I was fortunate to attend the 2009 Ghent Film Festival where Marvin Hamlisch, who died on Monday at the age of 68, was being honored for career achievment at the World Soundtrack Awards. At a morning panel that I moderated on the morning of the ceremony, Mr. Hamlisch pretty much provided the comic relief the proceedings needed, given that film composers can often be a rather sober, serious bunch.
In fact, during one moment when Mr. Hamlisch was talking about the popularity of film music, somebody’s cell phone went off among those in attendance, although I can’t remember precisely what the ringtone was. But without missing a beat, Mr. Hamlisch asked “Is that public domain, by the way, or did we make money? The guy who wrote that, right now — I swear to God — is sitting in some fantastic place in the south of France. We’re killing ourselves here for $14,000!”
Here then, are some select Hamlisch nuggets from the press conference.
On the necessity that composers be versatile:
Marvin Hamlisch: “There are composers that can only do this, but can’t do that. They can only do this kind of picture but they can’t do that. No — composers can do any picture. They can do any style. It’s not our style. We become subservient — if we’re really good — to what the movie is about.
“If you listen to my second film, ‘Bananas’ (1971), and then you put it up against ‘The Way We Were’ (1973), I doubt you would think that the same composer wrote those two things.”
On the importance of formal training and working with your God-given gifts:
“The only way I like to write is either if you are granted by God a great title of a film like ‘The Way We Were’ and you go, ‘I can write that.’ Or, you see a film and as you’re walking on the streets of New York, or, God willing, Paris, the beauty is you’re thinking about that film and those things and that’s when all the stuff you’ve learned at school starts to play and you start your language. And I think that’s the glory of film music.”
On film composers as a draw for audiences:
“As egotistical as I am, it’s very rare that one zooms to the theater saying, ‘I’ve got to hear this Michel Legrand score.’”
Movie scores as popular entertainment and the lack of written scores:
“I do a lot of conducting of what we call ‘Pops’ orchestras in America and one of the major selling points of a Pops orchestra will be the evening that you call ‘movie music.’ But the biggest problem that we find in doing popular music for orchestra is getting the music… It’s very important that the new composers and new scores find their way to a library.
“There are certain concerts that will always sell out: You say the word ‘Gershwin’ and you will sell out. You say ‘Broadway tunes’ and you will sell out. And you say ‘movie scores’…”
On collaborating with directors:
“There are certain directors who I think give music its due. And there are other directors who basically just think that they’re buying a carpet and if this carpet doesn’t work they’ll just use another carpet. So it’s a very thin line between the people who really respect you and the people who just use you.
Music as dramatic filler:
“You learn very quickly how important music is to a project because try a montage one day and watch it for two and a half minutes without music. It has the qualities of going to the dentist.”
On the use of ‘temp’ tracks:
“Temp tracks can be very insidious. Because what happens is, not only has the director heard it 90 times and they’re used to it, but for a composer, it’s not like you’re really starting off with an empty slate because someone has already shown you the direction they wish to go to — or at least the direction that, of all the CDs they have at their disposal, this is the one they found.
“I’ll never forget on ‘The Way We Were,’ the temp track had things like Michel Legrand, Henry Mancini, Georges Delerue; every scene had one of these great composers. And I said, ‘Excuse me, now just a second here, you couldn’t afford this temp track in real life.’”