Long before I knew who Paul Newman and Robert Redford were, before I understood what a long con was or even what a hooker did, I knew of Scott Joplin, Marvin Hamlisch and the music of The Sting. The soundtrack LP to the 1973 Academy Award winning film was amongst the collection of records housed in the stereo unit that sat in our living room, growing up. That immense piece of furniture could be heard playing The Sting soundtrack on any given day when I was a boy. Later, we had the piano music, too, although I never learned to play any of the songs, despite my seven years of piano lessons. My mom could play it, quite well, actually. Mom’s an excellent piano player, although she would deny it.
George Roy Hill’s movie, written by David S. Ward, employed several Joplin songs that Hamilsch arranged specifically for the film. The film is set in the 1930’s, long after Joplin’s ragtime music was out of style, but somehow it works for the film. It definitely helps set the tone that The Sting takes place in a different era.
The opening selection on the soundtrack is a quiet, melancholy number called “Solace.” It begins with a lovely piano, and then a small orchestra of violin, trumpet and clarinet join in. “Solace” gripped me at a young age. The sadness cut into my young heart, which may explain why I enjoy a good cry every now and then. Any viewer watching The Sting must have known that it wasn’t some tense drama, like the films Redford and Newman were making in the 70’s. Like I said, I had no idea what The Sting was about. For all I knew, it dealt with a swarm of killer bees. Actually, I would have been really excited to see a movie about killer bees set to ragtime music.
The most famous song on The Sting is “The Entertainer,” which introduced a new generation of listeners to the music of Scott Joplin when the song was released as a single and went all the way to number three on the Billboard Pop Chart. Although the song was written in 1902, and fans of The Sting may associate the song with the 1930’s, I will always associate it with the 1970’s and my childhood. That’s music transcending time for you.
My favorite song on The Sting soundtrack remains “Easy Winners,” an upbeat band number that features every instrument a member in my family could play. Mom could play piano, Dad the clarinet, one sister on piccolo, the other on tuba, my brother on snare, and me on bass drum and triangle. We could have been the Malchus Family Players, featuring a local trumpet player on each stop of our tour. It was a nice idea as a kid, but there’s no way we could all play together now, for a number or reasons.
I didn’t see a single frame of The Sting until the early 80’s, when the movie was shown regularly on the ABC Sunday Night Movie. Can you hear the voiceover announcer as he previews the movie? “Tonight: Paul Newman and Robert Redford star as a couple of cons artists out to seek revenge in the Academy Award winning, The Sting. Also starring Robert Shaw.” Maybe it wasn’t exactly those words, but pretty close, huh?
The first couple of times I tried to watch the movie I only got to see an hour or so, which, with commercials, was more like 45 minutes. Because it was a school night, I’d always have to go to bed soon after Redford’s “Johnny Hooker” and Newman’s “Henry Gondorf” meet for the first time. Although I didn’t get to see much, I liked the snazzy clothes and the quick, witty banter between the characters; but with so little to go on, it would be years before I finally found out what the movie was about!
When I reached adolescence, I never listened to The Sting soundtrack. Piano music? Screw that! Gimme head bangin’, fist pumpin’, heart stoppin’ heavy metal! Or at least Billy Squier. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, when I seriously began dreaming about making movies and started listening to film soundtracks, that I dug out my parents’ scratchy vinyl copy of The Sting soundtrack. Listening to the music again after years of so much rock and roll crap was a delight and brought so much happiness. Coincidentally, one of the Cleveland UHF channels was airing The Sting as a midnight movie around that time. I eagerly set our VCR and recorded it.
Knowing the music so well brought a comfortable feeling to watching The Sting. It was like having a mutual friend, in this case, Marvin Hamlisch, and finally being introduced to this person (or persons) that I’ve heard so much about over the years. I felt like I knew The Sting, even though I didn’t really know The Sting. In watching the film, I was excited to not only see how other favorites, like “Pine Apple Rag”, were used in the film, but also to become familiar with the great character actors who lend so much to the film, people like Ray Walston (“Mr. Hand!”), Charles Durning, Eileen Brennen and Harold Gould. It was also a thrill to see Redford and Newman carry out their intricate plan; and then to have an honest to goodness “Holy shit!” moment at the end of the movie. If you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m talking about.
What I loved most about the film (and still do) was the camaraderie between Newman and Redford’s characters. The chemistry the two leads developed on and off the screen during 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid carried over to The Sting and makes this film better because of it. Additionally, the loyalty that Redford’s “kid” has for his friends is something that I admired and became a recurring theme in most of my own writing. When “The Entertainer” plays one last time as the movie irises to black, there was a bittersweet feeling of having to say goodbye to the characters. They’re like your friends and you wish you could spend more time with them. Obviously, you can go back and watch the movie again, or listen to the soundtrack to relive the great moments, but it’s not the same as the first time. It’s never the same.
This morning, I played “Easy Winners” while the kids were getting ready for school. Jacob danced, while Sophie quietly formed her own opinion of the music in her 11-year old brain. I hope that someday we can all watch The Sting together and that they get a thrill out of the movie like I did. Until then, I’ll keep playing the soundtrack and perhaps they’ll create their own memories to the music.