The Music of Little Women

Bennett Johnson

Given my affinity for both Greta Gerwig as a director and Saorise Ronan as an actress, I was bursting with excitement when I heard both were involved in a remake of Little Women. Gerwig directed Ronan before in the magnificent Lady Bird, so my hopes were high for the duo’s take on the timeless American novel.

Of course, this is not the first adaptation of Lousia May Alcott’s book onto the big screen. Yet, Gerwig’s take manages to stand out as a particularly effective rendition. The movie presents itself as an engrossing story about what it means to be a woman in the context of work, love, and family, through an unashamedly feminist look. Though not everyone may be familiar with the story, the film is easily accessible to all audiences. Any of us who have wished to follow a career in creative media have no doubt considered risking it all to move to Manhattan like Jo does. We can all connect with the heartbreak the March family experiences when Beth grows deathly ill. Many of us have experienced unrequited love as Laurie does. All of these fascinating plot points make for a story that has something for everyone to enjoy.

Much of the acting throughout the movie is phenomenal. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh received nominations for Best Actress and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for their work. Despite neither winning the awards, their standout performances help bring the film to life. Even with Ronan’s Irish accent discreetly creeping through and the 24-year-old Pugh tasked with occasionally portraying a pre-teen Amy, these quirks prove to be unimportant. Little Women is a stellar movie, and showcases much of the new female talent in the movie industry.

Mozart and David Bowie

For the soundtrack, Greta Gerwig turned to veteran composer Alexandre Desplat. Though he has extensively worked in French cinema, listeners may recognize Desplat’s playful and jovial style on major movies like Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Grand Budapest Hotel, or The Shape of Water. Knowing Desplat’s seasoned status and contemporary classical style, I was eager to see what approach he took when creating the music for Little Women.

Composer Alexandre Desplat

Before handing Desplat the reins for soundtrack, Gerwig told him her vision for the sound: “Mozart meets David Bowie.” In an interview with IndieWire, Desplat said this vision initially surprised him. He described this comparison as an “ambivalence” but learned to appreciate the idea. Using this as inspiration, he attempted to write a score that had “gravitas and [was] joyful… [with] a lot of rhythm” like both Mozart and Bowie.

Watching the movie and listening to the soundtrack, Desplat clearly succeeded in this goal. Immediately, the piano sounds jump out to your ears, on a mission to complete the elegant melody they create. They are reminiscent of Jo March running through northwest Massachusetts, trying to care for the family she loves while simultaneously pursuing a career as a writer. Notably, these piano sounds are equalized to take the higher register away, leaving room for a soprano of strings and harps. The strings are rich and smooth, sliding from one note to the next. It is here that Desplat’s talent for composition truly shows. The sound space is fully occupied, but does not feel crammed or claustrophobic.

An Intimate Sound

Each song contains a feeling of intimacy. Despite its rich sound, the score is not doused in reverb to make it feel massive and imposing. Many of the instruments and textures are gentle, with a low velocity. Tactile harps greet your ears, bouncing up and down through their scales without becoming over imposing.

The cast of Little Women

Due to the unified structure of the soundtrack, it is difficult to pick a favorite song. This makes the soundtrack an effective study playlist. It is easy to get caught up in the orchestral swell and gleeful sound as you work. One of my favorite tracks is the titular “Little Women.” This song encompasses all the major themes and cues that occur throughout the movie and serves as an excellent introduction to the sounds used throughout.

Another excellent song is “The Beach.” Sonically feeling like ballroom dance between woodwinds, piano, and strings, this song is one of the most catchy of the movie. It is easy to get caught up in the lighthearted fun of the melody, and imagine the March family frolicking along a New England shorefront.  A harp quickly cuts into this cascading dance towards the end of the song, bringing the sense of levity to a more pensive conclusion.

Final Thoughts

Contemporary classical music can sometimes be regarded as background noise to foster focus during studying. Relegated to Spotify playlists, it is not often actively listened to. Admittedly, though Alexandre Desplat’s composition for Little Women does serve well as a study aid, it achieves more. To me, it serves as a reminder of how powerful and unique a timeless orchestral sound can be.

You can listen to the Little Women soundtrack and see more of Alexandre Desplat’s work here.

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