Little Women is a story which has been told multiple times, in a multitude of ways. But in her 2019 adaption, Greta Gerwig has reinvented Louisa May Alcott’s much beloved post-Civil-war classic, injecting a heavy dose of feminist sensibility to depict the birth of an artist – and the birth of a piece of art. A fresh and light-footed retelling that touches on contemporary and everlasting issues – women’s rights, an entrenched class system and the desire to find’ one’s self - these aspects are completely inseparable from the theme that’s always been at the very heart of the narrative – family devotion. While it’s an impressive film in every aspect – from the performances of the star-studded cast to the stunning costume design and the complexity of the writing – a key part in its exquisite delivery is a lilting score from Academy Award Winning French composer Alexandre Desplat.
Nominated alongside Gerwig (Best Adapted Screenplay) for Best Original Score at this year’s Oscars, much noise has been made about her direction for the music to be “a duet of Mozart and Bowie.” While this is a tidy quote, the music isn’t the kind of retro-fusion one might expect – instead, Desplat captures the feel of the European classical music favoured during the period depicted, and infuses it with a modern urgency and vivaciousness inspired by both reference points, rather than emulating them.
The result is a score overflowing with life, movement and effervescence – much like the titular Little Women. It also takes pause to reflect on the more serious scenes, deftly illustrating the complexity of the relationships between and surrounding the March sisters, and connecting seemingly disparate events and places by recalling melodies like the recollection of a memory.
This approach is reflective of the way Gerwig has adapted the novel as a non-linear dual narrative, switching between girlhood and womanhood from scene to scene, before then introducing a third narrative that blurs fact and fiction, boldly commenting on the process and economy of creativity. It’s a device that works in two ways – highlighting the presence of an artist in their art, and harnessing the fleeting essence of memory and nostalgia. Or in Desplat’s words, “there’s no twists and turns, there’s moments. The emotions are all piled up. It’s sadness, joy, desire of love, hope. It’s always in layers and the music had to capture that.”
Which brings us back to the very heart and soul of Little Women, the four sisters – headstrong, impulsive Jo... wilful, artistic Amy… maternal, traditional Meg... kindly, shy Beth – and their experience of coming of age in post-civil war Massachusetts. And while each of the four does seem to have a sonic motif associated with them, the theme for Amy is particularly resonant – with lithe strings and delicate piano communicating a sense of longing and romance, peppered with more than a hint of mischief.
Much maligned by a 150-year old audience as “a bratty character with no depth or backbone,”Gerwig herself has expressed her surprised delight at revisiting the novel to find that Amy, is in fact “amazingly insightful and compelling.” This is reflected in a scene where in response to Jo’s shock at her sage wisdom, the youngest March sister exclaims “you were too busy noticing my faults.” Meanwhile, whilst the score subtly changes in tone and melody to represent dominant personality traits, they come together in the same cue, interweaving imperceptibly as scenes unfold. Not only is this a call-out to the audience, but a lovely way to reframe a famed literary relationship, reminding us that these two – the brightest, most talented and volatile of their sisters – are, and always have been, cut from the same cloth.
While Amy’s story is approached with a fresher, more compassionate understanding, Jo’s arc remains largely the same with one key difference – the writing of her novel is built into the fabric of the movie. This journey of writerly discover is complex is many ways – firstly she is a female writer, writing about the lives of women, from the point of view of women; a notion which would have been met with much hostility at that time in history. Secondly, she is pulled by two conflicting desires – to use art as a form of personal expression, or as a means of income. In essence though, this is the story of a story being written – and in a pivotal scene where Jo is overcome with creative energy, Desplat builds punctuation into the score to portray a sense of artistic urgency and enthusiasm punctuation with unexpected changes in chords and a rush of momentum as the pen moves faster across the page.
Whether it is this mimicry of Jo’s penmanship, the effortlessly charming themes, or tastefully rendered orchestrations, the score is pivotal not just in bringing this family to life yet again, but also in conveying that bittersweet sense of nostalgia that’s always at the surface of this story of female empowerment.
This synchronicity between character, structure, writing and music is something that carries a wealth of dramatic weight – and as we rediscover an old classic through the retelling of modern artistry, we too smash open that ‘snowglobe of sweetness’ and find, most delightfully, new fragments of affection.