Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Bacharach’s Oscar

Far be it from me to deny the talents of Burt Bacharach. He changed the sound of pop music. His songs (usually with lyrics by Hal David) are musically intricate—rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically. But the man is not much of a film composer.

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the notorious outlaws. At $45 million in receipts, the film came in at #1 for the year, nearly doubling the box office total of the #2 film: Disney’s THE LOVE BUG. The teaming of Newman-Redford proved to be so popular that it spawned a second outing with 1973’s THE STING.

Director George Roy Hill didn’t want to make a typical Western, and the script by William Goldman doesn’t rely on tried and true Western cliches while Conrad Hall’s cinematography plays with light and color. But the choice of Bacharach to write the score was arguably the director’s most controversial move.

Hill made it perfectly clear from the outset that he wanted the music to have a semi-contemporary sound and not a traditional symphonic Western score. He also wasn’t fond of scoring dialogue sequences. Hill decided in conversations with Goldman that there would be three musical sequences. The music is spotted so sparingly that it totals a whopping 11 minutes of music. (The album contains much more music than is heard in the film.)

George wanted [the score] to be special,” Bacharach said in an interview. “When it was used, it was to have a real…important place… It wasn’t to be filler music, it wasn’t to help the story along…It was to have importance.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid soundtrack
“The Sundance Kid”
“The Old Fun City”

The first musical sequence is the bicycle scene for Butch (Newman) and Etta (Katharine Ross). Bacharach had a tune that he thought would make a good song. With lyricist Hal David, they came up with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and used it in the scene to suggest Butch’s carefree, upbeat attitude in the face of adversity.

The second sequence is a montage of sepia-toned images of Butch, Sundance (Redford), and Etta as they travel to Bolivia to escape a posse. The jazzy saxophones and strumming banjo are about as close to period music as you’ll find in the score.

The third sequence is certainly the most anachronistic and it is the scene in which Bacharach comes under the most fire. As Butch and Sundance flee from Bolivian officials, the background vocalists ba-da-ba them on their flight. It is a pure ’60s Bacharach sound, delightful and enjoyable, but completely at odds with the images onscreen.

Bacharach does hint at the Old West with his use of an out of tune piano and accordion but that’s about it. And the only scored dialogue is the campfire scene in which a plaintive saxophone accompanies Etta’s declaration that she is leaving Butch and Sundance because she doesn’t want to watch them die.

No doubt the hit status (and likely Oscar win) of “Raindrops” helped usher him into the Oscar winner’s circle a second time for the score. But because of the score’s brevity, I don’t know if it would even be considered eligible under today’s rules. Still, the fact that Bacharach beat out far more worthy entries–Georges Delerue (ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS), Jerry Fielding (THE WILD BUNCH), Ernest Gold (THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA, my personal pick), and John Williams (THE REIVERS)–is a little offensive.

Most film score enthusiasts loathe this score. It wouldn’t have been the direction I would have chosen for the music, but it does add to the film’s sense of playful fun. Ultimately, no matter what we film music fans think, Bacharach gave the director exactly what he asked for.

In a 1994 interview, Bacharach rightfully praised Hill’s direction, the script, cinematography, and performances. He also humbly added, “I think I wrote a pretty good score.”

  1. Ah-HAH! I knew we’d disagree on something sooner or later! I love this score. I love it for its anachronism, which fits the timbre of the film perfectly. This is a film very much of its time, and it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. An Bernstein-esque score would have upset the films fable-like quality and rendered the film pedestrian. As for Bacharach’s score to this film in particular, its one I return to a lot, particularly the South American Getaway, which has to be one of the all-time feel-good film music cues and crops up on all the best private compilations of such leanings (does the name Isbum mean anything to you btw?). In general terms, Bacharach is not a GREAT film composer, but he’s not bad either. There are certain cues from What’s New Pussycat and Casino Royale and After the Fox that are just sublime, but he’s also prone to chaotic, rather clumsy scoring too. As a listen, BC&TSK is light and breezy joy, as a score it fits the film like a glove, as an Oscar winner? Over The Wild Bunch and The Reivers? No Way.

    1. Isbum?! Is that you? Small world! LOL

      As for BC&TSK, please note that I did say the score added to the fun of the film. And I do enjoy listening to it on its own (though I rarely do). It doesn’t really bother me in the film either. But is it great “scoring”? Nah, I don’t think so. I think one Oscar (for the song) would have been enough. I like your phrase “clumsy scoring.” That’s exactly how I view his scoring style, more in other films than in this one.

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