Michel Legrand is best known as one of the foremost popular composers of film music of the postwar era to come out of France. The range of his activities across his career is considerably broader than film work, however, also including composition for the stage, and an equally impressive resume in the area of light jazz.
Born in Paris in 1932, he was the son of Raymond Legrand, an arranger, conductor, and film composer. After his parents' divorce when he was three, Legrand grew up estranged from his father. He showed musical ability at an early age, entered the Paris Conservatory at 11, and graduated at 20 with top honors in composition and as a pianist. He was already a professional musician, having begun performing as a jazz pianist and accompanying singers such as Jacqueline François at age 15.
Legrand's international career was launched in 1954 when Columbia Records requested a recording of his instrumental music. The result was I Love Paris, an LP of music arranged and conducted by Legrand; it became one of the top-selling popular instrumental albums of the decade. At the end of the 1950s, Legrand began composing for French films, and scored an international hit with his music for Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, an experimental but hugely successful film built around sung dialogue. The soundtrack yielded two hit songs, "I Will Wait for You" and "Watch What Happens," and Legrand got Academy Award nominations both for that film and for his score for Demy's follow-up, The Young Girls of Rochefort, in 1967.
He was snatched up by Hollywood immediately after the latter film. His first American score was for an improbable project, the thriller Ice Station Zebra, which with its submarine setting and all-male cast could not have been further removed from the characteristics of the films with which he'd made his reputation. It was a year later, with The Thomas Crown Affair, that Legrand moved to the forefront of popular composers, winning his first Oscar for his work on the film and also generating the song "The Windmills of Your Mind," with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, which became a hit in recorded versions by Noel Harrison and Dusty Springfield. A year later, with The Happy Ending, Legrand enjoyed a second hit, "What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life."
In 1970, Legrand took on the challenge of composing music for Robert Fuest's new film adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Alfred Newman's music for the 1939 Samuel Goldwyn-produced version was and is still recognized as a classic of the genre, yet Legrand succeeded in creating a richly evocative work that stood on its own merits. That same year, Legrand's music for the movie Brian's Song became his top-selling album up to that time. Two years later, Legrand won his second Oscar, for the score of Summer of '42, a coming-of-age story that tapped into a 1940s nostalgia boom. The score's love theme became a hit single in the hands of pianist Peter Nero, and dominated pop and easy listening charts for months.
Legrand was able to write his own ticket thereafter, even working successfully with such notoriously "difficult" artists as Diana Ross (Lady Sings The Blues) and Barbra Streisand (Yentl), the latter score winning him a third Oscar. He never completely abandoned his jazz roots, however, performing and touring as a jazz pianist, and occasionally managing to combine jazz with his movie work. In 1991 he collaborated with Miles Davis on the score for the film Dingo. Many of his scores in the 1990s were composed for French films.