Watch Miles Davis Improvise His Music Score for Louis Malle’s Thriller ‘Elevator to the Gallows’
Photo Credit: S & A

Watch Miles Davis Improvise His Music Score for Louis Malle’s Thriller ‘Elevator to the Gallows’


one of the greatest movie soundtracks ever, and the best jazz soundtracks for a

film, jazz legend and innovator Miles Davis’ score for French director Louis Malle’s

1958 first feature – the “perfect murder”

crime thriller “Elevator to the Gallows” – is not only extraordinary for the

music, but for something else as well.

It was

totally improvised by Davis and his musicians. I can’t think of another film

score that was completely improvised for a film, and on top of that was so

perfect for it.

The story of

how it came about is fascinating. In the fall of 1957, Davis was in Paris for a major

club gig. As it happened, Malle’s assistant, who happened to attend one of the performances, was so struck by Davis’ music that the assistant went to Malle and suggested that Davis

do the score for the film, which was then in post-production.

Malle approached

Davis with the offer and he agreed, and got together with his band shorly

afterward to record the score. But in what was then an unheard of move, "Davis

only gave the musicians a few rudimentary harmonic sequences he had assembled

in his hotel room, and once the plot was explained, the band improvised without

any pre-composed theme, while edited loops of the musically relevant film

sequences were projected in the background."

The end result

is simply a masterpiece. The perfect combination of film and music, creating a

sense of mood and place. Davis’ music acts as a sort of commentary about the characters

and the tragic, desperate situation that they find themselves caught up in. Jazz

critic Jean-Louis Ginibre later wrote in Jazz magazine that Davis had “raised himself to greater heights during the sessions, and became aware of the

tragic character of his music which, until then, had been only dimly


And believe

or not, the soundtrack, for many years, was not released in the U.S. – until the

early 1990’s.

Below is a

film clip of Davis in the studio recording the film’s score, while intensely watching

the film on the screen, followed by a brief interview with Malle. It’s in French

of course without translation, but one can get a pretty good idea of what he’s

saying – that he owes a lot to Davis for making a good film into a great one.

Below that

is the trailer for "Elevator to the Gallows," with Davis’ music, as one can see

immediately how perfect it is for the film, evocatively setting the mood and tone.

It’s one of the greatest examples that I can think of to show how the right music can transform

any movie, raising it to a higher level.

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