Michel Colombier

Composer of effective film scores who achieved both classical and pop success
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The Independent Online

Straddling the worlds of theatre and film, and classical and popular music, the award-winning French composer Michel Colombier scored over 100 films and television movies in France and the United States, as well as working with many pop stars.

Michel Colombier, composer: born Paris 23 May 1939; three times married (two sons, four daughters); died Santa Monica, California 14 November 2004.

Straddling the worlds of theatre and film, and classical and popular music, the award-winning French composer Michel Colombier scored over 100 films and television movies in France and the United States, as well as working with many pop stars.

Born in Paris in 1939, Michel began his musical education at six, with his father's traditional curriculum including studying organ and Gregorian chant. But by the age of 14 he had a sideline working as an arranger and player in jazz bands. At 18, after a year's study with the avant-garde composer Michel Magne, Michel Colombier entered the French army for three years, further broadening his musical experience.

After leaving the army he became musical director of Barclay Records, immediately working with Quincy Jones on Charles Aznavour's first English-language album, and collaborations with pop and jazz musicians were to mark the rest of his career. He worked particularly closely with Serge Gainsbourg, and their song "Elisa" became the inspiration for the 1995 film of that name.

In 1968 Petula Clark invited Colombier to be her musical director in America and introduced him to Herb Alpert at A&M Records. Here he recorded the album Wings (1971), an example of the then-popular genre where pop and classical musicians joined forces on expansive projects.

As a child Colombier had imagined the artist as a Chopinesque romantic figure reliant on inspiration, but he later realised the importance of a professional attitude. Part of this is being able to find appropriate styles for different films and, having started in the industry in the mid-1960s, he became very adept. In the 1970s his various styles were employed in scores as diverse as L'héritier ( The Solicitor, 1973) with its lazy, jazzy lounge and the alternating rock and Psycho-ish strings in L'alpagueur ( Hunter (Will Get You!), 1976). His versatility led to work with directors including Claude Chabrol and Bertrand Blier.

Unsurprisingly, given his background in pop, melody was at the centre of his art and a particularly touching song forms the basis of his score for Le hasard et la violence ( Chance and Violence, 1974), simply rendered at the beginning of the film, but growing to a climactic orchestral rendition at the end.

In 1982 he scored Jacques Demy's film Une chambre en ville ( A Room in Town) in which all the dialogue was sung. But despite critical success - Colombier picked up a César, the French Oscar - it proved less popular than its predecessor, despite critics paying for an advert in Le Monde extolling its virtues.

Up to this point, Colombier's success in American cinema had been limited, but Against All Odds (1984), a remake of the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947) began a run of higher profile US projects that continued through the decade. Phil Collins provided the film's title song but Colombier's main title, with its obsessive bass line and fractured melody, effectively ramps up the tension, updating noir scoring with 1980s electropop.

This was followed by Purple Rain (1984), Prince's quasi-autobiography, and White Nights (1985), a defecting-dancer drama starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines . In 1986 he scored three comedies: The Money Pit, Ruthless People and The Golden Child, enhancing his reputation for the genre and he followed them with The Couch Trip (1988), and in 1989 Who's Harry Crumb?, Out Cold and, back in France, Astérix et le coup de menhir ( Asterix and the Big Fight), for which he wrote the song "Zonked". But apart from the enjoyably brainless French entry, the later films barely raised a smile and Colombier's scores were left struggling to help.

He had his share of films that courted the wrong sort of controversy. Though financially successful, The Golden Child was critically mauled. The Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire (1996) attracted derision and one of Colombier's last features was the Madonna-and-husband project Swept Away (2002), which in Britain went straight to DVD. Unfortunately, this kind of publicity often diverted attention away from Colombier's effective scores.

Nevertheless, he continued his successful and varied career largely in television, as well as working with artists including the Kronos String Quartet, Branford Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin. Colombier composed more than twenty ballets for choreographers including Maurice Béjart. His success as a pop musician is underlined by recent remixes of his work by DJs including William Orbit and Fat Boy Slim.

John Riley



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