Hiding in the oh-so-pretty melody of The Windmills of Your Mind is a such an outpouring of anguish and tortured grief that striking the right balance between words and music is more than most can manage.
Michel Legrand’s melody is so beautiful and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics so colourful and intricate, yet most people only sorta remember it (from, you know, erm, um, that movie). It doesn’t help, gravitas wise, that the movie was The Thomas Crown Affair (’68 with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway and remade in ’99 with, gulp, Pierce
Brosnan and Rene Russo), an Oceans 11-13 type entertainment. Nor have all the sentimental ‘crooner’ renditions (Mel Torme, Petula Clark, Johnny Mathis), with their gentle strings and bossa nova guitars. Then again, its psychological depths have been probed (Martin Colyer, Vindictives, Parenthetical Girls) at the expense of musicality. Baby. Bathwater.
The better versions fall somewhere between the light and the dark; all by women, all very good, and each ultimately flawed. Dusty Springfield’s vocal is right, but the orchestration is wrong. Sharleen Spiteri nails a torch vocal, but flubs the ending. Kiri Te Kanawa nails the ending, but the rest is too Moulin Rouge. Alison Moyet uses a violin to great effect, but her voice is flat.
The best vocal rendition of The Windmills of Your Mind is Frida Boccara, singing it in French as Les Moulins De Mon Coeur.
The best musically is Andre Rieu’s (mostly) instrumental, in which a lone violin is the vocal. It is ultimately a song about loneliness and grief, and that violin is heartache.
The best overall, the one that finds a perfect balance between words and music, is also titled Les Moulins De Mon Coeur but sung mostly in English. It pairs Belgian jazz musician/harmonica master Toots Thielmans with one of the crooners I skewered above, Mr. Johnny Mathis. Its the only version I heard, out of a couple of dozen, in which the music and words are saying the same thing. Bravo boys.