce” won an Emmy.

And the irony of the “May December” score is that, when composer Marcelo Zarvos is allowed to depart from the Legrand music, that music is effective. Had the rest of the score been original, it would have felt like it belonged solely to the film — not an off-putting, second-hand use of music.

Stanley Kubrick’s famous use of classical music excerpts in “2001: A Space Odyssey” is something else. Those pieces weren’t designed as an artistic element of another film and didn’t have prior cinematic associations.

Composers craft their scores specifically for the story at hand; it’s a commission for an original piece of work — in this case, Legrand’s was a brilliant score. It shouldn’t be treated as some kind of a commodity to be bought, sold and traded around.

All that does is cheapen the new film. Like wearing somebody else’s underwear.

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