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THE INFORMANT! – Marvin Hamlisch

September 18, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The last time Marvin Hamlisch had a movie in theaters – ANY movie – was in 1996, when he scored the Barbra Streisand vehicle The Mirror Has Two Faces, almost 13 years ago. The younger generation of film music fans who grew up listening to scores from the 2000s might be forgiven for not knowing that Hamlisch, in the 1970s, was one of the bonafide stars of the soundtrack world. He was the youngest student ever accepted at the acclaimed Juilliard School of music in 1951 when aged just seven, and worked on a slew of hit movies in the 1970s, scoring the likes of “The Sting”, “The Way We Were”, “Save the Tiger” and even a Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me”, while simultaneously writing hit songs like “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows”, “Nobody Does It Better”, “Life Is What You Make It”, and of course “The Way We Were” for Streisand herself. He won three Oscars, and was nominated for nine more, before effectively disappearing off the film music map. Now, after a decade away (during which he wrote the hit Broadway musicals The Goodbye Girl and The Sweet Smell of Success), he’s back with a brand new score for The Informant!, the latest film from director Steven Soderbergh.

The film is a political comedy drama based on a true story, starring Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, a sad-sack executive at an agricultural company who is coerced into being an informant for the FBI when his company is investigated for corporate fraud and price-fixing. Suddenly thrust into a new and exciting world, Whitacre begins to act out the fantasy life he always wanted – that of a super-spy secret agent – while the FBI frantically try to reign in his enthusiasm, with hilarious results… The all-star cast features the likes of Scott Bakula, Thomas F. Wilson, Clancy Brown, Patton Oswalt, Joel McHale and Melanie Lynskey.

In much the same way as his hiring to score the film is a throwback to the 1970s, Hamlisch’s music is equally steeped in the nostalgia of the decade. Hamlisch is clearly channeling the music of contemporaries here; Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, and even John Barry, are the inspirations for this jazzy, occasionally zany musical accompaniment of Whitacre’s misadventures in counter-intelligence. Whitacre obviously fancies himself as something of a super-spy, and Hamlisch’s score plays along, accompanying the protagonist’s increasingly absurd exercises in espionage with relentlessly jazzy themes, finger-snapping grooves and wonderfully retro orchestrations. There’s even a touch of circular post-modern musical irony here: Hamlisch’s score is sure to remind people of George S. Clinton’s Austin Powers scores, which were spoofs of 70s spy genre scores, some of which were written by Hamlisch in the first place. Cues like “Car Meeting”, the wonderful “Sellout” and “Golf” have the cool electric guitar vibes and sultry trumpet fanfares that one associates with the genre, and have an unmistakable authenticity to their creation.

But this is not to say that the score is all smooth grooves and dynamite caper music; the opening cue, “The Informant”, oscillates between moody bassoon solos and Vegas-inspired lounge jazz style combo pieces featuring everything from syncopated pianos to solo trumpets, and hooting harmonicas, that create an unusual, slightly sleazy atmosphere of immorality and decadence that plays at odds with the very humdrum corporate world Whitacre inhabits. The theme is recapitulated to pleasing effect in “Boxes” and “Triplets”, an is extrapolated further into a soft jazz romance piece in “Trust Me”, which itself becomes a song with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and performed in the oily style of a Vegas crooner by vocalist Steve Tyrell.

On the other hand, “Meet Mark” and “After Car” are obnoxiously perky pieces for Hammond organs, dancing woodwinds and carefree whistles – one part Mister Rogers, one part Sesame Street – that revisit the ragtime rhythms Hamlisch so famously adapted for The Sting all the way back in 1974, and which would be annoying if they weren’t so brilliant and catchy. Similarly, “The Raid” and “Multi-Tasking” are wonderful pieces of Neal Hefti-style kitsch that sound like they would have been more at home in one of those sun-kissed movies that always seemed to star Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello and featured lots of cool n’ crazy kids twisting the night away at a luau on some beach somewhere. Later, “Polygraph” bucks the trend even further by being a quite unexpected cowboy hoedown replete with fiddles and banjos.

The Informant is clearly an old-fashioned, throwback score, and will undoubtedly confuse and alienate entirely a large portion of the contemporary soundtrack-buying public. This is not a score that will appeal to the Remote Control crowd, the big orchestral crowd, or even the romance crowd. If you don’t like jazz, don’t like swing, don’t like big band, and don’t like a large dose of humor in your music, The Informant is not the score for you, because Hamlisch’s music is all those things, and is very authentic. Personally, I loved it, partially because it represents a welcome return to the silver screen for Hamlisch, and partially because it is the absolute antithesis to all the inane testosterone-fuelled action scores that have littered the summer’s film music scene, and whose composers couldn’t compose something as musically pure as this if their lives depended on it. Also, don’t be surprised if this score is a front-runner for Best Score and Best Song honors when the Oscar nomination pool begins in earnest; this is the kind of thing Academy voters love.

Rating: ****

Buy the Informant! soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Informant! (5:05)
  • Meet Mark (2:16)
  • Car Meeting (1:40)
  • The Raid (2:50)
  • Multi-Tasking (2:28)
  • Polygraph (1:43)
  • Boxes (2:25)
  • After Car (2:15)
  • Trust Me (Instrumental) (3:57)
  • Sellout (2:46)
  • Triplets (1:13)
  • Golf (1:21)
  • Trust Me (written by Marvin Hamlisch, Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, performed by Steve Tyrell) (3:36)
  • The Informant! (Solo Piano) (2:42)

Running Time: 36 minutes 24 seconds

Silva Screen SILCD1298 (2009)

Music composed and conducted by Marvin Hamlisch. Orchestrations by Larry Hochman. Featured musical soloists John Moses and Laura Sherman. Edited by Missy Cohen. Album produced by Marvin Hamlisch.

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