Editor's note: This is the first in an ongoing series of columns by various local "music nerd" celebs.
There is a dialogue-free scene in the Woody Allen comedy Bananas, in which Allen's nebbish browses a store's adult magazine rack, trying desperately to be as nonchalant as possible but seeming all the more conspicuous and perverted with every nervous gesture. That a grandmotherly customer glares with disgust only ups the comic ante; yet what makes the scene so funny is its accompanying music, a bouncy, optimistic ditty written by Marvin Hamlisch that absurdly ties it all together with just the right "who me?" innocence.
Steven Soderbergh has seen Bananas and loves the music. I know this because the director of The Informant! says as much in the liner notes for his 2009 film's original soundtrack:
"... I watched Woody Allen's Bananas with the hope it would provide 90 minutes of much-needed escape. As the opening credits sprayed
across the screen, I was reminded of my longtime love of Marvin Hamlisch's spectacular score. I wondered to myself: When was the last time someone wrote a score like that? Then, reading my mind, my producer/AD Gregory Jacobs spoke from his position on the second couch. He was watching the movie too. He said, 'We should get Marvin for The Informant!' In response I could only say: Absolutely!"
I couldn't agree more with Soderbergh and Jacobs. Marvin Hamlisch's Bananas score from 40 years ago is sublimely awesome and unjustly forgotten. Just like the director, I found myself with some downtime one sleepy day a few years back and watched the movie. Within minutes, I was hooking up my Sony CD recorder directly to my cable box's audio outputs, thumb hovering over the RECORD button. The tune that plays while Allen's character skulks near the nudie mags is now on my iPod, where it resides under the made-up title of "Browsing Porn." After typing in Hamlisch's name as the artist, my iPod screen now unfortunately reads: "Browsing Porn/Marvin Hamlisch."
A decade earlier, I used my Sony MiniDisc recorder (remember those?) to lift a musical interlude from a VHS copy of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. It's a bit of polyester-draped wah-wah funk that didn't make it onto the soundtrack and is nothing more than walking music, playing as Robert Forster's bailbondsman strolls into a mall and then out again carrying a shopping bag full of cash. But I knew instantly it was a sharp slice of cool and, yes, it now can be found on my iPod under the made-up title of "Jackie Brown's Groove."
There are so many more. The music from the trailer for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me? The music that didn't make it onto even the deluxe version of the soundtrack back in 1999? Five years it took me to find it, but I finally did on a compilation called Pink Panther's Penthouse Party. The song is called "Bachelor Pad," by Fantastic Plastic Machine. It is hypnotically repetitive and sticks like Super Glue to your synapses.
Obviously, I have a problem.
For as long as I can remember, I have been an unapologetic fan of movie scores, TV show themes, commercial music beds, Muzak elevator music, and anything you can fit under an umbrella with the word "incidental" stamped on it. Recently, I've realized I have a disproportionate number of soundtracks from Soderbergh's films, including Out of Sight and the Ocean's Eleven franchise (I really like the retro stylings of David Holmes, his frequent composer). So you can imagine what a thrill it was reading that the director had the same reaction to Hamlisch's Bananas music that I did. Someone else is a music nerd like me — awesome!
As a young kid, I was into my grandparents' LP collection and I watched their TV shows as raptly as Jim Carrey's twisted character in The Cable Guy. Get Smart, The Munsters, Green Acres, The Streets of San Francisco. But my real plunge into esoterica was reserved for game show music. I remember wishing I could have an album of all the music they use on The Price Is Right. What kid born in 1970 doesn't know the thrill of watching Match Game '78 with grandma and waiting for that suspense music that plays while Charles Nelson Reilly writes down his saucy quips and Gene Rayburn leers with his ridiculous long microphone over some buxom young contestant? Maybe that's what started it all: laughing with my grandparents at these half-drunk B-listers who seemed to be having so much dangerous fun up there on the RCA, in color.
So now I actually own the soundtrack for The Informant! — having ordered it from Amazon even as the end credits were still rolling on my TV. The movie itself, a quirkfest about true corporate crime starring Matt Damon, is slyly enjoyable but isn't among Soderbergh's very best. The soundtrack, though, is an instant classic that doesn't contain a single Top 40 hit. In fact, save for one song (a stellar up-tempo swinger called "Trust Me"), the whole thing's instrumental.
The soundtrack seriously sounds like Hamlisch wrote it in his heyday and then sealed it in Saran Wrap and Tupperware in his pantry, where it stayed until the right film came along. Hamlisch told The Wall Street Journal last fall that the themes from Mannix and Hawaii Five-O were inspirations — cues this music geek could hear plain as day, even before knowing it for sure. When I listen to The Informant!, here's what I hear: John Barry's James Bond music from the Roger Moore era (Hamlisch himself did the score for The Spy Who Loved Me); '70s TV cop show themes in general, but especially The Streets of San Francisco; Lawrence Welk's "Bubbles in the Wine" — even slices of Herb Alpert's instrumental cheddar from Alpert's Going Places album. Track 10 ("Sellout") starts with 30 seconds of twangy Agent 007-ish guitar licks over a bossa nova beat, then becomes an up-tempo version of the theme to Soap (yes, the old ABC sitcom!). It suddenly stops, then, at the 1:30 mark, tears off into territory reminiscent of Lalo Schifrin's urgent score for Dirty Harry. I broke out in joyous laughter on first listen, recalling Matt Damon with his preposterous hairdo and even more ridiculous mustache on The Informant!'s poster.
In the same way Soderbergh sticks a winking exclamation mark on The Informant!, Hamlisch loads up an arsenal of musical exclamations: Bongos! Wocka-wocka guitar! Quacking kazoos! Whistling! The resulting sound is the perfect complement to Damon's bipolar anti-hero, a real-life corporate whistleblower-criminal named Mark Whitacre, who's as oblivious to his deepening legal quagmire as Hamlisch's feather-light score is to the multimillion-dollar scandal at the movie's core.
Track 2 ("Meet Mark") would be right at home in a 1962 classroom film called Suburbs of the Future!, if such a thing existed. You can close your eyes and imagine a hearty-voiced narrator enthusing, "Here we find Jimmy's neighbor, Mr. Jones, cutting his lawn — look how green it is!" It's the music of an idealized fantasy world, the one Damon-as-Whitacre creates for himself with a garage full of exotic cars, a horse stable and trips abroad — all on the company's dime.
But, for me, the highlight of the soundtrack is Track 4 — "The Raid" —a one-off on the aforementioned Bananas tune. I'll continue calling it "Browsing Porn" until someone (Mr. Hamlisch?) informs me that its real title is something else entirely. Whereas "Browsing Porn" plays against the implied sleaze of girlie mags to hilarious effect, so too does "The Raid" play against the shady goings-on at Archer Daniels Midland, where Whitacre acted as both federal informant and embezzler ("The Raid" would also be at home on a Chuck Barris game show; that Whitacre, as played by Damon, seems just as delusional and greedy as your average game show contestant only heightens the effect).
All of which is not to say Hamlisch is being unoriginal; rather, the way he draws upon multiple musical influences — his own catalogue included — is an absolute stroke of genius that underlines Whitacre's mentally fractured cat-and-mouse game. If you want something done right — as Soderbergh did — you call the man who did it himself.
Bravo to both Marvin Hamlisch and Steven Soderbergh. My iPod thanks you.
Jason Carr is an Emmy- and Associated Press award-winning anchor/reporter on FOX 2 who is known for using esoteric music in his stories. Send comments to
Jason Carr is an Emmy- and Associated Press award-winning anchor/reporter on FOX 2 who is known for using esoteric music in his stories. If you, too, are a music geek, he also highly recommends "Music For TV Dinners" from Scamp Records.
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