Remembering the Work of Maurice Jarre (1924-2009)


“Did the projector bulb burn out or something?” was my very first reaction to hearing a score by Maurice Jarre, the composer behind some of the finest movie music ever, who died on March 29th.

I was 15 years old when I first saw Lawrence of Arabia — and, frankly, I only went because my history teacher offered extra credit for it.  There had just been a restoration of the film and a 70 mm print was being shown at a local theater called the Cine Capri (a relic of a grander time).  I realize now that, walking into the theater on that day, my expectations of “what a movie was” had been calibrated against the movies of my era. I doubt that I had ever seen anything that substantially deviated from the pacing and structure of the 90 minute multiplex blockbuster.

The lights went down and Jarre’s score began.

For over four minutes, we all sat in darkness while the music played.

Let There Be Light

The 15-year-old version of me wondered how could there be music with no pictures in a movie.   I simply had no frame of reference for what was happening.

But as Jarre’s overture played, I remember starting to feel like I was being drawn into something more deeply with every minute that passed.  And by the time that director David Lean’s images were finally projected onto the Cine Capri’s massive CinemaScope screen, I had been primed to enter into a totally different desert world than the one I inhabited everyday — having been completely lifted out of my suburban Phoenix, Arizona life.

The metaphor of a light bulb turning on over your head may never be more a propos than when it’s happening inside a movie theater.

As I walked outside at the intermission (“Movies can have intermissions?”), I decided that I wanted to see everything that David Lean had ever directed.  Over the years I have, in fact, seen many more of his movies — and along the way I also began to recognize the name “Maurice Jarre” that I often saw during the opening credits.  Jarre was one of the great, classically trained “big movie music” arrangers and composers that I’ve come to admire: John Williams, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, and their ilk.  Maurice Jarre wrote scores for dozens of movies, but is certainly best known for his work with Lean.

The Year of Living Dangerously

Coincidentally at around the same time that I saw “Lawrence”, I also watched Peter Weir’s  The Year Of Living Dangerously on television.  It became another of my favorite films and, although I didn’t realize it at the time, it also was scored by Maurice Jarre (as well as having some cool synthesizer contributions by Vangelis).  With a story set in Indonesia, its score features some interesting gamelan elements. The arrangements are both sparse and intimate — Jarre’s work this time drawing you in to the world of the film not with the bombast of a full orchestra, but with a dreamlike music that feels like it drifts in from a small village town square.

Jarre had a gift for gracefully scaling the size of his music to the size of the drama that it was supposed to animate. I think very few composers could possess the deftness of touch — the dynamic range, if you will — that takes one from the sparse Indo-Synth of “Kwan’s Sacrifice” to the melody of “Lara’s Theme” — and up to the sweeping grandeur and orchestral bombast of the main overture to Lawrence of Arabia.

Beyond the Uncanny Valley

Films like Lawrence Of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage To India belonged to that era in the movie business before the digital domain began to cast a sort of “patina of unreality” over both the music and the images within motion pictures.   Much like the epic sweep of these movies, Jarre’s compositions usually required an army-sized orchestra to properly execute his vision. 

Don’t get me wrong:  I’ve always loved new technology and I am enthusiastic about its use to make movies and music. But let’s be honest — part of why these tools have value is because they can help talented people who lack the resources and personnel of a well-funded film/music studio to create something out of next-to-nothing.  When something is created in the “real world”, the finished product looks or sounds “more real”.  Clever use of CGI can make it look like an army is riding across a desert without the time and expense of traveling to a location to shoot the footage — but it can’t make it as stirring as David Lean did in “Lawrence”. I think that there’s a musical parallel here as well: Synthesizers and samplers are wonderful at reproducing sounds, but they can’t quite replicate the effect of a hundred people playing in a room together.

At least… not yet!

The Real Thing

In the modern grammar of cinema, “doing things for real” may be as archaic or quaint as using “betwixt” instead of “between” — but I suspect that I’m not the only one who perceives a qualitative difference between a real guy jumping off of a real building and a guy flailing around in front of a green screen

And who knows — maybe the newest generation of moviegoers doesn’t perceive a value in the difference between the two. All I know is that I do.

Maurice Jarre was the real thing and he’ll be missed.   If you’re a fan of music, it’s worth Googling around and reading how his music affected other people. In art, there is always a difference between doing what is sufficient and striving for something sublime. Maurice Jarre’s work exemplifies the latter.

Listen to some of these soundtracks and watch the master at work:

Doctor Zhivago

Lawrence of Arabia

Be Sure To Check Out…

Maurice Jarre: A Tribute to David Lean

The Essential Maurice Jarre Film Collection

The Essential Maurice Jarre Film Collection

The Year Of Living Dangerously: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Lawrence Of Arabia (Re-recording of 1962 Film)

Doctor Zhivago: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – The Deluxe Thirtieth Anniversary Edition

Passage To India