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LITTLE WOMEN – Alexandre Desplat

December 31, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is the latest big screen adaptation of the classic 1868 American novel by Louisa May Alcott. The story follows the March sisters – headstrong and mercurial Jo, willful and artistic Amy, maternal and meek Meg, creative but sickly Beth – as they come of age in post-civil war Massachusetts. The narrative deals with numerous issues of the day, including the effects of ‘genteel poverty,’ the fallout of the war, sibling rivalries, the entrenched class system, and of course romance and love, the latter of which usually revolves around Laurie, the handsome grandson of the March’s wealthy neighbor. What’s interesting about this version of the story is that Gerwig, acknowledging the social mores of the 2000s, has given her adapted screenplay a healthy dose of modern feminism, which touches on contemporary issues involving women’s suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and bucking the period convention that a woman was not complete without a husband. The film stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlan as the four sisters, Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, Laura Dern as their ever-loving Marmee, and Meryl Streep as the cantankerous Aunt March, and is a sumptuous visual feast that looks likely to be a major player at the 2019 Academy Awards.

The score for Little Women is by French composer Alexandre Desplat, who has had a quiet year by his standards, him having previously written music for the animated sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2, and two films in France, Roman Polanski’s J’Accuse, and Adults in the Room. The story of Little Women has historically inspired film composers to greatness; Max Steiner’s score for the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, Adolph Deutsch’s score for the 1949 version starring Elizabeth Taylor, and Thomas Newman’s score for the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder, are all considered amongst the career-best by their respective composers, and the critical response to Desplat’s take looks likely to draw similar comparisons. I acknowledge that I am somewhat predisposed to appreciate this sort of score, but Little Women contains all the things I love the most about Desplat’s romance music: the elegant waltz-like timings, the tastefully rendered orchestrations, the effortlessly charming themes, the warm and welcoming emotions. Tonally it reminded me very much of some of his more low-key Euro-scores – perhaps something like Coco Avant Chanel, or Chéri, or even going as far back as The Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Luzhin Defence – but it has a great deal of emotional and dramatic weight, and (discounting the enormous action of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) is probably his most satisfying ‘serious’ score since The Light Between Oceans in 2015.

What’s interesting about Little Women is that, considering that this is a classic of American literature and how much it is rooted in American history, there is little American music in it. This is not in any way a criticism, and more of an observation. Rather than trying to slavishly work in some period-specific orchestrations or thinly-veiled references to Stephen Foster, Desplat instead captures the feel of the period with music that speaks to the emotions of the central characters, while also reflecting the European classical music that wealthy Americans of that time period still favored.

Desplat’s music is full of life and movement and effervescence. It’s never afraid to skip off down a snow-covered lane with a pretty waltz or a bubbly scherzo, but it also stops to take in the more serious, heartfelt emotional drama, illustrating the challenging relationships of the March sisters with sincerity and class. It’s a fully orchestral score throughout but, as is often the case, the crystalline recording by Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley often takes pains to showcase particular instruments in ravishing clarity: solo violin, solo piano, light woodwinds, harps, and so on. The instrumental combinations Desplat uses result in some truly gorgeous colors, which will appeal greatly to Desplat’s many admirers.

Perhaps the only weakness in the score is the lack of a strong, central thematic idea tying it all together. Instead, Desplat treats the film as a series of vignettes which use the same musical color palette, but subtly change in terms of tone and melody depending on the scene and the specific sister involved. Each of the four sisters does appear to have an idea associated with them – the motif for Jo is prominent in “Laurie and Jo on the Hill,” the motif for Amy in “Laurie Kisses Amy,” the motif for Meg in “Meg’s Dress,” for example. They have subtle shades of difference to represent their dominant personality traits, but none of them are really distinct enough to be immediately noticeable, and Desplat often blends them together within the same cue anyway, so that as the score unfolds they tend to get lost within one another.

What’s left is just over an hour of exquisite orchestral music that features highlight after highlight after highlight. Desplat’s soundtrack album is in a haphazard chronological order – the second cue, “Plumfield,” is actually the finale, for example – but the whole thing is still tastefully curated so that the emotional content of the score is constantly shifting, with new surprises around every turn. The opening cue, ”Little Women,” is a wonderful frolic through the core elements of the score, accompanying Jo’s mad dash through town to see her publisher and giving her theme a sense of excitement and anticipation. “Plumfield” is, as I mentioned, the cue that underscore’s the film’s finale, and is a beautifully-rendered piece full of energy and movement anchored by a gorgeous duet for piano and harp, which swells to encompass the full orchestra as the scope of Jo and Friedrich’s school comes into glorious view, and Jo’s first novel is published. The way the movement of the music mirrors the sweeping camerawork as it moves through the school hallways, lingers on the rhythms of the printing presses, and finishes with a little hint of Jo’s theme, is just superb.

Every cue has something worthwhile to offer, from the playful “The Beach” with its sunny woodwinds and prominent use of triangles, to the slightly more introspective version of Jo’s theme in “Christmas Morning,” to the gorgeous clarinet writing and action-packed finale of “Ice Skating”. “Dance on the Porch” is a superb string scherzo full of high-spirited wit as Jo and Laurie have their own private encounter outside the main festivities of a debutante ball. “The Book” seems to work in some light jazz inflections into the piano writing, giving it a vibrant sense of immediacy that balances beautifully with the classical elegance elsewhere in the cue. This, along with the subsequent “Jo Writes,” is one of the pivotal moments in the movie, a montage sequence where Jo is possessed by the creative spark and finishes the first draft of her novel, and Desplat nails her artistic energy and unbridled enthusiasm perfectly.

The more subdued – but still warm and appealing – theme in “Father Comes Home” speaks to the love they have for their absent patriarch, and how they struggled to make ends meet while he was away at war; this continues into the similarly downbeat “Christmas Breakfast,” with its prominent harp and wistful string writing. The theme for “Amy” takes center stage in the cue named for her, and is filled with lithe strings, tinkling pianos, and more than a hint of mischief, combined with a desperate undercurrent of longing and romance. There’s a hint of John Williams in the cascading pianos and chimes that emerge from “Friedrich Dances with Jo,” which is wholly lovely, while “Telegram” packs a great deal of emotional depth into just under two minutes, as well as a swooning, graceful new thematic idea.

Romance, of course, plays a major part in the story of Little Women, and a lot of it deals with the complicated shenanigans between Jo and Amy and their respective potential beaus, Laurie and Friedrich. “Laurie Kisses Amy” and the subsequent “Young Love” are quite rapturous in their depictions of the unexpected spark of passion between them when they unexpectedly meet in Paris, two flurries of high strings, harp glissandi, and gorgeous pianos that sound like the musical equivalent of a skipped heartbeat. “Laurie and Jo on the Hill” is one of the film’s other pivotal scenes – a moment of passionate desperation for the moment where Laurie expresses his love for Jo, and Jo shockingly turns him down – which Desplat captures with a heartfelt rendering of Jo’s theme that moves through the orchestra and somehow seems to express all the conflict and all the pent-up feelings in just over 60 seconds.

The sprightly scherzo in “Carriage Ride” is sharp and a little spiky – a perfect accompaniment for the personality of Meryl Streep’s Aunt March, whose carriage is the carriage in question. I love how Desplat has taken the rhythmic part of Amy’s theme and alternately transferred it between pizzicato strings, plucked harps, and perky pianos, so that it not only places her in Aunt March’s conveyance, but also has the affect of mimicking the clip-clop of her horse’s hooves. It’s just brilliant. The penultimate four cues, from “Snow in the Garden” through to “Dr March’s Daughters,” range through most of the score’s main themes with lightness and sweetness and such dexterity in the orchestration, it’s almost impossible not to be swept up in the overarching sense of wholesome gaiety and whimsical charm. The conclusive “It’s Romance” ends the score with a buoyant and appropriately tender final statement of Jo’s theme that is just superb.

I cannot recommend the score for Little Women highly enough, especially to anyone who has found themselves previously enamored by any of Alexandre Desplat’s classical romance scores. His music here is everything one would expect it to be; it overflows with gorgeous orchestrations, sublime instrumental combinations and harmonies, a dramatic sense of freedom and movement, effortless elegance, and lush emotional content. It works like gangbusters in the film, allowing what could otherwise have been a somewhat staid and stuffy adaptation of a 150-year-old novel to take flight as a passionate, exciting story of romance and female empowerment. The thematic content is perhaps a little on the subtle side, and may not immediately become apparent to those who need more overt and memorable melodic writing in order to connect with a score, but for me this is a minor quibble which in no way detracts from the overall excellence of the piece. If you loved The Light Between Oceans, or any of the other mature romance and drama scores I mentioned earlier, this will be perfectly attuned to your sensibility. If this doesn’t receive at least an Oscar nomination, I will be astonished.

Buy the Little Women soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Little Women (3:12)
  • Plumfield (3:38)
  • The Beach (2:48)
  • Christmas Morning (2:53)
  • Dance on the Porch (1:08)
  • Ice Skating (2:13)
  • The Book (3:36)
  • Father Comes Home (3:18)
  • Christmas Breakfast (2:33)
  • Amy (1:25)
  • Friedrich Dances with Jo (1:34)
  • Telegram (1:49)
  • Theatre in the Attic (2:27)
  • Laurie Kisses Amy (1:23)
  • Friedrich (1:32)
  • Laurie and Jo on the Hill (1:01)
  • Young Love (1:34)
  • Meg’s Dress (4:26)
  • Carriage Ride (1:48)
  • Laurie (0:55)
  • The Letter (1:45)
  • Snow in the Garden (2:39)
  • Jo Writes (3:49)
  • Amy, Fred, Meg & John (3:48)
  • Dr March’s Daughters (4:46)
  • It’s Romance (1:23)

Running Time: 63 minutes 38 seconds

Sony Classical (2019)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Jean-Pascal Beintus. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley. Edited by Suzana Peric and Cecile Tournesac. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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