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JULIE & JULIA – Alexandre Desplat

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There aren’t many mainstream movies about cooking. There are even less movies about the lives celebrity chefs and bloggers who are inspired by them – but that basically sums up the plot of Julie & Julia, the latest comedy/drama from director Nora Ephron. The film tells two parallel stories: firstly that of the life of chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep), who became America’s first celebrity chef in the 1950s when she wrote her groundbreaking French cookbook ’Mastering the Art of French Cooking’; and that of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), whose quest to cook all 524 recipe’s in Child’s cookbook, and her blog about her experiences, made her famous within the modern New York foodie crowd. It’s a quirky little film, but a critically acclaimed one nonetheless, with Streep’s performance as Child receiving notable praise.

The score for Julie & Julia is by French composer Alexandre Desplat, who continues to stake his claim as the busiest composer in Hollywood. Julie & Julia is the third of his five planned scores for 2009 and, like Cheri and Coco Avant Chanel, is wholly lovely. It’s also the first score from Desplat I have heard which is unashamedly, unapologetically, stereotypically French – it has all the orchestrations one associates with French music, most notably the prominent use of accordions to carry the melody. I know many people who detest accordions with a passion, but for a story rooted so firmly in French tradition – albeit a culinary one – the associations are wholly appropriate in this instance, and make for enjoyable listening.

Another thing Julie & Julia has in spades is a sense of cheerfulness. Although Desplat has written beautiful romantic music before, on numerous occasions, I don’t remember him ever writing anything this upbeat, this sunny. The two main themes – one for Julia Child, one for Julie Powell, one presented after the other in the score’s first two cues – are both lovely, with the former being a vivacious string-led waltz (natch), and the latter having a subtle synth pulse, gentle electric guitars and a light drum kit beat to give it a more modern New York spin.

It’s really the lightness and sense of fun which sets Julie & Julia apart from other scores in Desplat’s recent output. Of course all the familiar Desplatisms are present – the prominent use of percussive woodwinds, the crispness and clarity of the orchestrations, the precision of the timing and tone – but I don’t remember his music ever being this jovial before. It would be easy to dismiss cues like “The Original French Chef Theme”, “What Should I Do”, “Eggs” or “The New York Times” as little more than fluffy Hollywood caper music, and to be fair there are times when one can almost hear a composer like John Debney, Marc Shaiman or David Newman writing something in this style. However, the thing that elevates this score above standard romantic comedy fare is the sense of refinement and class in Desplat’s writing. There’s just no getting around it – Desplat’s beautiful use of the orchestra and the clarity of his performances raise this score beyond the norm.

Often, the themes for the two Julias intertwine, notably in cues such as “Starting Out” and the more pompous “Leaving Paris”. Desplat allows the two separate, defined sets of orchestrations to combine, clearly illustrating how one woman is inspiring the other across decades and recipes: electric guitars and accordion, waltzing strings and drum kit. Granted, it’s hardly a groundbreaking approach, but the net result is pleasant and effective. Elsewhere, Desplat’s knack for simple, attractive, delicate melody writing shines through in cues such as “A String of Pearls”, “Burning the Stew”, and the wistful “My Husband Left Me” and “Julia Hates Me”, which are just lovely.

A couple of songs round out the album’s running time, notably the Talking Heads classic “Psycho Killer” (which should probably be re-titled Lobster Killer in this instance), Doris Day crooning the Frank Loesser classic “A Bushel and a Peck” from Guys and Dolls, and Charles Aznavour conveying the epitome of seductive Gallic masculinity through his enjoyably camp “Mes Emmerdes”.

In the bigger scheme of things, Julie & Julia is an inconsequential work. It’s by no means a highlight of Desplat’s career – it’s not even his best score of 2009 – but it’s yet another example of Desplat’s seemingly endless knack for writing enjoyable score after enjoyable score. I appreciate that, in praising yet another Desplat score, I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, predictably positive from beginning to end. To be frank, though, I don’t care. The man’s music captivates me in a way that no other composer’s music has done since James Horner was in his prime from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, and long may his hot streak continue.

Rating: ***½

Buy the Julie & Julia soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Julia’s Theme (2:13)
  • Julie’s Theme (2:24)
  • Great Big Good Fairy (0:38)
  • The Original French Chef Theme (0:23)
  • Starting Out (2:45)
  • What Should I Do? (1:34)
  • Eggs (1:10)
  • Psycho Killer (written by David Byrne, Christopher Frantz and Tina Weymouth, performed by Talking Heads) (4:22)
  • A String of Pearls (1:28)
  • Mes Emmerdes (written and performed by Charles Aznavour) (3:08)
  • Time After Time (Instrumental) (written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne) (2:06)
  • Burning the Stew (0:57)
  • Leaving Paris (1:36)
  • My Husband Left Me (1:29)
  • Stop the Train (H.W. Gummer, Mark Noseworthy and Tay Strathairn, performed by Henry Wolfe) (3:01)
  • A Bushel and a Peck (written by Frank Loesser, performed by Doris Day) (2:49)
  • The New York Times (2:38)
  • Boeuf Bourguignon (1:54)
  • Julia Hates Me (2:18)
  • Last Supper (1:17)
  • Time After Time (written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, performed by Margaret Whiting) (3:14)

Running Time: 43 minutes 24 seconds

Sony Music (2009)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat, Conrad Pope, Nan Schwartz and Clifford J. Tasner. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Todd Kasow. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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