Very rarely does a score for a wide-released, feature-length film come along that’s palatable enough to listen to on its own. I’m not talking about soundtracks—compilations of songs by various artists that were hand-picked for a film, or musical soundtracks—but rather, scores, the music composed originally for a film that plays throughout. Very often this music is meant to go unnoticed, to support the ongoing action without drawing attention away from it, so it’s not always very listenable outside of the theater. Case in point: No offense to Nathan Johnson, but I don’t want to listen to the Knives Out score while I’m having my coffee. The same goes for that of most movies in theaters right now.
Now what score would I listen to over some piping hot java? I’m so glad you asked! The score for Greta Gerwig’s beautiful Little Women adaption is music for anytime. It is soaring, stylish, pastoral and precious all at once. It is the perfect mate for Gerwig’s earnest picture. It is the work of one Alexandre Desplat (Shape of Water, The Queen, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Pts. 1 & 2), a brilliant French composer who may have just made his most affecting score yet.
Desplat was not, however, recognized at Sunday night’s Golden Globes. Icelandic musician Hildur Gudnadóttir won the Best Original Score award for Joker, making history as the first female soloist to win in that category. With that particular set of compositions, stirring and impressive as they are, we’re faced with something more jarring and uneasy—Gudnadóttir’s work on the film is beautiful, but it’s not much for casual listening (which makes total sense for a film like Joker). Enter Desplat’s whimsical Little Women, a movie score that you’ll actually want to keep on heavy rotation.
The music in this film needed to have a certain movement—Little Women’s protagonist Jo is rarely still—and Desplat’s arrangements are positively kinetic. “The Book” is a daring organization of orchestral strings and rousing woodwinds that often leaves me with the urge to skip rope. “Amy”’s theme is suspenseful and devilish just like her. “Snow in the Garden” is just decadent enough. The music that plays when Jo writes or rages or whisks her way down a bustling New York street has just as much personality as Saoirse Ronan’s spirited interpretation of the second-eldest March sister. But the crown jewel in this collection is “Plumfield,” one of the film’s prevailing musical themes. It’s a delicate and melancholy medley that seems to signal some forthcoming tragedy (we all know Beth’s death is coming), yet it’s so consistently smooth and spritely you can’t help but feel a little hopeful when you hear it.
Desplat told Billboard that director Greta Gerwig handed him a script and suggested the music be “a mix of Mozart meeting Bowie.” I’m not sure I hear much of the Bowie influence throughout the movie, but some scenes—like the one where Jo and Laurie stampede a veranda while a ballroom dance carries on inside—have an artfulness and poppiness to them that recall at the least the mood of some of Bowie’s masterful visuals and records. More than anything, this is music that just fits with the film so damn well. And if you love the movie as much as we do, you’re likely to find some joy in these tracks, too.
The music is heavy when it should be heavy and light when it should be light. There’s frequent use of the piano, which feels especially appropriate since that instrument is Beth’s favorite and plays a big role in her arc, as well as that of the Marches’ neighbor Mr. Lawrence. The music from the opening scene, in which Jo darts through New York, uses only strings and two pianos, as Desplat divulges in the Billboard interview. It’s thoroughly bright, a perfect introduction to a movie that will explore both youth and young adulthood at great lengths. And Desplat is no stranger to whimsy: He has worked on a number of Wes Anderson films, including the aforementioned Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which won him an Oscar.
Little Women is not a musical, but it is lyrical in tone. Much like in Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, this movie has a very obvious rhythm to it, and so much of that movement is owed to Desplat’s genius music. It may be several months before Little Women is available to own digitally, but at least we have this album to hold dear in the meantime.
Little Women is in theaters now. The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is streaming on DSPs and available to purchase in physical formats