J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, December 23, 2013

American Master, Marvin Hamlisch

Marvin Hamlisch was a passionate supporter of the New York Yankees and the Great American Songbook, so you know he was a man of discerning taste.  He also composed the music for a show that had a nice run on Broadway. It was called A Chorus Line.  Roughly eighteen months after his passing, Hamlisch gets the American Masters treatment with Dori Bernstein’s Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love (promo here), which premieres on most PBS stations nationwide this Friday.

Although Hamlisich was born to working class immigrant family, he achieved remarkable success at an early age.  He was just that good.  He also had the tireless support of his beloved mother.  Julliard recognized his talents, offering the prodigy a scholarship, but Hamlisch never became the classical recital pianist they envisioned.

Obviously, A Chorus Line will be the centerpiece of any survey of Hamlisch’s career.  There is no avoiding it.  However, James D. Stern & Adam Del Deo’s documentary Every Little Step remains the definitive documentary word on the record breaking show and the highly regarded 2006 revival. For anyone who has seen it (which presumably includes a good number of Hamlisch fans), WHDFL plays a well meaning but familiar second fiddle.

Nevertheless, Bernstein finds rich material throughout the rest of Hamlisch’s oeuvre.  It is easy to forget how huge “Through the Eyes of Love,” his romantic theme to Ice Castles was at the time, because the film itself has not aged well.  Likewise, Carly Simon offers some memorable reminiscences on recording Hamlisch’s Bond theme, “Nobody Does It Better.” The catchy archival performance clip from They’re Playing Our Song might also raise the stock of Hamlisch’s second biggest Broadway hit.

As a Tony Award winning Broadway producer, whose previous screen credits include the entertaining behind-the-scenes documentary ShowBusiness, Bernstein clearly understands the world of musical theater.  She also scored interview time with a small army of Hamlisch’s friends and collaborators, including Joe Torre, Quincy Jones, Steven Soderbergh, Donna McKechnie, and Woody Allen (via phone, but still impressive). 

Bernstein assembles a comprehensive portrait of a patriotic, down-to-earth artist with a tireless work ethic.  It is a good profile that unfairly suffers in comparison to great thematically related doc.  Recommended for fans of Broadway and American popular song, Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love airs this Friday (12/27) as part of the current season of PBS’s American Masters.

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