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Alexandre Desplat: Soundtrack Composer Making Waves In Hollywood

With his award-winning The Shape Of Water score, Alexandre Desplat furthered a stunningly varied career as one of Hollywood’s most inventive composers.

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Photo: Brigitte LaCombe

With his score for the blockbusting movie The Shape Of Water notching up countless awards – among them a BAFTA, Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Original Music Score – the great French composer, orchestrator and conductor Alexandre Desplat is the name on everyone’s lips in the world of Hollywood soundtracks. With over 100 scores and a bulging number of accolades, this talented musician follows in the tradition of Maurice Jarre, Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota and Georges Delerue, though he nailed his colours to the cinema mast after being inspired by John Williams’ score to Star Wars.

Deep classical roots

Born in Paris, on 23 August 1961, Desplat has deep classical roots: the romantic symphonists and Ravel and Debussy are heroes, yet he also has a deep knowledge of world music, Brazilian and African music, and jazz. Trained on piano and trumpet, with flute his main instrument, his signature style lies in the string arrangements. The violinist Dominique “Solrey” Lemonnier is a muse – his go-to soloist, concertmaster, artistic director and wife. Her influence makes the duo a formidable team.

Alexandre had scored 50 European films before he emerged as a name in Hollywood with his soundtrack to Peter Webber’s Girl With A Pearl Earring (2003). Straddling the European and American movie scene, he received his first Academy Award nomination for Stephen Frears’ 2005 movie, The Queen, and topped that with a marvellously evocative soundtrack to John Curran’s The Painted Veil, performed by Lang Lang And Prague Symphony Orchestra.

A prolific work rate

Desplat’s work rate is remarkably prolific: 2008 alone produced memorable scores for Ange Lee’s Lust, Caution and David Fincher’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. His atmospheric and baroque score to Roman Polanski’s political thriller The Ghost Writer (2010) won him a César and a second European Film Award.

With his sales on the upward curve – Twilight: New Moon (directed by Chris Weitz) went platinum – the name Alexandre Desplat has become synonymous with soundtracks that put flesh on the bone and bring images to life. That much is evident on his scores to Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, that latter idiosyncratic movie confounding the concept that difficult films find it hard to touch a public nerve. It didn’t, and Desplat won the BAFTA, the Grammy Award and received an Academy Award nomination.

Now composing up to ten film scores a year, as well as music for television, the theatre and advertising, Alexandre Desplat perfected the art of working fast and to order, his ideas pouring forth with remarkable clarity. Explaining his process to BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions, Desplat revealed that he requires solitude and the pressures of the deadline. His musical choices on the show reflected his diverse influences – Boulez, Haydn, Miles Davis, Janáček, and his mother’s Greek heritage. That cultural melting pot was the product of his French upbringing in a household where music was a constant presence.

A unique stamp

With the start of a new decade, the big, important work flooded in. Across 2010 and 2011, Desplat scored both parts of David Yates’ Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, the second of which became the third most successful movie of all time. Never content to rest on his laurels, however, Alexandre Desplat showed his eclecticism again across nine varying scores in 2011: Terence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, Polanski’s Carnage and George Clooney’s The Ides Of March were all radically different in their way and yet Desplat’s unique stamp is undeniable. Particularly entrancing was his work on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, for which he captured the elements of fantasy and wit necessary to underscore that magical animation. His score and additional music on the Abbey Road mixes shifted bucketloads as the movie made the transition from cult favourite to mainstream acclaim.

Desplat’s palette expanded again with the Herrmann-esque music for Ben Affleck’s thriller Argo, which required dramatic and atmospheric menace. His deft and lighter touch is discernible in scores for Clooney’s The Monuments Men and Polanski’s Venus In Furs, while British soundtrack enthusiasts will know the compelling and emotional work he put into Stephen Frears’ Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Here his sparse, less-is-more approach paid dividends in a film that captivates at all times. Desplat himself describes that score as one of his toughest to complete, but also one of his most rewarding. Given the dark subject matter surrounding the tale of a 70-year-old woman with a hidden secret, the composer’s ability to add a keynote tone was a triumph. “It’s difficult to imagine how music can relate to that,” Desplat admitted, but he managed it with persistent themes that echo the evolution of the story.

By extreme contrast, Desplat took relish in the blockbuster effects necessary to score Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014). Then came the big one: his work on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, another left-field piece, garnered a BAFTA, another Grammy and his first Oscar.

Nothing he can’t turn his hand to

From here on out, there seemed to be nothing Alexandre Desplat couldn’t turn his hand to. The biographical comedy-drama Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), a glorious romp starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, saw him work with Frears again on a movie that is all about fulfilling a dream. In this instance, Desplat really became a part of the ensemble and that enjoyment is manifest in the listening experience. Plucking more strings from his bow, the score to The Danish Girl (2016) required a more systematic and linear approach that Desplat nailed. In fact, his contributions might be the best thing about that film.

Alexandre’s score to Clooney’s Suburbicon (2017) cemented a close working relationship with the actor turned director, and though the movie’s black comedy divided opinion, Alexandre Desplat won justified plaudits for the sophisticated and highly stylised approach he brought to bear in reflecting life behind the picket fence in 50s America. Staying true to the spirit, Desplat’s score here reflects a deep-seated knowledge of Herrmann and Elmer Bernstein, and is particularly recommended among his work.

With 2012’s Rise Of The Guardians, a Dreamworks 3D computer-animated fantasy based on William Joyce’s book series, Desplat struck up a fruitful friendship with Guillermo Del Toro, an executive producer on the movie; that relationship bore full fruit with the score for The Shape Of Water, for which Del Toro had no hesitation in employing Desplat. The central concept of having the viewer/listener floating in water enthralled the composer, who rose to the challenge with a European score that also features accordion, bandoneon, whistling and South American tango… and which all adds up to a bewitching experience.

In Desplat’s words, “Water takes the shape of everything. It goes through the air, it’s invisible, transparent, but it still has a lot power.” That also goes some way to describing the work of this remarkable Parisian composer, who has the world before him.

The The Shape Of Water soundtrack can be bought here.

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