Home > Reviews > STEEL MAGNOLIAS – Georges Delerue

STEEL MAGNOLIAS – Georges Delerue

October 10, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A classic Hollywood emotional melodrama based on the play of the same name by Robert Harling, Steel Magnolias is a close look at the lives of a group of women in a small town in Louisiana. It is a detailed examination of all aspects of life – weddings and funerals, children, husbands, and boyfriends, love and infidelity, loneliness, sickness, and death – and is mostly set around the town’s local beauty parlor, where the women often congregate to gossip, congratulate, commiserate, and mourn. The film is anchored by an astonishing ensemble cast of female acting brilliance, including Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and most notably Julia Roberts in the role that made her a star. It’s one of those three-handkerchief movies that is entirely intended to wring every drop of emotion out of its audience, and it is considered somewhat manipulative and mawkish today, but in 1989 it was a huge hit, earning Roberts her first Academy Award nomination. The film was also the biggest box office success of director Herbert Ross’s career – despite him having previously made such acclaimed films as The Sunshine Boys, The Turning Point, The Goodbye Girl, California Suite, and Footloose – and it had a score by the great Georges Delerue.

Perhaps more than any other American film he scored, Steel Magnolias was the project that seemed to fit Delerue’s sensibilities the best. After winning the Oscar for A Little Romance in 1979, and having already been the leading musical voice of the French New Wave movement, Delerue moved to the United States to work almost exclusively in Hollywood, but as many people have stated they never quite knew what to do with him. Delerue’s music was overtly emotional, and unashamedly so. Lyrical melodies and gorgeous themes and harmonies flowed out of him as easily as other people draw breath, but for reasons I have yet to understand he was constantly asked to score films that were desperately beneath him. Delerue was a composer who should have been scoring all the great American dramas of the 1980s, the sweeping epics and the rapturous romances. Instead, he ended up writing staggeringly beautiful music for a string of disappointingly histrionic turkeys – things like Rich and Famous, Man Woman and Child, Maxie, Maid to Order, The Pickup Artist, Memories of Me, Her Alibi… the list is endless. Once or twice he did find himself attached to a film of substance – Agnes of God, Silkwood, and Platoon , among others – and of course he wrote brilliant music for them too, but on the whole he consistently seemed to be under-valued and under-employed by the Hollywood system. Steel Magnolias was a rare bird in that it was a good film that was a hit with both critics and audiences, and also seemed to be a perfect fit for Delerue’s talents.

The score is anchored, of course, by a core set of absolutely magnificent central themes, two of which are introduced in the first cue, “Main Title/Introduction”. The score’s main theme comprises an A-phrase and a B-phrase, which move around in prominence as the cue progresses, but which complement each other perfectly. The Main Theme A-Phrase is the one that opens the score, a warm and summery melody anchored by a bank of lush strings and delicate, elegant harp accents. At 0:52 the music switches to the Main Theme B-Phrase, which is clearly tonally related to the A-Phrase, but is also subtly different enough to be noticeable; it is carried by a soulful solo harmonica, which gives the score a touch of location specificity stemming from the film’s New Orleans setting, and is tinged with a little bit of bittersweetness and melancholy. At 2:18 a new element emerges, a lively scherzo for string runs underpinned by jazzy drums and prancing woodwinds that is not too far removed from the music he used to write for those wonderfully carefree French films of the 1960s. Cleverly, at 2:49, Delerue briefly performs the A-Phrase melody on the B-Phrase’s harmonica, and thereafter offers several other versions of the scherzo, but most interesting of all is the brief melody that appears between 3:36 and 4:00, which is actually an upbeat variation on the theme for Julia Roberts’s character Shelby, and which will become much more important as the score develops.

After a brief diversion in the lovely “Tree Fireworks,” a flighty and pretty depiction of wholesome All-American domesticity that comes across like a more playful version of the score for A Little Romance, Shelby’s theme quickly comes to dominate the rest of the score proper. Shelby is the character around which most of the drama revolves – it is her wedding, the birth of her child, and her eventual death from diabetes that act as the dramatic anchors of the story as a whole – and as such it is the music for her character arc that plays the most important role. “Good News, Bad News” is almost like a musical encapsulation of her life; it begins with a gorgeous music box rendition of her theme (depicting the birth of her baby), grows to encompass a more orchestral sound, and features a passage for tender woodwinds, but ends with a tragedy-laden version for more mature-sounding strings that captures the devastation of Shelby’s illness and eventual death.

“The Drive to Aunt Fern’s” continues the musical air of loss and mourning with a searing new theme heard initially on a solo cello. Delerue had this knack of writing music that was somehow happy, sad, and heart-meltingly gorgeous simultaneously, and I don’t know how he did it. The moment at 0:54 when the melody is taken over by a combination of strings, harp, and glockenspiel is profoundly emotional, while the duet between violin and cello that emerges in the final minute of the cue is impossibly beautiful. In “Easter Picnic and Departure” Shelby’s Theme returns to the fore; it is set in the aftermath of Shelby’s funeral, and her theme is carried by yet another magical combination of harps and strings, celesta and glockenspiel, as the women of the town remember her with fondness. The cue ends with some truly gorgeous flute and oboe solos, and then a final set of sweeping strings which close the piece with a hint of positivity and optimism at the impending birth of a new baby, ensuring that life goes on.

However, as good as the rest of the score is, the best is reserved for last, as the “End Title” contains the most emotionally resonant version of the Main Theme. Delerue oscillates between the Main Theme A-Phrase and the B-Phrase, and seemingly instructed his entire orchestra (but especially the flutes, the strings, and the solo harmonica) to wring every last drop of expressive power from their performance. Delerue wrote some truly magnificent and moving pieces of music in his career, but this cue is among his all-time greatest.

The album is rounded out by three location-specific country songs – “I Got Mine” performed by Ry Cooder, the twangy “Two-Step Mamou” performed by Wayne Toups & Zydecajun, and the old-fashioned “Jambalaya” performed by Hank Williams – before concluding with a verbatim reprise of the opening cue, reminding the listener of what we all came here for in the first place. Discounting the three songs and the reprise, the score on album only runs for a hair over 20 minutes but, good lord, every one of them is magnificent.

The physical album for Steel Magnolias is rather rare and expensive these days so, for anyone who wants to hear this score but can’t find a copy of the entire soundtrack, there also exists a generous re-recording of the main theme. It originally featured on Volume 2 of the London Sessions album that Robert Townson produced for Varese Sarabande in 1990; the same suite can also be found on the 2-CD ‘Georges Delerue Great Composers’ album released in 2001, and the 4-CD Varese Sarabande 25th Anniversary collection released in 2003. I recommend all of these compilation CDs as well, incidentally, as a fantastic introduction to the great man’s work.

However you choose to experience this score, you absolutely must experience this score in some form or another; more than 25 years after his death, far too many people – especially younger film music fans – know little to nothing about him or his music, and this cannot be allowed to stand. Georges Delerue was a one-of-a-kind, a giant of the genre who reveled in the emotional directness that film music allowed, and wrote beautiful theme-filled music that has rarely been matched in the history of cinema. In a career filled with such scores, Steel Magnolias is one of his best.

Buy the Steel Magnolias soundtrack from theMovie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Introduction (4:41)
  • Tree Fireworks (1:17)
  • Good News, Bad News (3:59)
  • The Drive to Aunt Fern’s (5:15)
  • Easter Picnic and Departure (4:18)
  • End Title (3:34)
  • I Got Mine (written and performed by Ry Cooder) (4:25)
  • Two-Step Mamou (written by Wayne Toups, Jay Miller, and Jean Arceneaux, performed by Wayne Toups & Zydecajun) (3:22)
  • Jambalaya (written and performed by Hank Williams) (2:51)
  • Main Title Reprise (4:41)

Running Time: 38 minutes 23 seconds

Polydor 841-582-2 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by Georges Delerue. Orchestrations by Georges Delerue. Recorded and mixed by John Richards. Edited by Dan Carlin. Album produced by Georges Delerue.

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