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The soundtrack from The Sting with Hamlisch and Joplin

“The Sting,” an American classic, is one of the most enjoyable caper movies in the history of Academy Awards. It grabbed seven Oscars with an additional three nominations. The film’s brilliance is entirely decorative, and in spite of being a “con” movie, it offers a wonderful moral conjecture. The heart of the movie is much more than a simplistic exhibition of distraction, a dramatic narrative that cajoles our sensitivity. It also boasts of another trump card, the pervasive brilliance of Marvin Hamlisch and Scott Joplin, who weave their magic wands to create quite a refreshing, albeit identifiable soundtrack. 

Poster of the film, The Sting

Duology

In 1973, “The Sting” brought to the table a celebrated movie bromance - Paul Newman and Robert Redford, albeit, one completely free of manly swagger and machismo. They reunited 4 years after “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” a film that had established their dual act. It’s actually a triple act if you consider returning director George Roy Hill. Like all top heist movies, the screenplay is intense and anchors a lightly toned drama. There isn’t too much attention to detail, but a touch of uncertainty regarding the fate of the protagonists successfully erects a degree of tension.

Redford and Newman flourish in their roles of a pair of Chicago con artists of the 1930s, out to dupe an equally brilliant Robert Shaw, a racketeer. The movie has a two-part narrative, the first one focusing on the card game between Newman and Shaw’s character on the train. The second narrative offers a pleasing pattern of reminiscent “bait-and-switch,” culminating with Gondorff and Redford’s characters being plugged. 

Musical Overview

Gil Rodin was the executive producer of “The Sting’s” soundtrack album. The composer Marvin Hamlisch has adapted multiple ragtime compositions by Scott Joplin in the album. The resurgence of Ragtime Music at that time also helped it to gain widespread recognition. The album also comprises “cover notes” by George Roy Hill, narrating the background story.

Hill had been a staunch admirer of ragtime, influenced by piano sessions of the same performed by his son and nephew. While planning for the movie, he decided to incorporate them into it, especially keen on utilizing the sense of humor they displayed. Hamlisch came on board and took the idea further, crafting a musical gem that went on to earn rave reviews.

Marvin Hamlisch’s music was mostly aspirational, sometimes oozing the odd sentimentality, but always memorable. He is often criticized for focusing only on cheesy commercial music, but his songs always stuck around people’s lives. They tend to turn up in anniversaries and tributes. He successfully turned a corner, establishing his place among the “classics.” People may not listen to his song much, but they do sing them to each other on occasion. Hamlisch incorporated Joplin’s original piano scores in multiple tracks in the movie, in addition to some orchestral arrangements.

The sequence of the musical album often took a different path from actual film sequences, often catering to aesthetics. It was a prevalent practice with “vinyl LP records” at that time. Snippets of Joplin’s music appears in the album, albeit selectively. Their primary function was to link music over “title cards” introducing major sequences. Incidentally, the final card introducing the climax, titled “The Sting,” didn’t have any music. Also, some tunes used in the film do not feature on the album. “Cascades,” a Joplin tune, is one such example. The middle portion of this track was utilized in an “escape” sequence in the movie. The end credits of the movie use Joplin’s “The Rag-time Dance,” featuring a “stop-time” motif.

The Tracks 

“The Sting” primarily evokes the ’30s gangster movie vibes. However, two “Jazz Age-style” tunes crafted by Hamlisch chronologically resemble the time period of the movie, rather than Joplin’s compositions.

Solace - orchestral & piano version

It is a 4-minute “habañera,” a prominent example of Joplin’s musical hybrid. However, “Solace” is not close to being more authentically Mexican than genuine ragtime. There is a hint of tango form, with its roots linked to Havana. It is crafted from multiple little catchy tunes, evoking a pulsing and shiny Caribbean dissonance.

The Entertainer — piano & orchestral version

Scott Joplin composed this classic rag in 1902 for piano. The composition is also dubbed as “A Ragtime Two-Step,” a popular dance form from the 1900s. Although “C major” is the primary key utilized here, it modulates to “F major” for the C section (also known as “trio”). However, in a subsequent transitional phase (D section), it modulates back from the subdominant to “C major.” There is also a subtle indication in the B section that the melody must be repeated on a higher octave.

The Easy Winners

This piece is considered to be one of Joplin’s best works. It stings a perfect balance between moods and strings, progressing effortlessly from the calm of “strain A” to the scattered turbulence of strain D. The structural pattern of the composition is similar to typical Joplin rags. However, the pattern extends itself to include an introduction, both before strain A and strain C.

Hooker's Hooker

Hamlisch utilizes the “Jazz style” in this number. This may be another influence of ragtime music, which is considered to be a precursor to Jazz. The common characteristic of both syncopation, is evident throughout the piece.

Luther

This composition has utilized the same basic tune from Joplin’s “Solace.” Marvin Hamlisch re-arranged it as a “dirge” - a somber lament or song for expressing grief or mourning.

Gladiolus Rag/Pine Apple Rag medley 

This medley is predictable and repetitive in melody and harmony. However, in the final section of the piece, the harmony ventures out of its comfort zone. It exudes a palpable sense of urgency, before chromatically sliding back into “rag” happiness. This section repeats itself throughout the piece, which adds to the tension.

The Glove

Hamlisch himself crafted this “Jazz style” number. However, only a brief segment of the song was utilized in the film.

Little Girl 

Madeline Hyde and Francis Henry collaborated together to write this song. The instrumental version of this piece is used here involving a scene where it is played over the car radio. However, it failed to make the final cut of the movie.

Merry Go Round Music medley

This medley consists of three parts - “Turkey in the Straw,” “Darling Nellie Gray,” and “Listen to the Mockingbird.” Only the third part, “Listen to the Mockingbird” made it to the final cut of the movie, along with segments of “The Regimental Band,” “Post March,” “King Cotton,” “The Diplomat,” a “Sousa march,” and a march by Charles C. Sweeley respectively. The band organ of the “Santa Monica Pier’s carousel” was utilized to record the six tunes.

The Ragtime Dance/The Entertainer medley

The medley opens in “B-flat major,” but subsequently harmonizes to “E-flat major” as the "B" section starts. This composition is also subtitled as “A Stop-Time Two-Step.” Here, “Stop-time” alludes to an uncommon effect that is used in the song’s second half. In 1910, Joplin himself reused the effect in “Stop time Rag.”

Happy Music?

All the 13 songs (including medleys, piano, and orchestral versions) are composed in the “major key,” which is considered to be “uplifting” and “happy.” However, all the pieces exude a sort of nostalgic, melancholic notion throughout the movie. This is down to the influence of Joplin’s music. There is always a palpable sense of lyricism stark in his work, and even though the songs mostly sound high-spirited, they fail to repress a hint of adversity.

At it’s best, “The Sting” sounds and feels like a musical comedy bereft of its songs, only left with the old-fashioned background score. The toe-tapping piano rags evoke some period details, which, fortunately, aren't too firmly attached in time. The music also faced some criticism, especially after one of the ragtime singles jolted to the top of the charts. The detractors reasoned that Joplin’s compositions were out of place in a different era. However, the movie and its music were naturally aware of everything it wanted to be and truly delivered.

Joplin's brilliance is deservedly at the forefront of the soundtrack album, but let’s not underestimate what Hamlisch’s achievements, especially with the orchestrations. His music offered the perfect foil to the ragtimes, albeit being faithful to their roots. The compositions are timeless, and offer a breath of fresh air, even when facing new audiences. The album flies like a butterfly, and “The Sting” is indeed like a bee.



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