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Composer Marvin Hamlisch writes score for Steven Soderbergh's 'Informant!'

He is choosy about his projects these days, but was eager to work on Steven Soderbergh's film and used Matt Damon's character as inspiration.

September 27, 2009|Mark Olsen

In Steven Soderbergh's new offbeat film "The Informant!", a rather incongruously sappy and dramatic piece of music plays during the opening credits while images of tape recorders, notebooks and assorted surveillance equipment appear on screen. The jaunty tune seems to promise romance, mystery and intrigue and brings to mind the vintage film scores of composer Marvin Hamlisch.

That's because it is Hamlisch. Composing a feature film score for the first time since working on Barbra Streisand's 1996 film, "The Mirror Has Two Faces," Hamlisch has created a piece of work that practically becomes a character in the movie, his music constantly shifting moods and working to either underline or contradict what is happening on screen.

Best known for his run of work that included "The Sting," "The Way We Were," "A Chorus Line" and even composing the James Bond tune "Nobody Does It Better," Hamlisch has in his long career won a Tony, four Grammys, four Emmys, three Golden Globes, three Oscars and even a Pulitzer Prize. More recently he has been conducting pops orchestras around the globe and so allows himself to be selective as to which offers he accepts for composing.

Soderbergh thought of Hamlisch when he watched an old Woody Allen movie while working on his "Che" movie. Knowing that the tone of "The Informant!" would be difficult to execute -- in its story of a corporate whistle-blower (Matt Damon) it is often unclear as to who is telling the truth and who is lying, as well as what is being played straight-faced and what is for laughs -- the director realized Hamlisch could pull off the same shifts.

"I felt right from the main title sequence that I wanted to let people know, through a combination of the music and font style, this is not a drama," Soderbergh said recently. "You should not be feeling this is like taking vitamins. And I just remembered how much I loved Marvin's score for 'Bananas,' and I started wondering why isn't he scoring movies anymore."

After arranging a meeting, Soderbergh was pleased to discover Hamlisch was eager to get to work.

"Going to him and saying, 'I want it to feel like a comedy from the early '70s,' he understands that better than anybody," Soderbergh added. "In the first meeting he described what the orchestra would be, what instruments, how big; he knew right from the beginning."

Sitting down at his piano with a copy of the film to write, Hamlisch struggled at first with how straightforward the score should be.

"Then it was like one of those light-bulb occurrences," Hamlisch said in a recent phone interview from his home in New York City. "If you're doing 'The Way We Were' you know it's going to be a love song, you get to that conclusion fast. Here, what I was trying to figure out was what the style was going to be. And all of a sudden it dawned on me. You take it from the point of view of Matt Damon's character, who sees himself as a jolly good guy with all the bad people around him. So I've done the score that's a 180."

At times the score's retro bachelor-jazz feel becomes a joke unto itself, as specific music seems to play in opposition to what's unfolding on screen, creating an ironic tension and highlighting the film's ongoing theme of the distinction between how we see the world and how the world sees us.

"It's almost a myopic view from his glasses to what he's seeing in the world," said Hamlisch of how he tied the score to the perspective of Damon's character. "It's a very interesting score because it's not so much the music on its own that's important, but the juxtaposition with the film. When you hear the soundtrack after you've seen the film, you really get a kick out of it."

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