Why the music for the viral “May December” hot dog scene is problematic

Taking music from an old film and putting it in a new film is “like wearing someone else’s underwear,” said veteran composer Earl Hagen.

Hagan, the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning composer of such classic themes as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mod Squad,” would be horrified by the musical choices on Netflix’s “May December.”

A scene from this film in which Julianne Moore opens her refrigerator door to the melodramatic sound of a piano has gone viral. It’s a funny moment if you don’t recognize this music.

But if you do, like thousands of moviegoers around the world, then it’s either worth the goosebumps or the head-scratching. The music in question is Michel Legrand’s score for The Go-Between, a 1971 classic of English cinema directed by Joseph Losey from a screenplay by noted playwright Harold Pinter.

The Go-Between was a period romantic drama starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie and has been hailed over the years as “one of the world’s great films” and “Lozy’s masterpiece,” among other accolades.

In the same year, he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Legrand’s score — classically structured as a theme and 11 variations for two pianos and orchestra, reflecting his studies at the Paris Conservatoire — is among the greatest works of the French composer, conductor, pianist and singer, who died in 2019.

And while other Legrand films (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Summer of ’42,” “Yentl”) and popular songs (“The Windmills of Your Mind,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”) may be better known, “The Go-Between” is considered one of his masterpieces.

He often performed the entire 21-minute suite in concert, playing one of the pianos himself. Context is everything. Legrand composed the music especially for “The Go-Between”.

It’s a powerful presence in the 1971 film, when an impressionable schoolboy (Dominic Gard) passes love notes from an aristocrat (Christie) to a tenant farmer (Bates), which ultimately leads to tragedy.

This, of course, has nothing to do with “May December,” based on the true story from the 1990s of a teacher who has an affair with a sixth-grader; Moore plays the woman and Natalie Portman is the actress who will play her in a movie.

Retuning soundtracks – especially classical soundtracks – is never a good idea. When Michelle Hazanavicius did it in The Artist, setting Vertigo’s Bernard Herrmann’s score against a climactic scene, an outraged Kim Novak ran an ad in Diversity stating, “I want to report rape. I feel as if my body, or at least my work, has been violated.’

She voiced the complaints of thousands of moviegoers who were distracted, bewildered and irritated by the presence of music that was created for and inseparable from Hitchcock’s masterpiece. As one critic said at the time, “It takes you out of one movie and puts you in the mindset of another.”

Sci-fi fans are still irritated, 44 years later, by Ridley Scott’s ill-fated choice to use excerpts of Jerry Goldsmith’s 1963 score for “Freud” in “The Alien” instead of the new score Goldsmith wrote for him.

May December director Todd Haynes has benefited greatly from the fine music composers have written for him in the past. Elmer Bernstein’s score for Far From Heaven and Carter Burwell’s score for Carol were nominated for Oscars, and Burwell’s score for Mildred Pierce won an Emmy.

And the irony of the May December score is that when composer Marcelo Zarvos is allowed to deviate from Legrand’s music, that music is effective. If the rest of the score were original, it would feel like it belonged solely to the film – not as off-putting second-hand music.

Stanley Kubrick’s famous use of excerpts from classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey is something else. These pieces were not designed as an artistic element of another film and had no previous cinematic associations.

Composers craft their scores specifically for the story in question; this is a commission for an original work—in this case, Legrand’s result was brilliant. It should not be treated as some kind of commodity to be bought, sold and traded.

All it does is cheapen the new movie. Like wearing someone else’s underwear.

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