Marvin Hamlisch’s “Informant” Score Contains Lift from His Score for Woody Allen’s “Bananas.” (I’m 99% Sure.)Posted: September 27, 2009
We saw Steven Soderbergh’s film The Informant! (starring Matt Damon), scored by Marvin Hamlisch, last night. I was surprised to hear a cue in the picture that was lifted complete (my memory tells me) from Hamlisch’s score for Woody Allen’s 1971 Bananas. It’s a sort of comic-dixieland piece punctuated by clown horns (you don’t forget something like that), and occurs about two-thirds of the way through the picture, accompanying one of several moments in which the Damon character strolls through the office space of his company. I was prepared for a score that would “reference” earlier styles, but I wasn’t prepared for a wholesale lift from an earlier Hamlisch-scored film.
Upon close side-by-side examination, the two cues may, in fact, have small differences, but my educated guess based on memory is that they are identical. Not that this is a crime against humanity or anything, and not that it would be the first time in history a composer cribbed from his own work. Usually, though, the cribbing contains a bit more variation than occured here. My guess is that Soderbergh (a director I admire) used the Bananas cue as a temp-track while he was editing the scene, then decided Hamlisch couldn’t do better, and had him recreate it. Just a surmise. Soderbergh and Hamlisch may believe the movie audience has a shorter memory than, in fact, some of us have.
Not until I downloaded some iTunes tracks of Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Bros.’ Burn After Reading did I realize how much his music shaped the tone of that movie. Though the film is a comedy, the score is ominous and dark. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call it tragic. Try to imagine a more expectedly “comedic” score against the narrative, and you have a whole different, and trivial, film. The Coen Brothers and Burwell—with the sound-world he created for this movie, with its Philip Glass minimalism meets Bernard Herrmann harmonies of fear—are trying to tell us that while we may laugh at the characters in Burn After Reading, we are not to take them, or the world they inhabit, lightly.
Burwell has turned out one creative, idiosyncratic score after another in his movie career, and, unlike the Coens, he doesn’t repeat himself very much. He finds a tonality that uniquely suits the project, and he runs with it. (His first film was the Coen’s first film, Blood Simple, and he has scored all their films since then; he is also the “house composer” for Spike Jonze. But he has worked for a variety of other directors in a great variety of genres. Currently he has about 75 films to his credit.) Film scores used to enhance films, not just accompany them; they brought out psychological dimensions of character and storyline. Burwell’s scores still do this. Of all film composers writing today, he’s the one that can most be counted on to unlock the secret of a film and change it into the film it was meant to be, but wouldn’t have been without him—not just to write music that “works.”
By the way, no trip to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to The Museum of Jurassic Technology—a place that can best be described as a repository of really weird-ass stuff. Carter Burwell’s name is on the wall as a supporting donor. I’m not surprised.
P.S. Click here to read a useful recent interview with Burwell that tells you something about his background and his process.
The death of Dody Goodman last week causes me to reminisce about that great 70s soap opera lampoon Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (Dody played Mary’s mother); and that causes me to reminisce about the magnificent main title music for the show, composed by Earle Hagen. (Click here to hear.) Hagen wrote many great TV themes, including those for The Dick Van Dyke Show and I Spy. For Mary Hartman, he created a masterpiece of classic Hollywood tunesmithing and orchestration. Funny as the show was, and funny as his theme music was in context, divorced from that context there is nothing funny about it—it stands up as pure music, and could easily have been the soundtrack for a Douglas Sirk movie of the fifties.
Hagen died only last month. RIP, RIP.