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Hamlisch left his signature on decades of films

Award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch, centre, accepts the Academy Award for Music from presenters Donald O'Connor, left, and Debbie Reynolds at the 46th Academy Awards in April, 1974. (REUTERS/Len Price/Handout)

LOS ANGELES: The word “prolific” gets tossed around a lot, but it couldn’t be more appropriate in discussing the work of the late, great Marvin Hamlisch.

This is especially true in considering his many contributions to film over the past five-plus decades. He’s been duly decorated in other artistic realms – the longtime Broadway favorite “A Chorus Line,” which eventually ended up on the big screen, earned him a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 – but he also crafted some of the best-loved and most enduring songs and scores in movie history.

Hamlisch died Monday after a brief illness, his family said. The former child prodigy, who was accepted to Juilliard School of Music at age 7, was 68.

Regardless of the genre or year, Hamlisch’s music had a unifying factor – something intangible, an old-fashioned sense of showmanship, a feeling of substance and a respect for craft. He tapped into our emotions in a way that felt intimate and personal, yet he expressed yearnings that are universally relatable,

One great example of this is “The Way We Were,” an unabashedly sentimental, melancholic ballad from Sydney Pollack’s 1973 romantic drama of the same name, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. It gave Streisand one of her signature tunes.

It also earned Hamlisch the Academy Award for best original song, which he shared with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

1974 was a huge year for Hamlisch at the Oscars. He also won for his original score for “The Way We Were” and for his adaptation of Scott Joplin’s music for George Roy Hill’s “The Sting,” the seven-time Oscar winner that reunited Paul Newman and Redford as Chicago con men. The theme song “The Entertainer” is so insanely catchy, it’ll probably be stuck in your head the rest of the week now. You’re welcome.

Hamlisch also composed the (in my opinion) most-recognized James Bond theme song in the 22-film history of the franchise with “Nobody Does It Better” from 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

It’s romantic and wistful but with an increasing power, and it’s become a signature hit for Carly Simon. It’s so enduring that even Radiohead has performed a cover of it, putting their own spin on the song.

There was, of course, Richard Attenborough’s 1985 film version of “A Chorus Line,” which was nominated for three Academy Awards, including one for yet another Hamlisch original song. Songs from the revered Broadway show, like “One” and “What I Did for Love,” have turned up in countless other films as disparate as “My Giant,” “Shrek” and “American Dreamz.”

Naturally gifted and versatile, Hamlisch ranged from jazzy scores for the early Woody Allen comedies “Take the Money and Run” (1969) and “Bananas” (1971) to more somber work in heavy-duty dramas including “Ordinary People” (1980) and “Sophie’s Choice” (1982).

In between were romances including the wistful theme for “Same Time, Next Year,” with Ellen Burstyn and Alan Alda, and the disco-flavored title music for “Seems like Old Times” (1980), with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.

Hamlisch’s first movie credit was “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” a perky pop tune that Lesley Gore sang in the 1965 comedy “Ski Party,” which featured Frankie Avalon in drag. The song lives on in places like the family animation “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and was even used ironically during a police chase in the 1993 “Simpsons” episode “Marge on the Lam.”

The last film he scored was 2009’s “The Informant!” Steven Soderbergh’s ’70s-tinged romp about a bungling, delusional whistleblower. Once the strains of Hamlisch’s jaunty score begin – an ideal accompaniment to the faded cinematography and Matt Damon’s helmet of hair and corny sportswear – you know you’re in some vividly retro, comic parallel universe. That’s how effectively Hamlisch could create a mood.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 09, 2012, on page 16.

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