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Music & the Meaning of Time in Little Women

It is no exaggeration to say that the soundtrack from 2019’s Little Women got me through 2020. For starters, Spotify told me so; its end-of-year report informed me that my favorite album was Little Women, my favorite artist was Alexandre Desplat, and my favorite song was “Christmas Breakfast.” Perhaps this is because in December 2019, it was the last movie my wife and I had seen together in our beloved Belcourt Theater before the pandemic, and we’ve remained captivated by it ever since. It reminded us of what is most true at a moment when our very next breaths seemed to take us into a tragic new world.

But what I’m here to talk about today is the unique task of Alexandre Desplat’s film score—in light of director Greta Gerwig’s decisions as to how to tell the story—and why a specific song on that score unfailingly reduces me to tears with every listen.

Greta Gerwig’s central decision in directing this film, the decision which informed all other decisions, was to break away from a single, linear timeline. The story of Little Women spans a great deal of time, following our sister protagonists from their childhood pastimes all the way to their adulthood anxieties. One of the book’s strengths is its narrative throughlines which manage to tie together the distinct wanderings of the four sisters into one cohesive whole: the metaphor of pilgrimage, for instance, or even Jo’s dedication to storytelling, both act as such throughlines for Alcott’s sprawling tale. Gerwig was faced with the challenge to translate the full weight of discovery, heartache, intimacy, and ambition present in Alcott’s telling of these four lives into a mere 135 minutes. She met that challenge by organizing her storytelling not by a chronology of time, but a chronology of emotion. In other words, she tugged at the threads of these throughlines and wove them together to create a succession of events whose order is determined not by linear time, but by the inner emotional logic of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

The effect of this decision and its brilliant execution is that the film itself begins to feel like a kind of music, even without Desplat’s soundtrack. One distinct gift of music is that it unfolds in the medium of time itself; to encounter a song is to submit to an intentional ordering of time, imbued with the visceral meanings of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Film scores use all kinds of tools to give emotional queues to the viewer (for instance, a melody that is only heard in moments when characters die—I’m looking at you, Lost, with your “Not Penny’s Boat” scene!). One aim of these tools is to overcome the gulf imposed by chronological time between moments of deep resonance. It’s much easier to associate disparate moments with one another if they’re linked by the same song.

So right off the bat, by choosing to tell the story of Little Women according to an emotional rather than linear chronology, Greta Gerwig made Alexandre Desplat’s job easier. Formative moments from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in all four sister’s lives, before there was even a whisper of music, were ordered in such a way as to bring out the depth of emotion that lurked just under the surface. Rather than carry that emotional load all by itself, the film score was freed up to play within this form.

The vinyl release of this soundtrack includes letters from Desplat and Gerwig which shed some light on their collaboration. Gerwig writes about her first conversation with Desplat:

After I got some gushing out of the way, I then explained what I wanted the film to feel like. How I wanted it to deal with the two time periods, childhood in technicolor and adulthood in Kansas. That I wanted to be both inside the pleasure of youth and know that it is gone forever. That I wanted it to be both classical and modern. And Alexandre listened, very attentively, politely waiting for me to finish my ramblings. Then he said this: “A film always only moves forward in time.” Suddenly, the movie and how I needed to direct it snapped into focus. I could go anywhere we wanted in the timeline, but in some essential way, the film always needed to be spiraling forward. —Greta Gerwig

It is just this sense of “spiraling forward,” a kind of inevitable progression latent in the start of every scene like a tree lurking in an acorn, that most enthralls me to this film. And the fact that we experience this spiraling forward not as an inevitability of chronological events (as in a Shakespearean tragedy) but as an inevitability of emotional correlations within the hearts of its protagonists, is what makes the film truly sing. This is accomplished in no small part through the expert scoring of Desplat.

In order to understand how all these pieces fit together, I’d like to focus on what I believe to be the emotional heart of the film, the two minutes and forty-five seconds from which all its crucial tensions spring.

Here lie spoilers. Be warned!

It’s significant from the start that these two minutes and forty five seconds comprise two scenes, the first taking place in the past and the second in the present. They are utterly parallel in form (down to the music accompanying them), their juxtaposition with one another bringing into painful focus the heart-wrenching distance between presence and absence, love and loss, childhood and adulthood, which is the cornerstone of the story.

Let’s watch together.

Okay, once you’ve dried your eyes and blown your nose, I’ve got a couple thoughts to share with you.

Consider those two scenes through the lens of their parallel form. There are a few ways in which they are almost identical in their order of events, and one way in which they couldn’t be more different.

Both scenes begin in the morning, with Jo having fallen asleep in the bedroom of her sister, Beth, after keeping watch over her in her sickness.

Both scenes derive their momentum from Jo’s descent down the staircase. In the first, she hurries in desperation, repeating, “Marmee” with the vulnerable voice of a child. In the second, she walks slowly and silently, exuding a knowledge she’s reluctant to confirm.

Both scenes transition from Jo’s descent down the stairs to her view of the kitchen table, and each shot of that table is identical in composition as Marmee turns around to greet Jo.

Here, of course, is where the scenes differ. In the first, as Marmee turns around, we see Beth sitting beside her, and we feel Jo’s relief as she rushes to embrace Beth. In the second, as Marmee turns around, all we see is an empty chair behind her, where Beth should be but isn’t. In this instance, Jo is not the one comforted, but the one doing the comforting. This is the threshold of Jo’s passage into adulthood and it’s driven home by her posture, as she stands to console her mom, who is seated and shaking in her grief.

This is, after all, how we experience life: pivotal moments, deeply linked to one another by some hidden root system under the ground, appear to us above ground as disparate events. But what about that root system? What about that inevitability we feel in life, that sense that events are connected by more than mere circumstance? Drew Miller

It is as if, in some eternal sense, both scenes exist on the trajectory toward wholeness, energized by Jo’s desire for communion. In the first, that channel of love is allowed to stream from the discovery of Beth’s presence to the discovery of her father’s return, culminating in the ultimate sign of communion, even eucharist: the whole family gathered around the table in love and laughter, delighting in one another’s presence. But in the second scene, the currents of Jo’s desire for the shalom of family are dammed by the violating intrusion of death. Her journey down the stairs does not culminate at the long dining room table, where every seat is occupied, but is cut short at the kitchen table, where one crucial seat sits empty.

The fullness of each of these realities is finally embellished with color choices: the first scene features warm lighting, evoking presence and togetherness. The second scene makes use of exclusively cool color choices, evoking a stark absence.

All of this is poignant enough on its own, but the accompanying score literally raises the emotional pitch. Let’s listen.

Notice that this entire piece is grounded in the very first melody we hear. After being briefly developed in the first minute and twenty-five seconds, that melody simply gets repeated—but not merely repeated.

Here is where Desplat brilliantly follows the parallel form of the scene, heightening with music what we are already experiencing. With small changes to orchestration and key, Desplat manages to underscore the potency of both the presence we feel at the full table and the absence we feel at the empty one.

To hear this contrast in full clarity, try listening first from 1:01 to 1:25, and then from 1:52 to 2:30. These segments comprise what we hear as we watch the full table and the empty table, respectively.

The first difference between the two is quite obvious: there are far fewer instruments playing in the second segment than in the first. The first segment at the full table is lush with orchestration: a piano carries the melody, accompanied by a harp, all laid over a bed of strings, holding out full, rich chords. By contrast, the second segment consists only of piano and dreadfully low notes delivered by the deep growl of bowed bass.

Consider also the proximity of the instruments to one another in the first segment: they are near to one another in register, giving the sensation of being “packed in,” with little space remaining in the mix. In contrast, the defining element of the second segment is the yawning gap between the bass and piano. Almost as much as we hear each of those two instruments, we hear the gaping distance between them.

Add to that a change in key. In the first segment, the melody is played in the key of G major. For the second segment, the piano jumps up a fourth to the key of C major. The effect is one of holding one’s breath. The piano’s voicing changes from a warm, loose sound to a cold and taut one. And while the piano seems to suck in breath as a result of the key change, the bass conversely jumps down by a fifth to reach a very low C. If the piano weeps in the high register of a whimper, the bass sobs in the low register of a groan.



ow what do these pieces mean for the whole of each scene? And what do these scenes mean for the movie?

This is where it gets mysterious. When art of any kind reaches this level of synchronicity, where all the parts work seamlessly together, it can become difficult to determine why it has the effect it does on us. And in some ways, the why isn’t even the point—the very difficulty in answering the question can be a clue for us to settle in and feel it before trying to explain it.

But I would like to leave you with one small observation I’ve managed to glean from both these scenes and the entire movie, and that is the glimpse underground into a timeline truer than the one we experience on a daily, above-ground basis.

If Greta Gerwig had chosen to tell this story chronologically, then the first and second of the scenes that we’ve discussed would have been separated from one another by several other scenes, by the slow passing of time. Even if they retained their parallel form, complete with the same soundtrack, they would have made their impact differently, less saliently. The peace emanating from the first scene would have been separated from the grief of the second by a stretch of “ordinary time.”

This is, after all, how we experience life: pivotal moments, deeply linked to one another by some hidden root system under the ground, appear to us above ground as disparate events. But what about that root system? What about that inevitability we feel in life, that sense that events are connected by more than mere circumstance?

By choosing the chronology of emotion, Gerwig helped us peer underground. And in doing so, I believe she brought us nearer to reality. Perhaps this is why, throughout 2020, this soundtrack was my emotional anchor. The resonances that the story awoke in me in December of 2019 turned out to be deeply intertwined with a sorrow and pain I would come to know all too well the following year. Together, Gerwig and Desplat gave me a language—of both story and song—that would help me to walk on the ground of my life with greater awareness of the hidden connections just under the surface.


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