For the characters in Greta Gerwig’s recent film adaptation of Little Women (2019), music is an essential part of their lives. Beth (the third of four March sisters) is a gifted pianist, as is Professor Bhaer, Jo March’s love interest. Mr. Laurence grows emotional as he listens to Beth play chords in his empty manor house, and Laurie and Jo meet at a ball and boisterously dance to Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12 (although this is anachronistic, given that Little Women takes place around thirty years before Dvořák wrote this piece). It is evident that the story is driven by music.
In the same way, Alexandre Desplat’s Little Women score is an indispensable part of the cinematic experience. Gerwig’s take on the beloved classic makes use of a non-linear temporal framework, and Desplat’s film score does the necessary work of braiding together scenes that happen in different times and places. From Civil War-era Massachusetts to Paris of the Impressionists, his craft, paired with Gerwig’s direction, makes for a seamless viewing experience. Indeed, the success of Gerwig’s Little Women depends upon the film score’s unwavering continuity.
Alexandre Desplat boasts a prolific career in the film industry. He has composed music for numerous box office hits, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (parts I and II), The Danish Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shape of Water; the latter two for which he won Academy Awards. Little Women maintains the rhythmic sensibility and otherworldliness of Desplat’s previous works, and in so doing, marks a startling departure from scores that accompanied previous film adaptations of Little Women.
Notably, Desplat’s Little Women score runs nearly twice as long as Thomas Newman’s 1995 Little Women composition, yet Desplat’s album feels swifter and more fluid than its predecessor. Desplat’s work is well-paced, balanced, and metronomic. It is equally reliant upon the strings, keyboard, and wind instruments, and the songs drip into one another, causing the entire work to attain a sort of hypnotic sameness. Despite this, each song manages to illustrate an individual thought or emotion that corresponds to a given point in the film. The best songs sway to extreme ends of this arc: for example ‘The Book’ is soaring and hopeful, which contrasts sharply with ‘Friedrich Dances with Jo,’ a hesitant, quieter conversation between harp and keyboard. Other noteworthy moments include the building anticipation in ‘Jo Writes’, the sudden end to ‘Ice Skating’, and ‘Carriage Ride,’ for its exceptional use of pizzicato.
Any great film score must fulfill a paradox. It needs to be a standalone achievement, existing independently of the story it illustrates, while also blending seamlessly into the background of that story itself. Desplat’s film score does exactly this. The score’s staccato notes accentuate the plot, from Jo’s bookish ambitions to Beth’s frail health, and yet the music is also a character in itself: both descriptive and worth describing. This is what makes Desplat’s Little Women a standout accomplishment, entirely deserving of its recent Academy Award nomination.