I don’t think anyone else could’ve scored the life of Julia Child like Rachel Portman has. For the Julie Cohen and Betsy West documentary, Julia, Portman created a scored that was inspired by the meals we make together to nurture one another. No one makes a meal for someone else out of spite or hate–it’s all based in love. Portman was one of the first women to win the Oscar for Best Original Score, and her delightful music anchors the life one of the greatest chefs of all time.
When you think of Julia Child, vivid images (and sounds) come to mind. For Portman, she had to illustrate Child’s character while also using the music to dramatize a lot of prejudices that she had to face as a woman in the cooking industry.
“She had a very particular character, and I felt the job had two functions. One was to support her character and who she was and what her world was, but the other one was to dramatize the other half of the film with her collaborations. It’s a sort of dramatic documentary, and a lot of times music is kind of building or working around the scenes and changing the mood as we go from scene to scene. There are very specific tasks that I had such as to write a theme that would show the theme about food. That’s the most important theme–showing love through the art of cooking. That isn’t her character necessarily, but it is deeply resonant. The film has this feeling of nurturing and being fed. There’s the scenes of her towards the latter part of her life where she’s just eating because she just loves eating. Eating is really important to this film too, and she eats and eats and eats and tastes everything.”
As we go back into Julia’s life–before the cooking shows and the parodies–we learn about a woman who felt kind of trapped in her life. Child was restless. For the track, “Pining for Adventure, Portman uses a winking staccato to punctuate the chef’s determination to find her passion.
“That track was covering her after you’ve seen this staid life that she was growing up in. Women were just what she calls brood mares which is what it felt like. There’s that feeling that she’s sort of pining for adventure, and it goes through scenes of the war and looking for jobs. It’s a piece of determination and excitement and kind of worry about what is going to happen as the events of the time led her to shake things up. It ends up with her in this completely different environment. That’s an example of the music needing to work with the film. It’s not the music taking a background role. It’s driving what’s happening, and there’s quite a lot of that the music does in the film. There is also this yearning quality in it for her the music, which I was sort of inspired by pictures of the ocean, and there’s a shot in there from both the sea and black and white footage. I was sort of inspired by that feeling of longing and the music is slowing down and it has that yearning quality to it.”
The love story of Paul and Julia Child was something to aspire to. We have seen their love depictured in movies (Stanley Tucci should’ve been nominated for that performance that year, but that’s neither here nor there), but it was truly something of a different time. Paul was thrilled to take a backseat to his brilliant wife, and their love was something Portman wanted to authentically capture.
“With the diary entries and what they wrote about each other–and the photographs–I found something really tender about it, and it touched me. Therefore, it was easy to write music that would express what I felt, because I resonated with the way the story was being told. The photographs…there’s something really moving about their love. I don’t know what it was. When I write music for film, you begin to feel it gives to you hugely as a composer what to write and so you give back. I found those scenes evocative and moving, and when I first met with the directors on Zoom, because it was through COVID of course, that was one of the really important themes. It is really important in the film.”
When we go to France to follow Child’s culinary school training, we get lulled into cozy, luxurious French music. Portman used an accordion for some pieces, and gave us a dreamy escape. Americans, like myself, will always view learning to cook as a distant goal, but Portman transports us.
“I’m using an accordion, and it’s also a waltz. There’s two big waltzes in there. It’s delightful to have a chance to write that kind of music, because it was so exciting for her going to Paris. All that food! I wanted to bring the simplicity and the joy and that delight and the way they talk about food. It’s playful and light. For me, it was a little French amuse-bouche. This is just a little taste or something that you haven’t ordered, but it’s there. It’s the kind of spirit I go into. And, you know, all the while I’m just thinking about food. Basically, you’re thinking about food all the time. It’s French deliciousness, you know?”
How you do capture the legacy of such a giant? Portman couldn’t focus on that as she prepared for the film’s close, but she delivers a truly lovely third act. Cohen and West’s film wisely shows us how contemporary chefs still hold Child’s influence in complete awe, but we cannot forget how she transformed the culinary world. Portman uses piano and propulsive movements to drive the film home. Like Julia herself, the music is playful, optimistic and steadfast.
“It’s a piece of music that grows and celebrates her, and then it comes right down for the last third. It’s to bring you back to the seriousness of all that she did, and it’s intended to be a little bit touching. I’ve used all the themes all the way through the film, so that, hopefully, there’s a sort of an accumulative effect on the listener and the audience. I wanted it to evoke something that’s got a familiarity to it. Sort of like sense memory. I’m slowing down to focus on her legacy, and I don’t know how you how you score legacy or anything like that. It’s a matter of weaving around the scenes and weaving around the dialogue on what’s happening and doing my best to support that legacy.”
Julia is in theaters now.