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Comments about the soundtrack for Little Women (2019) (Alexandre Desplat)

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• Posted by: AhN   <Send E-Mail>
• Date: Thursday, October 29, 2020, at 10:19 p.m.
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I wrote the following analysis of the score and the way Desplat handles the film's timeline hopping structure for Film Score Monthly. At the end there's an arrangement of the score in film order. Hope you find this helpful!

Like many classic novels, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been adapted for film numerous times, including a delightful and widely acclaimed version released last year, written and directed by Greta Gerwig. One source of praise for the newest iteration is the way Gerwig splits the narrative into a present and past timeline, cutting between the two to draw narrative parallels between different points in the story. Often, a conversation or moment in the present will cut to a memory of the past. The distinguishing feature of each timeline is its color palette; the past has an emphasis on warm colors while the present is heavier on blue, contrasting the nostalgic joy of childhood with the harsher reality of adulthood. The exceptions are at the beginning of the film, where the grown-up struggles of the March sisters have yet to fully set in, and the ending, where Gerwig leaves Jo’s happy ending open to interpretation.

Aiding Gerwig’s timeline-hopping is Alexandre Desplat’s score, balancing right alongside the film between vivacious and somber, depending on the period. Unfortunately, this nuance does not come through on the soundtrack album, where the music is arranged in neither film nor book order, but presumably in what Desplat deemed the best standalone arrangement. (See the end of this piece for the correct film order.) Nonetheless, the score as heard in context successfully captures and accentuates the contrast between past and present. The past timeline is addressed with bubbly and joyous cues, typically either jaunty or comforting in tone. Even a piece like “Ice Skating,” which ends in disaster for Amy, is filled with a restless, youthful exuberance. Meanwhile, the present is depicted with slower tempos and heavier chords. Sometimes it’s quite melodramatic in its sadness, as heard in “Amy, Fred, Meg & John,” but it’s just as often weighty, wistful and tired, like the opening of “Meg’s Dress.”

Sometimes, this contrast can be heard within a single cue as Gerwig cuts quickly between two moments in time connected to the same idea. “Theatre in the Attic” is one such example: In the cue’s first half, a little motif is introduced as past-timeline Laurie gives the sisters keys to a mailbox in the woods. While it first appears amidst several overlapping piano lines, barely a minute later the motif is completely deconstructed on violas over ponderous strings when present-day Jo checks the empty mailbox. A similar case occurs in “The Beach,” where at first Beth’s theme whimsically waltzes about as the sisters and their friends enjoy a trip together. As we cut to the present, with Jo and Beth alone by the sea as Beth seems resigned to death, the orchestral colors drain away until there’s just a single harp leading to a piano reprisal of Beth’s theme, frail and tenuous.

The timeline-hopping becomes more rapid as Beth falls ill in the past and gets sicker in the present, building to Desplat’s most devastating emotional punch. In the past, Jo wakes up and rushes down the stairs to find Beth recovered, and a beautiful, warm string passage emerges. It grows in volume as Father March returns home on Christmas morning and the family celebrates their reunion. From Christmas dinner we cut to the present; Jo wakes up again and goes downstairs, but this time Beth is gone. As the March family grieves, Desplat repeats the same melody, this time on a hobbled, heartbreaking piano solo.

“Jo Writes” is melancholy but purposeful, as Jo translates her grief into the beginnings of her book about her and her sisters’ childhoods. While “genius at work” piano is a classic trope of film scoring, the propulsive nature and varied textures of the cue also suggest that she draws upon the energy and vibrancy of her childhood memories to begin telling her story.

Towards the end of the film, the warmth begins to creep back into the blue color palette when Professor Bhaer arrives at the March household. One could interpret this color shift as him bringing happiness back into Jo’s life, particularly after her sisters realize she loves him and persuade her to chase after him. However, the more muted colors in the following scene where Jo negotiates with her publisher indicate that Bhaer’s return and all that follows is entirely fictional, a happy ending Jo concocts for her novel.

Desplat supports this implication with some musical trickery of his own. Early in the movie, the composer introduces a motif for Bhaer, a dreamy, twinkling piano line, and a rare spot of happiness in the present timeline. However, Bhaer’s motif is nowhere to be found as Jo chases him at the end, suggesting a divide between the real and the fictional professor. Instead, Desplat uses an idea related to Jo’s opinion of romance, which he plants in a scene of her and Laurie. Before Laurie proposes to Jo in the penultimate flashback sequence, a hint of a melody is introduced on piano but is quickly snuffed out as she turns him down and insists that she will never marry. The figure returns briefly as she reconsiders marrying him for companionship instead of love. But when Jo crafts a fictitious happy ending for her and Bhaer, the colors are back to the golden warmth of the past timeline, the music is jaunty and playful again, and Desplat’s nascent piano motif from before blossoms into a sumptuous love theme: a storybook ending. It’s one of the score’s most romantic moments, and perhaps an indictment of modern drama films that the composer can only get away with something so outwardly passionate in an extremely stylized and fictional scene.

Then again, this final sequence does offer some ambiguity, cutting between a literal rose-tinted scene at the school Jo founded, and her watching the printing of her book. We hear a snippet of the love theme on cello in counterpoint to Jo’s theme upon seeing Bhaer teaching music to his students. Meanwhile, the piano merrily dances across both sequences, bridging the two seamlessly. Maybe the school scene is also real, and the music confirms it. Maybe it’s Jo’s optimistic vision of the future. Maybe, just like in Atonement, Saoirse Ronan’s writer character fabricated an ending that would leave readers happier, and the piano is merely uniting the school scene and the book printing as products of her imagination. I don’t have a definite answer, but it’s fun to ponder. Gerwig’s ending is left open to interpretation in part because of the way Desplat creates a stark musical contrast between the past and present timelines, enabling him to later breach that divide and blur the line between reality and fiction.

Film Order of the Little Women Score Album (the part y'all are here for):
“Little Women”
“Friedrich Dances With Jo”
“The Letter”
“Christmas Morning”
“Snow in the Garden”
“Christmas Breakfast”
“Theatre in the Attic”
“Ice Skating”
“Meg’s Dress”
“The Beach”
“Amy, Fred, Meg & John”
“Father Comes Home”
“Laurie and Jo on the Hill”
“Laurie Kisses Amy”
“Jo Writes”
“Carriage Ride”
“It’s Romance”
“The Book”

Unused Cues/Suites/Cues I Couldn’t Place in Context:
“Dance on the Porch”
“Dr. March’s Daughters”
“Young Love”

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