Los Angeles, California – This whole musically magical evening could be written about using only the song titles of Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s work as the text, but “Where Do You Start?” so I’m just going to take it “Nice and Easy.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has wonderful programs throughout the year, with the only problem with the tickets not being the couple of dollars they cost but their scarcity. This program was a sell-out for obvious reasons, with the common denominator of this diverse audience being the obvious love and admiration of the Bergmans and their friends. There they all were in the first couple of rows of the audience -– the crème de la crème of those who have created some of the most memorable “movie music” known. There wasn’t a prima donna amongst them. No hoopla, no histrionics — just the honorees and invited guests sitting there, patiently waiting their turn to be onstage with their friends and let us bask in the warmth of their shared creativity and comradeship. The stage had only a beautiful piano and four large lounge chairs for conversation. The Academy’s large stage couldn’t have been more intimate.
“I can’t imagine what my life would have been without you,” Jones told the Bergmans from the stage, adding to the crowd that their legacy is not only their work but also “their integrity and profound humanity.” The next two-and-a-half hours consisted of film clips, live musical performances and on-stage conversation with musical collaborators and the Bergmans themselves reinforcing Jones’ earlier statement.
Singer Patti Austin, who just happens to be Quincy Jones’ god daughter, charmingly and warmly opened the show performing “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” After that, she moved to “The Girl Who Used to Be Me” with music by Hamlisch, and then finished with “What Matters Most,” the last with composer Dave Grusin at the piano.
To see the composer casually take the stage and ease on to the piano bench to play his own material is always special, and that was just the beginning.
Next we were treated to Michel Legrand, who’d flown in from Paris just for this evening. So sweet, charming, unassuming and, as a composer, nonpareil. Alan Bergman came on stage and joined Legrand at the piano, and the musical perfection was going to be ours: the lyricist singing his own words and the composer accompanying him playing his own music. Just the two of them. And then it was made even more sublime. They were going to perform “Windmills of Your Mind” behind the clip from the original Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen, who is swooping soundlessly through the blue, blue sky in the complete silence of being in a glider with only their music behind it. It’s such a classically beautiful scene.
Mr. Bergman explained that director Norman Jewison had shown them the footage and asked for a song that “underlined the anxiety” McQueen’s character was feeling. Alan Bergman recalled that when they gave composer Legrand their tentative title, he immediately went to the piano and improvised a melody, asking, “You mean something like that?” Luckily, they were recording the session, and the tune -– which Legrand said he probably couldn’t repeat -– was preserved on tape. So there is the grace and beauty of the scene while keeping in mind that, for McQueen’s character, “music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak” (William Congreve) and, in this case, have an entire audience holding its breath in rapt attention.
Alan Bergman and Michel Legrand perform “The Windmills of Your Mind.”
Jones brought both Marilyn and Alan Bergman to the stage to discuss their work. Dave Grusin spoke fondly of Tootsie director Sydney Pollack as one of few directors who “actually left space in the middle of a movie for a song,” and the Bergmans as co-writers who would “go anywhere you want to go musically.”
James Newton Howard, whose work with them includes “Places That Belong to You” from The Prince of Tides, added that, with the Bergmans, “you don’t see the technique… their lyrics are direct, honest… it just seems effortless.” But Marilyn talked about the complexity of their assignment on The Happy Ending (1970), where director Richard Brooks had asked for a single song to be played twice -– first as a young couple was falling in love, then 15 years later as their marriage has dissolved. The clips of these two heart-wrenching scenes with the now-famous, Oscar-nominated tune “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” were shown as the audience sighed in recognition in agreement, possibly remembering who they were with and where when they first saw this movie and heard the song.
The Bergmans talked about how fortunate they had been “to write with these marvelous composers” and added that “there are words on the tips of these notes, and we have to find them.” The Bergmans’ use of implicit verbs versus stated verbs seems to give “the words on the tips of these notes” the needed depth that should be there in the shorthand of poetry, and that’s what their lyrics are.
Barbra Streisand took the stage to discuss their long friendship and the collaboration on Yentl. She described their lyrics as “profound and poetic” and said they had “an exquisite way of expressing affairs of the heart.”
This was along with a “loving hands at home” video of Streisand rehearsing with the Bergmans for Yentl – all in costumes and trying out scenes with them playing the parts, since, at that time, there was no money in the budget because there was no budget! “It was always fun to come to your house and supposedly work,” she said. And this rare piece of footage proved it. It was just like in a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie with the famous, “Come on, kids, let’s put on a show.” Of course, Streisand’s “show” became movie history. Streisand announced that she would soon record an all-Bergman-song album and, with that, there was nothing more to be said.
It was time to wrap it up for this once in a lifetime event. There had been “Something for Everybody” (Happy Ending) with this “Piece of the Sky” (Yentl) and now, just “The Music of Good-Bye” (Out of Africa). But, as long as there are the Bergmans, we know “It’s All There” (Switch).