After earning a Golden Globe nomination for his first feature, 1966's A Man and a Woman, Academy Award-winning film composer Francis Lai continued to establish a highly melodic style that bridged wistful keyboard pieces, playful chamber music, jazz, and sweeping instrumental pop. In addition to a prolific partnership with director Claude Lelouch that produced over three dozen films, he is best known for his theme to Love Story from the 1970 Arthur Hiller film. With lyrics added, the melancholy piano tune became a hit for Andy Williams ("Where Do I Begin?); without lyrics it charted for Henry Mancini, whose Mancini Plays the Theme from Love Story arrived shortly before the film was even in theaters. Over the course of his over-50-year career, Lai worked mostly in France but occasionally found work on American movies other than Love Story, including International Velvet (1978) and Keys to Freedom (1988). In 2003, he composed the score for the South Korean drama Plastic Tree. Still collaborating with Lelouch into the 2010s, his final film was Lelouch's Les Plus Belles Années (2019).
Born in Nice, France in 1932, Francis Albert Lai taught himself piano and accordion and played in local orchestras as a child. By the mid-'50s, he was based in Marseilles, where he discovered jazz music and befriended singer/actress Claude Goaty. He followed her to Paris and was drawn to the vibrant art scene of Montmartre. Lai met a young Bernard Dimey at the Terverne d'Attilio, a local hangout on Montmartre's Place du Tertre, and they collaborated on Lai's first song. Dozens more songs followed in a brief period. Lai also found a spot in Michel Magne's orchestra before landing a job as accompanist for Édith Piaf in 1960. He worked with her for the next three years, also composing songs for the superstar chanteuse. After Piaf's death in 1963, he worked briefly as Mireille Mathieu's accompanist.
In the meantime, writer/singer Pierre Barouh introduced Lai to film director Claude Lelouch, and the three of them collaborated on 1966's A Man and Woman (Un Homme et une Femme), Lai's feature-length film debut. Barouh sang and wrote the lyrics for Lai's music. With its memorable chromatic keyboard motifs, strummed acoustic guitar, and breathy, male-female nonsense syllables ("ba-va-da-ba-da, ba-va-da-ba-da"), the movie's playful main theme found international renown and became a perennial easy listening favorite.
Lai composed scores for five more Lelouch films through 1970, a year that also saw the release of the film Love Story, based on the best-selling book by Erich Segal. Lai's theme to the tragic romance became a Top Ten hit for Andy Williams as "Where Do I Begin?" (with lyrics by Carl Sigman), reached number 13 on the singles chart for Henry Mancini, and landed in the Top 40 for Lai himself with orchestra accompaniment. It also charted less prominently for Tony Bennett and for the duo of Nino Tempo & April Stevens. The soundtrack album peaked at number two in the in the U.S. and number ten in the U.K., and Lai took home the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Original Score.
While Lai continued to collaborate with Claude Lelouch on films such as Happy New Year (1973), Cat and Mouse (1975), and Second Chance (1976), his work with other directors included a well-received electronic-orchestral score for Bilitis (1977) and the family film International Velvet (1978). The Love Story sequel Oliver's Story (1978) reprised Lai's famous theme.
The '80s brought Lelouch-Lai projects including, among others, Bolero (1981), for which he shared credit with Michel Legrand, Edith and Marcel (1983), and A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later (1986). They continued to work together regularly throughout the '90s and 2000s on films like 1992's La Belle Histoire (with co-composer Philippe Servain), 1998's Chance or Coincidence (with Claude Bolling), and 2005's Le Courage d'Aimer. Over 30 years after Love Story, Lai was still recognized for his wistful, romantic melodies and jazz-influenced arrangements as well as for experiments with synthesizers and electronics.
In his eighties by the mid-2010s, Lai continued to compose for Lelouch, contributing to the films Salaud, On T'aime (2014), Un + Une (2015), and Tourner pour Vivre (2016), though he increasingly relied on collaborators, including Christian Gaubert and C2C. Calogero co-composed the score for Lai's last film credit, the posthumously released Les Plus Belles Années (2019). Lai died on November 7, 2018 in his hometown of Nice. ~ Marcy Donelson