Obituary | Michel Colombier
Composer of French and Hollywood film scores

The Guardian, Friday November 19, 2004

By Patrick O'Connor

Michel Colombier, who has died of cancer aged 65, was one of the most prolific film composers in France and the US for four decades. He became known in Hollywood as "the Funky Frenchman", and his recordings from the early 1970s, especially Wings and Old Fool Back On Earth, have become cult albums.

Colombier was born in Lyon, but grew up in the upper Alsace city of Mulhouse, where his father played in the local opera orchestra. As an infant, Colombier became fascinated by music, and was taught piano and violin by his father before entering the Paris Conservatoire.

Like many French musicians of his generation, he was enthralled by American jazz, once it became available again after the second world war, and, from the age of 14 he began to improvise and play jazz-influenced pieces.

He studied composition with Michel Magne, who was guided by the school of Schoenberg and Webern, but he considered that his pupil had "combined the flower of the soul with the modernism of our days for a better popularity".

Colombier himself said that it took him a long time to get rid of a fascination with romanticism, because he "subconsciously equated the creative process with pain, tragedy, difficulty". This stood him in good stead later when composing for television productions such as Murder In My Mind (1997) and Buried Alive (1990).

In 1961, Colombier was engaged as a musical director for Barclay Records in Paris, and his first assignment was to arrange Charles Aznavour's latest recording, his first in English.

The following year came his first filmwork, as an arranger for Claude Lelouch's L'Amour Avec Des Si, and during the following 15 years he composed music and songs for some of the top European directors, including Marcel Carné (Les Assassins De L'Ordre, 1971), Vittorio de Sica (Un Monde Nouveau, 1966), Claude Chabrol (Marie-Chantal Contre Le Docteur Kha, 1965), Jean Valère (La Femme Écarlate, 1968), William Klein (Mr Freedom, 1969), Phillipe Labro (L'Héretier, 1973, and L'Alpagueur, 1976), and, above all, Jean-Pierre Melville for Un Flic (1972) and Jacques Demy for Une Chambre En Ville (1982). This was Demy's first all-sung film since Les Parapluies De Cherbourg, but his usual composer, Michel Legrand, had rejected the subject as being too gloomy.

Colombier did not compose directly for the story, but improvised a series of themes, which he then played to Demy, who assigned them to the scenes he thought they suited. Although the film was not a commercial success, it was hailed as a milestone in French musical film.

In 1967, Colombier had begun to work with the composer/singer Serge Gainsbourg; their first film together was Si J'étais Un Espion (1967), and this led to collaboration on more films, records, and a series of revues at the Casino de Paris, staged by Roland Petit for his wife, Zizi Jeanmaire.

In particular, one song, Élisa (in Zizi Je T'aime, 1972) attained immediate cult status. As it was staged, with Zizi as a tearful streetwalker bidding farewell to a trainful of soldiers bound for the front, Colombier's use of sound effects and stereo was startling. Much later, after Gainsbourg's death in 1991, the song became the subject of the film Élisa (1995), directed by Jean Becker.

Colombier was engaged in 1968 as musical director for Petula Clark's American tour, and in New York he met Herb Alpert, of Tijuana Brass fame, who introduced him to A&M Records, where he was signed as artist/composer/performer. This led to Wings (1970), labelled "the first pop symphony", using a rock band, symphony orchestra, electric string trio, full brass section, soloists and choir.

Although he continued to work in France until the mid-1970s, gradually America became his home, and he composed music for dozens of films. Through working on White Nights (1985) for the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Colombier met choreographer Twyla Tharp, with whom he created a dozen ballets for her dance company. Earlier, in Brussels, he had worked with Maurice Béjart, on Messe Pour Le Temps Présent (1967), cowritten with Pierre Henry.

Among Colombier's other American films were Purple Rain, Against All Odds (both 1984) and The Golden Child (1986). More recent television series included Largo Winch (2001), Messiah (2001 and 2003) and Tales From The Crypt (1989).

Diarmuid Lawrence, director of Messiah, wrote: "The music came from some pretty dark and scary places, so much so that when he reached for the more conventional strings ... it felt as if your head had been allowed out of the water, though only for a brief respite."

Percussionist Michael Fisher, who worked with Colombier on White Nights and several other films, added: "He is as comfortable behind the computer sequencer as he is holding the baton, or creating a full score on paper utilising his own imagination for full orchestra and ensemble."

Colombier is survived by his wife Dana, their two daughters; Siena and Arabella, daughter Emily and his sister, Marie-Francoise Hoessler. There are also three other children from previous marriages in France; Christian, Agathe & David.

Michel Colombier, composer, born May 23 1939; died November 14 2004

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