As It Ponders the Color Purple's Sound Track, Hollywood Hums, 'I've Heard That Song Before'

updated 03/31/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/31/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Georges Delerue, who wrote the music for the movie Agnes of God, faces some pretty stiff competition in his quest for an Oscar this week. The category of best "original score" is loaded with formidable talent. There's John Barry, who scored Out of Africa, and Bruce Broughton (Silverado) and Maurice Jarre (Witness). And even if Delerue can beat those guys in the balloting, he still has to get past legendary studio wizard Quincy Jones, 53, and his 11 assistants—that's right, 11 assistants—who are nominated for writing the music to The Color Purple.

Ironically, however, Georges Delerue's toughest competition in the Oscar race might just be...Georges Delerue. Nineteen years ago Delerue wrote the score for an obscure British flick called Our Mother's House. Last year some portions of that movie's main theme—or music that sounds suspiciously like it—somehow found their way into The Color Purple. And Delerue's name is conspicuously missing from the list of 11 musicians credited with creating Purple's score under Quincy Jones's guidance.

This mini-scandal—call it Purplegate—has caused quite a stir in some rarefied Hollywood circles. It has also caused quite a few Hollywood lawyers to prepare for possible legal action. As of last week, no suits had been filed—and the protagonists remained quite mum and gentlemanly about the controversy—but Hollywood cynics were already savoring the delicious irony of the whole affair. Could a movie celebrating that most musical of peoples—American blacks—really have "borrowed" music written by a Frenchman for a British Gothic drama?

Jones has been unavailable for comment. A spokesperson for Purple co-producer and director Steven Spielberg says, "We have no comment." A spokesman for Warner Bros., which distributed the film, says, "The studio is aware of the situation, but we have no comment." A spokesman for Delerue says, "We have been advised by our attorney not to comment." And a spokesman for the Motion Picture Academy says, "Let's pray to God that Silverado or Out of Africa wins, then we won't have to worry about it."

The complex saga began last year when Jones was hired by executive producer Peter Guber to score the film adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer-prizewinning novel. He seemed to be the perfect man for the job. His musical credentials are unsurpassed. Not only had he worked with artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Little Richard, but he had already scored more than 30 movies, including 1967's In the Heat of the Night, which won him an Oscar. He was also one of the producers of Purple, and he had an emotional attachment to that story of black life in the South. "This wasn't about commercial, this wasn't about a job, this wasn't about money," he told an interviewer for Jazziz magazine. "It was about nothing but love."

But it takes more than love to score a movie, especially an epic like The Color Purple, which spanned two continents and a 35-year time period, and which required 81 minutes of original music. Those scoring difficulties were further exacerbated by the standard problem of the trade—lack of time. A movie cannot be scored until it has been edited and by then, almost inevitably, the release deadline is drawing very near. Operating under those pressures, Jones and Spielberg used a common tool—the "temp track." A "temp track" is previously written and recorded music that possesses the "feel" that a filmmaker wants for his score. The good thing about a temp (or temporary) track is that it permits a director to show his composer what he wants. The bad thing about a temp track is that, as one veteran film scorer says, "All too often a director falls in love with that music and has a hard time getting weaned from it."

During the production of Purple, according to sources close to the filmmakers, one of the recordings used on the "temp track" was Georges Dele-rue's sound track for Our Mother's House. From that foundation, Jones crafted some of the music for Purple. "Spielberg has a very musical mind and he really laid it down," Jones told Jazziz. "Many times we had to do revisions, change this or that a little bit, move it over a little to the right or left. Sometimes there were five or six rewrites of a certain section."

Parts of the resulting Purple score are suspiciously close to the original Our Mother's House music, according to those who have compared them. "I find a very strong resemblance between the two," said a music expert who has reviewed both sound tracks. (PEOPLE sources for this story, fearing that their Hollywood careers might be jeopardized, declined to be quoted by name.) "Quincy uses more up-to-date chords than Delerue, who uses classical-type harmonization, but they are following the Delerue theme by substituting the chords.... I think most people would see a strong similarity."

Among those who noticed the similarity was Delerue, who lives in Los Angeles and speaks with a strong French accent. "Georges was not mad," says a close associate. "He was mostly flattered and bemused as only a Frenchman can be." Somewhat less bemused was CBS Songs, which owns the publishing rights to the House music. CBS has been investigating the matter to determine if it will file suit. Still, it is possible that no messy lawsuits will come out of this controversy, for one good reason: Right now, Quincy Jones is producing Michael Jackson's new album for CBS. The last Jackson-Jones collaboration—Thriller—turned out to be the best-selling piece of black vinyl in human history. And the new LP is almost certain to make a lot more money for CBS than the sound tracks to House and Purple ever could. And so this whole affair might just quietly fade away or be discreetly settled out of court.

Or, perhaps, it will have a more dramatic Hollywood ending. Perhaps, at the Oscar ceremony this week, Quincy Jones and his 11 assistants will win the award for best original score. Perhaps Quincy will step to the podium in his tuxedo, to thank his family and his 11 assistants and Steven Spielberg and God. And then, with his eyes brimming with tears, perhaps he will add a heartfelt thanks to Georges Delerue. At that moment, amid tumultuous applause, perhaps Delerue will rise, in his tuxedo, and mouth the word, "Merci," and blow Quincy a kiss. And then, as could only happen in a Steven Spielberg movie, everybody would live happily ever after.

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