5 Essential Film Scores by the Late Marvin Hamlisch

5 Essential Film Scores by the Late Marvin Hamlisch

Aug 08, 2012

Monday, the world lost one of its rare EGOT honorees, when Emmy-, Grammy-, Oscar- and Tony-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch died at the age of 68. Actually, since he won a Pulitzer, we could also call him one of only two PEGOTs. He is best known, perhaps, for his work with Barbara Streisand (such as the Academy Award-winning title song for The Way We Were) or his ragtime adaptations for early Woody Allen films and, of course, The Sting, for which he won an Oscar. Or, maybe for his hit songs for the musical A Chorus Line or the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. Maybe you even know his face, thanks to appearances on talk shows or the crowd-pleasing documentary Every Little Step

He may not have been the most legendary of film composers, despite his 12 Oscar nominations and three wins, and he's not anywhere to be found on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores list or many other rankings of that sort. But Hamlisch, who was a child prodigy on the piano, was obviously a great talent and was quite significant to movie music. Here are five notable scores that you're sure to recognize and celebrate as we remember the late songwriter. 


Bananas (1971) -  Hamlisch's music for this, one of my favorite Woody Allen films (and his second for the director, following Take the Money and Run), sort of mixes the serious revolution music of, say, Ennio Morricone's The Battle of Algiers, with the zaniest silent comedy score ever heard. That was probably the point, and the crazy kazoo definitely triumphs over any punchy snare roll and fanfare piece, even though the main theme combining Mexican folk music with a frenzy of brass and bullets is what I tend to remember best. It's one of the funniest music scores ever for one of the funniest movies ever.


The Sting (1973) - With this Best Picture winner, Hamlisch received one of his two Oscars for motion picture score, both of which he won in the same year (the other was The Way We Were). It was back when the Academy gave out multiple trophies for score, and this fell into the "original song score and adaptation category" (which they need to bring back), since it's mostly arrangements of the ragtime music of Scott Joplin. Upon accepting his Oscar he recognized that turn-of-the-century jazz legend as the true new artist of the year. Though not the album that first revitalized Joplin's notoriety, it certainly kept the popularity of this music going and was a certified hit that reached number one on the Billboard 200. 


The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) -  Filling in for usual Bond movie composer John Barry, Hamlisch took a cue from popular music and reworked the traditional 007 theme as a disco tune. And people wonder why the Roger Moore installments are considered relatively cheesy and dated? Actually, to Hamlisch's credit, it's not nearly as silly as Bill Conti's work on For Your Eyes Only, and other than the theme music is a fairly traditional classical score (I especially like the tracks that combine the two styles). It's also the only Bond movie score to be nominated for an Oscar, though it lost the award to the totally forgotten music (I kid!) of Star Wars. Hamlisch was also nominated the same year for the film's original theme song, "Nobody Does It Better."

Sophie's Choice (1982) - Considering what I initially knew of Hamlisch's scores, which in my mind tended to be really wacky or kinda corny, but in a good way, I might have been shocked to see his name in the opening credits for this devastating Holocaust drama. But I wasn't paying attention, and so only later realized with some surprise that he had composed the film's beautiful and never-too-sentimental music. Director Alan Pakula is said to have been concerned about having a score that turned certain scenes into "emotional pornography" and needing "something that gives it a kind of dignity." His chosen composer achieved it and received his fourth and final Oscar nomination for score as a result. 

The Informant! (2009) - Many critics regarded it the score of the year, a goofy, loungey and sometimes ragtime-inspired throwback to the era in which Hamlisch was king. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh says he wanted it to be like a soundtrack to a 1970s sitcom, even though the film was set decades later, and meant to represent what the protagonist (played by Matt Damon) might have heard as the soundtrack to his own life. The composer was even pulled out of semi-retirement for the gig, which he felt was a kind of full circle back to his work on The Sting. The Academy didn't get it, unfortunately, but it did earn the guy his 11th and final Golden Globe nomination. 

What is your favorite Marvin Hamlisch score?

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