Although the passing of a musical icon always seems to cause a renewed surge of interest in his or her career, the death of composer and songwriter Marvin Hamlisch, who died Tuesday after a brief illness at the age of 68, seems to arrive at precisely the wrong moment in history. Time has made an unfortunate parallel between Hamlisch's biggest hit, "Nobody Does It Better," and The Spy Who Loved Me, the Roger Moore-era James Bond film from which it came. Both the weepy power ballad -- all strings, sap and vanilla vibrato - and the film's silly Cold War futurism seem wholly out of sync with the current cultural zeitgeist. But a full examination of Hamlisch's long and celebrated career reveals a musician who bridged the gap between distinct eras of American music, and stood among the last of a breed of composers equally apt at writing for the stage, the screen and the pop charts. He remains one of two artists in history to win a Pulitzer, an Emmy, a Tony, an Oscar and a Grammy -- the other is Richard Rogers.
Has his music aged well? Not so much. His biggest accomplishments are in the bygone artistic form of the movie theme song (Ice Castles, Sophie's Choice, The Way We Were and The Sting), relatively nondescript movie scores (Three Men and a Baby, anyone?), and only recently revived Broadway razzle-dazzle like A Chorus Line and They're Playing Our Song. But his biography outlines the towering accomplishments of an American icon: At six years old, he became one of the youngest students ever admitted to Juilliard. He scored his first pop hit at 16 (Leslie Gore's "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows"), and spent the '70s and '80s lording over Hollywood and Broadway with unrivaled dominance, winning every award possible for a composer and becoming a recognizable fixture in pop culture.
So if Hamlisch's body of work now comes across as a schmaltzy artifact from another day, that might actually be the secret to his success: He was able to eloquently articulate the spirit of the times. And even now, an open-minded spin of a tune like "The Way We Were" - initially popularized by Barbra Streisand, and recently described by Thom Yorke as "the most romantic song ever written" -- frames Hamlisch's gifts in their rightfully resonant context. Maybe one day we'll say the same about Roger Moore's take on James Bond.