Judge Clark Douglas wrote this review for love.
"One of the real marks of his genius was that his music was so smart without ever making you feel stupid when you listened to it."
Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love is a sterling example of how retrospective documentaries ought to be done. It's well-produced, engaging, educational, respectful, honest and thorough, and provides a satisfying and balanced portrait of a noted individuals life. While many documentary specials of this sort tend to wallow in sentiment and hyperbole (particularly those produced right after the documentary's subject passes away), PBS' tribute to the late Mr. Hamlisch is lively and sharp.
Over the course of 85 minute, the doc takes the viewer on a guided tour of Hamlisch's life. His parents wanted him to be a classical musician, but Hamlisch couldn't suppress his fondness for popular music. Hamlisch takes several potshots at Juilliard (where he received his formal musical education) in various interviews, suggesting in a variety of ways that the esteemed school did a decent job of teaching him technique but was useless in terms of teaching him how to write good music.
Hamlisch divided most of his time between film and Broadway over the years, finding much success in both fields. The great achievement of his Broadway career was his debut effort A Chorus Line, but he tried valiantly to match that particular effort time and time again. Alas, the public never quite warmed to They're Playing Our Song, Smile or The Sweet Smell of Success the way they did to his first effort. Even so, a good portion of his work has stood the test of time, and some will perhaps eventually be appreciated for the fine efforts they are (several participants in the documentary insist that The Sweet Smell of Success in particular deserves a second look).
Hamlisch's work for the big screen was steadier and more consistent, though he was at his peak during the 1970s: he won Oscars for his work on The Sting and The Way We Were, plus another eight nominations for films ranging from The Spy Who Loved Me to Sophie's Choice (and he should have received one for his brilliant, hilarious score for Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!). He's one of the world's few EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners, and a composer whose enthusiasm for his profession shines through in so many of his endeavors. Though he was always better with heart-on-sleeve sentiment and broad, cheerful melodies than with more nuanced dramatic fare, he was an extraordinarily gifted composer whose seeming fondness for simplicity was by no means rooted in a lack of depth.
It's a treat to hear many of Hamlisch's friends and associates share anecdotes about the man's life and work, and the filmmakers have gathered up an impressive array of noted figures to share stories: Quincy Jones, Steven Soderbergh, John Lithgow, Barbra Steisand, Carly Simon, Ann-Margret, Idina Menzel, Christopher Walken and many others are eager to express their appreciation for his work. The most surprising (and surprisingly charming) participant is legendary baseball coach Joe Torre, who gushes about his fondness for Hamlisch's music and reveals himself to be a serious Broadway enthusiast.
Despite the generally upbeat and warm-hearted vibe of the documentary, it admirably takes some time to examine Hamlisch's failures as well as his success: the critically-panned shows, the poorly-received movies, the years in Hamlisch's career in which he fretted constantly over the notion that he might never match the quality of his earlier work. Hamlisch went through a great deal of self-doubt over the course of his career, and the film explores that side of his personality with tactful candor. Along with the details of Hamlisch's love life (he was a ladies' man for many years until he settled down and married a charming woman named Terre), this material helps form a three-dimensional portrait of the man.
Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love boasts a perfectly satisfactory 1.78:1 transfer. Much of the material featured in the documentary is archival footage, of course, and that varies in quality. However, all the new stuff looks great. More importantly, the filmmakers were able to license all of Hamlisch's popular melodies for the special, ensuring that the journey is an exceptionally tuneful one. Supplements are more generous than usual for a PBS disc: over an hour of bonus footage that the documentary couldn't make time for, some behind-the-scenes recordings from A Chorus Line and a trailer.
Both diehard fans of the composer and those who merely have a casual interest in his work will likely find Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did For Love an entertaining and enlightening experience. Highly recommended.
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