Composer Maurice Jarre died Sunday in Los Angeles. The name might not ring a bell, but his scores certainly do. The triple-Oscar winner wrote the music to many classic movies including “Dr. Zhivago,” “A Passage to India,” “Ghost,” “Dead Poets Society” and “The Man Who Would Be King.” His most recognizable work is “Somewhere My Love (Lara’s Theme)” from Dr. Zhivago, which also became a pop hit, as recorded by Ray Conniff, in 1966.
Like many composers, Jarre , 84, just liked to work. Sure he did the classics, but he also did comedy– downright silly fare like “Top Secret!” and “Young Doctors in Love.” He even did an “ABC Afternoon Special.”
I can’t pretend to be an expert on Jarre or his music. I just know that the films that he scored were usually the better for his involvement. His ability to use his scoring to enhance the mood without ever overpowering a scene was magisterial.
My favorite Jarre work-in fact, my second favorite score of all time behind Elmer Bernstein’s music for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is Jarre’s score to 1985’s “Witness.” The Peter Weir-directed movie is a masterpiece, but it wouldn’t have had the same resonance without Jarre’s score. I have no idea what kind of music Amish listen to other than I’m pretty sure it’s all acoustic, but Jarre relies largely on electronic instrumentation for the movie.
The score doesn’t necessarily hold up throughout, but two of the pieces I can conjure up instantly: the opening theme, “Witness (Main Title)/Journey to Baltimore),” and the movie’s centerpiece, “Building the Barn.” The former is a beauty that combines the wonder, fear , trepidation and excitement that the young Amish boy, Samuel (played by Lukas Haas) and his mother, Rachel (was Kelly McGillis ever better or more beautiful?) feel as they leave the serenity and sanctity of their Amish farm for the harshness of Philadelphia to cooperate with police on a murder investigation.
“Building the Barn” is one of the best film pieces ever written. In the scene, the Amish community has come together to build a home for a newlywed couple. By now, Harrison Ford’s character, Philly cop John Book, is taking shelter in Amish country, and is competing for Rachel’s attention with Daniel Hochleitner (played to perfection by ballet dancer Alexander Godunov). Their rivalry plays out on the beams of the house as they both vie for Rachel’s attention through their carpentry skills. The music spans several minutes of the building process and matches music to picture with a grace and magic that few films master. The music swells as the day builds and we see neighbors helping neighbors-no hardhats, no jackhammers- just hammers, wood and nails-creating something out of nothing. There’s no dialogue, yet the music moves the story forward.
Jarre’s music, in this movie and several others, became an extra character, adding poignancy and emotion. He never used five instruments when one would do. There was often (not always) a sparseness to his score.
I’m also partial to the score to “The Year of Living Dangerously” -another film directed by Peter Weir (even though I saw the film again recently and it really didn’t hold up well). Jarre’s music expresses the loneliness that Linda Hunt’s character, Billy Kwan, can never emote, and the passion and fear that Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson feel as Indonesian President Sukarno is overthrown and Jakarta descends into chaos .
Jarre scored more than 150 movies; the last was 2001 TV movie “Uprising.” A collection of his works is available on “The Essential Maurice Jarre Film Collection.”