Burt Bacharach, who’s being honored at the Newport Beach Film Festival with its Legends Award, is a kind of anomaly in modern pop. With lyricist Hal David, the composer was responsible for more than 50 top 40 hits back in the day when Motown, the British Invasion and homegrown psychedelia all shared the same air space on the FM radio dial.
Bacharach was not exactly a frontman, despite his movie-star looks, and the Brill Building songwriting tradition from which he and David emerged was going out of vogue by the late ’60s. On the surface, their music — interpreted by the likes of Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones and Aretha Franklin — might’ve seemed square to the Flower Power generation. After all, David seemed to be channeling his inner desperate housewife on tunes like “Wives and Lovers” and “One Less Bell to Answer,” with narratives that likely made most feminists cringe even when they were written more than 50 years ago. But Bacharach’s compositions — with their deceptively complex time signatures — are so catchy it’s hard not to get caught up in the sheer songcraft of it all.
As the festival acknowledges, Bacharach’s versatility might best be illustrated by his film, television and theater work, such as the Broadway triumph “Promises, Promises,” based on the film “The Apartment” with a book by Neil Simon.
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He is also the composer for the John Asher autism drama “Po,” which is in competition at the festival.
The Academy has been particularly sweet on Bacharach/David, having nominated the two for such original songs as “The Look of Love” (“Casino Royale”) and the title tunes for “Alfie” and “What’s New Pussycat.” They would eventually share an Oscar win for “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” for which Bacharach also won for best score), with Bacharach also triumphant for “Arthur’s Theme” (“Arthur”).
Elvis Costello, with whom Bacharach collaborated on the LP “Painted From Memory,” spoke to Bacharach’s meticulousness when he was being honored with the Polar Music Prize in 2013: “It’s very, very exact,” said Costello. “He’ll stand his ground on the placement of one beat on the bar — minute kinds of details. That’s what makes it great.”