Marvin Hamlisch — the ’70s wunderkind who won Oscars for “The Way We Were” and “The Sting” and went on to conquer Broadway with “A Chorus Line” — is back. And his music for “The Informant” is possibly the most eyebrow-raising score of the year.
Most directors want movie music that subtly, quietly supports the images. Not this time. According to Hamlisch, director Steven Soderbergh asked him not just for energetic music, but also to audibly alert audiences that the movie was a comedy. “Make sure you underline funny,” Hamlisch quoted Soderbergh as saying.
That Hamlisch did. Practically every cue in the movie is a brash, lively reminder that something’s terribly amiss in this story about a corporate whistle-blower (Matt Damon) who turns out to have more secrets than his bosses.
It was Hamlisch’s 1971 score for Woody Allen’s “Bananas” that drew Soderbergh to the composer, who hadn’t written for films in more than a decade.
“There was no way I was going to say no to Steven Soderbergh,” says Hamlisch, who in addition to his three Oscars also possesses four Grammys, four Emmys and a Tony. But after two weeks at the piano, attempting to come up with an approach, the once-prolific Hamlisch had nothing. “Slowly but surely it dawned on me that to really do this properly, you have to start by saying this man is bipolar. The way he sees the world is totally different from what we’re seeing. He’s Mr. Perfect and the rest of the people are crazy and wrong.
“Then I had the concept: The music would be what’s in his brain, the way he sees it, not the way you’re seeing it onscreen. So, in a way, it became another character in the film.”
Hamlisch’s theme for Damon’s character is light and breezy, with a ’60s-style Hammond organ. But when he imagines himself an undercover agent, Hamlisch offers 007-style electric guitar and bongos (he did, after all, score “The Spy Who Loved Me”). A lie-detector session is accompanied by a country-fiddle hoedown. “Mannix”-style music underscores a chase. Most outrageous of all is his gameshow music, complete with kazoo, for the FBI raids on the corporate bigwigs.
The composer recorded in New York with an 18-piece band, playing the piano himself and conducting his Sinatraesque arrangement of the song “Trust Me” for contemporary crooner Steve Tyrell (with lyrics by longtime Hamlisch collaborators Alan and Marilyn Bergman).
Hamlisch says that doing “The Informant” re-energized him so much that he’s eager for another film assignment. “I was very lucky in my career, having worked with great directors like Alan Pakula, Sydney Pollack and George Roy Hill,” he says. “I like strong directors who know what they want. It took a while, but it was great to wait because Soderbergh really understands music.”