The Breakout Summer Song Just Might Be This Gem From 1970

Minnie Riperton performs, 1974. Credit - ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images

The most arresting scene in Back to Black is not the first time we see a young Amy Winehouse (Marisa Abela) strum a guitar or perform for an audience. It is, instead, a shot of her racing through the streets of London, in search of her then ex-boyfriend Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), rushing headlong toward a passionate reunion. Ahead of this moment, Winehouse had been in an on-again, off-again relationship with Fielder-Civil, with whom she was infatuated, despite their underlying issues, which were exacerbated by infidelity and substance abuse. Their split at the time coincided with her beloved grandmother’s death, parallel heartbreaks that fueled the writing and recording of her instant classic album Back to Black.

In the film, following the release of the album, a still forlorn Amy visits her grandmother’s final resting place at a columbarium, when she receives a text from Fielder-Civil, asking her for another chance, their first contact in months. There’s no time for second thoughts; she bounds out of the building to find him. Her emotions are palpable—shock, excitement, joy, desire—and they’re both captured and heightened by what’s playing in the background as she breathlessly runs through the streets: Minnie Riperton’s ethereal “Les Fleurs,” a song on which Riperton’s angelic vocals, backed by strings, horns, and a choir, embody the giddy, irrepressible feeling of being in love.

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If audiences find something familiar about“Les Fleurs,” it may be because it is also the backing track for another on-screen love story this spring. In The Idea Of You, released earlier this month on Amazon, Soléne (Anne Hathaway) is a 40-year-old art gallery owner who finds herself falling for Hayes (Nicholas Galitzine), the 24-year-old boy band sensation who’s been pursuing her since a chance encounter at a music festival. Sparks fly, flirting ensues, and a steamy kiss is shared, but Soléne resists, citing her age and her many responsibilities until, many impassioned texts from him later, she finally relents and agrees to meet him in New York for a rendezvous. As Soléne embarks on her whirlwind trip, emotions are amplified by the triumphant chorus of “Les Fleurs,” the horns and strings swelling as she makes her way up to Hayes’ hotel room for their first night together.

Though the films couldn’t be more different, their shared use of “Les Fleurs” as the soundtrack for their respective love stories is fitting. The song is ostensibly about flowers, but its jubilant sound, which starts with the gentle flirtation of a descending guitar melody and Riperton’s signature soprano vocals before building into a magnificent, almost booming chorus, evokes the heady, sweeping feelings of a dramatic love affair. In both films, the characters are up against the odds: for Amy, it’s her infatuation with a man whose vices and addictions amplify her own; for Soléne, it’s the age gap and the judgment she faces for being a mother and an older woman.The stakes are high—but that’s what makes both of these romances so irresistible to each woman.

For Frankie Pine, the musical supervisor for The Idea of You, only “Les Fleurs” could capture the visceral high of Soléne finally acknowledging her feelings for Hayes. “It's the feel of that song, it's got this kind of swell in it,” Pine told TIME, noting that director Michael Showalter had personally selected the song. “What you feel when somebody comes close to you and they're about to kiss you and your heart starts to pop, that’s naturally built into the song and I think that's why it resonates so.”

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Pine feels that the appeal of “Les Fleurs” lies within its timeless sound, which critics found hard to categorize when it was released. The song, which debuted 54 years ago as the opener of Riperton’s first album, 1970’s Come to My Garden, was considered experimental and avant garde and featured elements of R&B, soul, jazz, folk, rock, bossa nova, and choral and orchestral music, including the strings section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Though it was not a commercial success then, “Les Fleurs” is now regarded as a beloved classic from Riperton’s songbook; it has been licensed frequently for films including Jordan Peele’s Us, where it was memorably used for the film’s final “Hands Across America” scene, as well as sampled in multiple hip-hop songs.

Iain Cooke, the musical supervisor for Back to Black, also points to the euphoric swell of the music ahead of the chorus of “Les Fleurs” as part of why it was used for Amy’s reunion with Blake. “I think it catches people by surprise because there's such a build that’s just incredible,” Cooke says. “It sounds like a celebration. It’s at such a pivotal moment in the film, which is all from Amy’s point of view and we wanted everyone to feel like, ‘Yes, go back to the love of your life!’”

From a technical standpoint, there are many reasons why “Les Fleurs” makes for an excellent backing track for a love story and these romantic moments in particular. Jason King, the dean of the USC Thornton School of Music, says that the lyrics of the song, which are about the life cycle of a flower, evoke pastoralism and nostalgia, which contributes to its appeal. He points to its unclassifiable fusion of genres as part of what has made it so distinctive to this day and to Riperton’s effortlessly angelic five-octave vocal range as a genius conduit for communicating the point of view of a female protagonist. He also makes the case that its composition, which dramatically shifts from minimalism to maximalism during the course of just three minutes, lends itself well to an equally dramatic narrative, the lifeblood of a high-stakes romance.

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“There's a lot of sudden dynamic and tonal shifts in volume and arrangement in the song,” King says. “It has this quiet pastoral opening like dew on the grass or a flower opening, a beautiful kind of exuberant sound that you could say is analogous to young love—it's fresh, it's budding, it's unspoiled. And then all of a sudden, the chorus comes in and it's bold, it’s grandiose, it's full throttle, it's almost like Carmina Burana, it almost sounds out of context! These tonal and dynamic shifts and musical arrangements are a perfect analog for the tonal shifts in 21st century filmmaking,” he says. “The music telegraphs that the film is going to go from seeming simplicity and romance to high drama or maybe even tragedy.”

For King, there’s also a meta element to the use of Riperton’s music in two films where the two drastically different storylines, though they include moments of joy, also have a sense of foreboding. He points to the tragedy of Riperton’s life (the singer-songwriter died of breast cancer in 1979 at just 31, at the height of her career, leaving behind her husband and two children, one of whom is the comedian Maya Rudolph).

Britnay Proctor-Habil, the author of Minnie Riperton’s Come to My Garden, sees the use of “Les Fleurs” in both of these films as ultimately an affirmation of what she considers Riperton’s larger musical influence to be: a sense of joyful freedom that defied expectation. Proctor-Habil points out that Riperton’s refusal to be reduced to a genre, especially as a Black woman, was groundbreaking, a kind of resistance to convention that manifested in the ethereal, experimental sound of her music. And the spirit of flouting convention, though under very different circumstances, is an element that runs through both The Idea of You and Back to Black.

“The legacy of Minnie Riperton’s work is that of beauty and love and the countercultural,” says Proctor-Habil. “A lot of her work defied expectations around Black women’s vocal performance and what Black popular music should and could sound [like]—there’s this kind of unencumbered spirit of joy and openness that touches all of her music.”

Write to Cady Lang at