Midway through May December, a minor character who is an amateur singer approaches a famous actress (played by Natalie Portman). He has learnt that production companies hire people to select music for movies and seeks her help.
“You could put in a good word for me if you hear about an opening,” the delusional deadbeat says (or something to that effect). “I’m great at choosing songs.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Portman mumbles as she disappears into a waiting car.
I didn’t know about music supervisors either. Besides making me aware of that role, the film has the merit of wonderfully illustrating its importance.
One second into the opening credits I jumped. I’d heard those two obsessive notes a lifetime ago in a Paris cinema: it was the soundtrack to Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between. Whoever decided to recycle Michel Legrand’s score for May December is a genius.
The director, Todd Haynes, uses it in the same way Losey did back in 1971: insistently, unsettlingly, loudly. The main theme goes into abeyance for a while, or sometimes fades into variations, before erupting again.
The soundtrack, I would argue, serves May December even better than it did The Go-Between. The latter (scripted by Harold Pinter from LP Hartley’s great novel) is a relatively straightforward story of forbidden love, told from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy. Young Leo does not understand what is going on but the viewer does.
Haynes’ film is also about a dangerous liaison seen through the eyes of a baffled outsider. But there the similarity ends.
The Natalie Portman figure spends a few weeks with a woman she is going to portray in a biopic. Two decades earlier, that woman made headlines over an affair with a 13-year-old, whom she eventually married and had children with.
To prepare for the role, the actress wants to know what makes her subject tick. She also wants to understand the family dynamic: what do the kids think? What about the children from the woman’s earlier marriage (who include the abovementioned delusional deadbeat)? Did she entrap her teenage lover all those years ago? Why does the now husband stay with an older, difficult person?
The film suggests underlying strains without elaborating. The main character (a superb Julianne Moore) blurts out the odd outrageous remark in a casual monotone, but she doesn’t do anything openly awful. The viewer is never sure whether she’s a manipulative bitch, a self-absorbed halfwit, or both. The husband remains a sphinx with a weird passion for caterpillars.
Legrand’s ominous keyboard progressions are perfect for a disturbing family drama. A few days before seeing the film, by sheer coincidence, I told my wife over dinner that that theme tune had haunted me for over half a century.
Had I been consulted as music co-ordinator, I would have recommended it for May December.
Over the years, in fact, I have compiled a list of tracks that would work for any movie — comedy, tragedy, thriller, etc. I’m obviously great at choosing songs. If you’re in the business and hear about an opening, maybe you could put in a good word for me.