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Pop & Hiss goes to the movies: Marvin Hamlisch on his oddball 'Informant!' score

December 8, 2009 |  3:36 pm


Things start out serious in "The Informant!" While a camera pans on close-ups of a reel-to-reel tape machine, a foreboding trumpet and grand piano flourishes set the stage for a rather serious film. The music cues set up a vintage spy drama, perhaps.

Yet, it isn't long before director Steven Soderbergh and composer Marvin Hamlisch start to play with audience expectations.

"I want everyone to think that they're coming in for a real melodrama here," three-time Oscar winner Hamlisch said. "I want the audience to think it's a major spy piece. That's what Soderbergh's intention was too. Once we did that, then the whole film becomes one constant 'let's-have-a-good-time.'"

From start to finish, Hamlisch's score for "The Informant!" may be the bounciest accompaniment to a film in the composer's storied career, which includes drafting the music for "A Chorus Line," "Sting" and "Bananas," among many others. Loosely tied together with a ragtag jazz sound, Hamlisch's music is, in many ways, the only thing that's honest in the film.

Based on the true story of whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, who was spinning lies and defrauding his own dishonest company all while working for the FBI, Hamlisch's music becomes a character in the film -- the one living inside Whitacre's bipolar mind. 

Hamlisch references the Bond films and delivers an ironic take on clichéd chase-scene music. He even created what he described as his own "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" as a theme for Whitacre. 

02 Meet Mark

"Being about an unconventional character required an unconventional way of going about the score," Hamlisch said.

For two weeks, Hamlisch said, he composed and threw out multiple takes on the score before settling on the jovial direction the music ultimately took.

"We were playing the ultimate mind game," Hamlisch said. "What we were trying to do was get into the mind of this guy, and given that he's under more pressure, what would he be thinking? It starts out where he has no problems. Slowly and surely the problems start, and he's lying bigger and bigger. The more he escalates, the more we get wilder and wilder -- get me some serotonin quick!"

--Todd Martens


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The above piece appears in the Dec. 9 issue of The Envelope. Click here for more awards coverage.

Photo credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times