Monday, March 30, 2009

R.I.P.: Maurice Jarre (1924-2009)

Seventeen years ago, while dining with movie score composer Maurice Jarre at the Montreal World Film Festival, I told him that he should be proud that so many couples have fallen in love while listening to his "Laura's Theme" (from David Lean's Doctor Zhivago), even if few of them ever knew his name. Jarre laughed, and agreed. But then I told him how I had come to dread hearing the song during my childhood, because my father insisted on playing it again and again and again and again while stewing in an alcohol-fueled melancholy funk over his (temporary) break-up with my soon-to-be-stepmother. Jarre laughed again -- and apologized.

Jarre was at the Montreal festival for the world premiere of Maurice Jarre: A Tribute to David Lean, a filmed concert tribute to the great British filmmaker with whom he had collaborated so memorably and successfully. (The composer earned Academy Awards for scoring Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India -- and, of course, Zhivago.) The funny thing is, to paraphrase the final line from Spike Lee's 25th Hour, this collaboration came very close to never happening.

During an interview the morning after that world premiere, Jarre recalled that he made his first major breakthrough as a composer of film music with his score for the French classic Sundays and Cybele. ''For that film,'' Jarre said, ''I wrote a simple score for three instruments. And there were only about 10 minutes of music in the entire film.'' But that was enough to attract the attention of producer Sam Spiegel, who was looking for composers for his upcoming epic, Lawrence of Arabia.

Jarre recalled that, initially, Spiegel wanted three different composers from three different countries for the film. (''And I thought, 'Wow! That is an American production!''') When that plan fell through, Spiegel decided to split the scoring duties between Jarre and Broadway great Richard Rodgers.

''The first time I met David [Lean],'' Jarre said, ''was when he and I and Sam Spiegel were in a London studio, listening to a pianist play the music that Rodgers had written (in America) . . . The pianist began by playing the main theme, and then something called, if you can believe it, 'Love Theme for Lawrence of Arabia.'''

Lean was not amused. ''Sam,'' the director snapped at his producer, ''what is this rubbish?'' Anxious, and not a little embarrassed, Spiegel turned to Jarre and demanded that Jarre perform some of his own music. So Jarre sat at the piano, and began with ''what we now know as the theme for Lawrence of Arabia,'' the composer said.

''I had my back to them, so I could not see how they were reacting. But right in the middle of my playing, I felt a hand on my shoulder. And I could hear David saying, 'Sam, this young chap has exactly what I want.'''

So Jarre wound up writing all the music for the Oscar-winning epic. After that, he enjoyed international success with many other directors on such diverse projects as The Collector, The Longest Day, The Damned, The Man Who Would Be King, The Tin Drum, Witness, Dead Poet's Society, Ghost and Jacob's Ladder.

''But I still have the print of David's hand on my shoulder,'' Jarre said in 1992. ''You keep that all your life.''

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