Alexandre Desplat on Pushing Boundaries With ‘Little Women’ Score

The slate of awards hopefuls is new each year, but there is always a sense of continuity, of new contenders’ connections to the past.

For example, Alexandre Desplat, a strong Golden Globes and Oscar possibility this year for his score to Sony’s “Little Women,” can trace the influence of his predecessors on his work. Growing up in Paris, Desplat knew he wanted to be a film composer. “When I was very young, I was collecting soundtracks and it was an education. I learned to listen to music outside the film. When home video arrived, I would watch a movie over and over, to figure out when the music started and when it stopped and why.

“I listened to Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Maurice Jarre. And my parents had earlier scores, by George Duning, Bernard Herrmann and many others. I was also very much into the earlier Hollywood composers: Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman. I learned how they invented a sound for Hollywood music.”

Desplat pushes himself into new areas with Sony’s “Little Women,” from director Greta Gerwig. The film is set in 1860s New England, which is light years away from his own background. But the composer said he felt a strong connection.

“I was raised with a passion for America — and also its music — from my parents.” He had a Greek mother and French father, who met at UC Berkeley and then settled in Paris. They exposed Desplat and his sisters to a wide range of music. So his complex score for “Little Women” mixed period authenticity with a 21st century sensibility.

Desplat is also carrying on a long tradition of great European-born composers who proved influential in Hollywood. That list includes Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin in the early days of film scoring and, later, starting in the 1960s, such musical greats as Jarre, Georges Delerue and Michel Legrand.

Steiner virtually invented the musical score for movies with the 1933 “King Kong.” Before that, studios added generic music to score their films; Universal used the same “Swan Lake” theme for the opening credits of both the 1931 “Dracula” and the 1932 “The Mummy.” Steiner also received the first Golden Globe for musical score, for the 1947 feature “Life With Father.”

As with every awards category, music nominees offer a mixture of fascinating and contradictory information.

For example, Herrmann, generally acknowledged as one of the all-time greats, was nominated for five Oscars, winning one. He was nominated for one Golden Globe, for his haunting work on 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” But his trio of 1958-60 Alfred Hitchcock films — “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho” — didn’t earn him a single nomination from either the Academy or the Globes, despite being considered some of his best work.

Desplat continues his predecessors’ appreciation of studio musicians. “The music is very difficult to play without rehearsing,” he says. “Those musicians on ‘Little Women’ were the top of the tops: the energy, intonation, the precision they brought to the score. They were amazing.”

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