Composer Marvin Hamlisch’s recent passing has prompted reassessments of the rich body of work he left behind during his wide-reaching career. One of the few people to be awarded a Grammy, Tony, Oscar, and Emmy, as well as a Pulitzer Prize, Hamlisch was one of the most honored and respected artists in the music industry. His best known works remain the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line” (1975) and the films “The Way We Were” and “The Sting” (both released in 1973). It was the latter movie that surprised many, as director George Roy Hill entrusted Hamlisch with the task of adapting seventy-year-old compositions written by “ragtime king” Scott Joplin into the movie’s soundtrack. The result was an enchanting score full of whimsy and pathos that earned Hamlisch an Academy Award.
“The Sting,” a light-hearted caper movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as Depression-era flim-flam men, took place in Chicago in the early 1930s. Yet because of the effectiveness of the score, nobody questioned the fact that ragtime’s heyday was already two decades in the past when the story took place. (The film’s signature song, “The Entertainer,” was published in 1902.) Joplin died in 1917, just as ragtime was giving way to jazz as America’s newest musical sensation. By the time the action in “The Sting” took place, ragtime had almost been forgotten, with the hopped-up jazz sounds of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway taking its place, just prior to the explosion of swing in the mid-1930s.
This brings up an interesting point: how essential is it to provide era-appropriate music for a film, Broadway musical, or even a commercial or television program? One needs to go no further than the Biblical epics of the 1950s to realize how ridiculous this idea is. What would “Ben-Hur” and “Spartacus” have been like if, instead of the majestic scores by Miklos Rozsa and Alex North, we were left with the primitive sounds of ancient auloses and kitharas? But these are extreme examples. When the music is decades apart rather than centuries apart from the action, should composers be bound to reproduce what was actually heard in those times? Would “The Sting” have been as effective a film had Hamlisch used the music of Earl Hines or Fletcher Henderson? Probably not.
But let’s look at another film with an iconic score, one that not only defined the film, but the era it represented as well: the 1967 bank robber saga, “Bonnie & Clyde,” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The memorable soundtrack consisted of the driving sounds of bluegrass, as played by Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys. The image of Depression-era jalopies barreling across Oklahoma farmland to Scruggs’ three-finger banjo on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is one of film history’s most memorable sequences. But how many people know that bluegrass music didn’t even exist until Flatt and Scruggs first joined Bill Monroe & his Bluegrass Boys in 1947?
There is a kind of music, however, that not only might have achieved the same effect, but would have been more appropriate to the era depicted in “Bonnie & Clyde.” Western swing, an intoxicating blend of hot jazz and string band music, was the major form of dance music in the Southwest in the 1930s. Not only were these groups, then known simply as “fiddle bands,” heard in Texas and Oklahoma in the ’30s, but the real Bonnie and Clyde were devoted fans of it. The most popular band in the Southwest, Milton Brown & his Musical Brownies, drew capacity crowds during the Depression, playing countless dances in rambling dance halls throughout the area. Surviving members of the band even recalled the Barrow gang attending some of their dances. (I describe this in detail in my biography of Brown, which was published by University of Illinois Press in 1994.)
The upshot of all of this is: do your homework. Although it might be more convenient to use whatever kind of music you are familiar with, there may be something else, hidden in an archive, or some other crevice accessible by only a few, that would not only satisfy your creative goal, but could became uniquely identified with your production. This is what Marvin Hamlisch discovered.