'American Masters': 'Marvin Hamlisch' review: Lively, but lacking

Marvin Hamlisch, 1974 with three Oscars. "American Masters" Marvin Hamlisch, 1974 with three Oscars. "American Masters" presents the documentary, "Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love" Dec. 27 on PBS. Photo Credit: MCT

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REVIEW

THE SHOW "American Masters": "Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love"

WHEN | WHERE Friday at 9 p.m. on WNET|13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Marvin Hamlisch was just 29 when he walked off with three Oscars in the same year -- two for the title song and score for "The Way We Were," the third for adapting Scott Joplin's ragtime into the score for "The Sting." Two years later, he was on top of the theater world as the composer of "A Chorus Line," which won the 1976 Pulitzer, the Tony and, at least according to Dori Berinstein's entertaining and affectionate documentary, rescued dying Broadway and, thus, saved New York.

Hamlisch, who died unexpectedly at 68 during the 2012 tryout of "The Nutty Professor" musical, was the adored son of Viennese Jewish immigrants. He was a Juilliard piano prodigy at 6, prized for his virtuosic technique and uncanny ear. Not comfortable within the restrictions of classical music, he later explained, "I wanted to be Cole Porter," not Vladimir Horowitz. Although his Broadway dreams were unfulfilled in later years and unfinished when he died, Hamlisch's versatility, accessible melodic gifts and ebullient personality made him the rare crossover composer for both theater and more than 40 movie scores -- including, very early on, songs for Woody Allen's "Bananas" and "Take the Money and Run."

Allen, notoriously unavailable for interviews, is heard mumbling something about Hamlisch on an audiotape. But the film has no shortage of loving wattage from Barbra Streisand, his friend since he was rehearsal pianist for "Funny Girl." Other highlights include Carly Simon singing "Nobody Does It Better" in an apartment with Hamlisch on piano and Steven Soderbergh explaining the importance of Hamlisch's upbeat score to Matt Damon's character in "The Informant!" Conspicuously missing is anything about the late Edward Kleban, who wrote the unforgettable "Chorus Line" lyrics for Hamlisch's tunes.

MY SAY The lively 90-minute documentary does not gloss over the succession of Broadway failures, Hamlisch's depression and his fear that he would never do another show as important as "Chorus Line." Alas, like his career, the film is more fascinating at the start than the finish, which dribbles off into a lengthy chunk of happy-face quotes about his joy, his kindnesses at retirement homes, his love of the Yankees, his enthusiasm for food. Unlike the award-winning filmmaker's Carol Channing documentary and "ShowBusiness," a behind-the-scenes chronicle of a Broadway season (in which, full disclosure, I appeared), this one loses momentum before the movie ends.

BOTTOM LINE Lively and smartly made documentary that, like Hamlisch's own abrupt end, lacks a satisfying conclusion.

GRADE A-

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