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‘Little Women’: How Composer Alexandre Desplat Channeled Mozart and Bowie for Saoirse Ronan’s Jo

The two-time Oscar winner was surprised that director Greta Gerwig turned his score into a ballet.

BTS:  Jo March (Saoirse Ronan)  Director/Writer Greta Gerwig on the set of Greta Gerwig's LITTLE WOMEN.

Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig on the set of “Little Women”

Wilson Webb

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After reading Greta Gerwig’s radical, non-linear adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” composer Alexandre Desplat asked the director what she musically had in mind: “Mozart meets David Bowie,” was her unexpected reply. He was taken aback, but had no intention of creating some sort of retro/modern fusion. Yet after digging deeper, he began contemplating the youthful energy of Mozart and the restless energy of Bowie.

“I thought of it as ambivalence,” said Desplat, the two-time Oscar winner (“The Shape of Water,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). “The music should always have gravitas and be joyful and have a lot of rhythm, like Mozart had, and like David Bowie had. Some melody line that you can follow.”

But the best musical strategy was capturing the creative thought process of Saoirse Ronan’s Jo as she’s writing her autobiographical novel about her family. That was inherent in Gerwig’s storytelling in the way she championed Jo as a literary, proto-feminist trailblazer from the late 19th Century.

“Little Women”

Sony

“It’s not the story of a writer — it’s a story being written,” he said. “The emotion of her mind, jumping from one idea to another, with chord changes, which are unexpected but still going forward, pushing the ink into the pen, to go faster. I didn’t think of the narration as flashbacks. She doesn’t know how to put the story together, where to start, she’s all over the place. And when you think of childhood, you don’t think of linear continuity. Memories are filled with faces and incidents. The beach, the snow, your teacher, your siblings.”

The opening of the movie, with Jo rushing through the street to pitch her short story to a New York editor (Tracy Letts), pushed the composer to think of running the melodies rhythmically as she’s running. “And the music is swinging somehow,” said Desplat. “It’s like punctuation when you write. That’s what I wanted to find for the film, these moments of punctuation, acceleration, unexpected change of chords of instruments.”

As far as instrumentation, Desplat emphasized strings and piano, with the occasional harp for solitary moments of melancholy. “As much as the costumes, the makeup, the hair, are incredibly modern, they still seem of the 19th Century,” he added. “And I was obsessed about [the number four because of the four sisters]. The string quartet…taking two Grand pianos and four hands. Melodic lines, both in the upper register, both in the lower register.”

"Little Women"

“Little Women”

Sony

And Desplat was inspired by the beauty of nature that was like a snow globe, and the grace of the performances (including Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth). “They have all these dreams of passion and being romantic, having incredible lives as artists,” he said. “They are incredible characters that Louisa May Alcott created.”

But the composer was pleasantly surprised at the amount of music in the movie. It was wall to wall, like a ballet. “I had no idea that Greta wanted the music to be a driving force of the film until I saw it,” said Desplat. “I thought the music would be playing and helping us going through the characters and also into the narration. This is rare to be mistaken, but Greta was so open to what the music could bring.”

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