It’s been a long time since we’ve had one of those crystallizing film score moments. You know what I’m talking about. Something like Star Wars or Back to the Future or Jaws. When’s the last time you’ve heard a score cue and immediately knew what movie it was from? I think for me it would be The Grand Budapest Hotel, but then again I’m also a huge fan of Alexandre Desplat and his lighthearted jaunts. Before that, you have to go back to franchise fare like the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings series, and before that, specifically, it’s “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, which was incredibly NOT nominated in this field. I know the prequels suck, but that track alone is one of the greatest pieces of film score ever written, and like so many great bits, over 20 years later you still know EXACTLY what scene it plays under.
So in lieu of truly groundbreaking, zeitgeist-busting music, how do we go about judging the nominees for Original Score year-to-year? For me, it basically boils down to two factors. One is simply whether or not the music is any good. I know that’s totally subjective, but it’s important. If the entire soundtrack is just generic strings and horns without any thematic weight to it, then why bother? Even worse, if it’s just a bunch of looped computer noises without any actual instrumentation, then as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t even fit the definition of “music.” That’s not to say electronic music isn’t allowed, but it has to be clear that there’s an actual composition and people playing, even if they’re playing something non-traditional. That’s part of why I hate modern pop so much, because you can tell no one’s playing. It’s just a manufactured beat warped and distorted on a computer, then some producer hits the space bar, and that’s considered “composing.” Bull. Shit.
The second factor, and really the more important one, is the score’s context within the film. We don’t get too many “wow” moments in film scoring these days as I said, but that doesn’t mean you can’t contextualize the soundtrack. This can happen any number of ways. There are cues that can remind you of a certain scene, even if it’s not an automatic association in your head. There are thematic lines that correspond to a character or moment. Sometimes there’s a flow that echoes the narrative of the story. If you can find those moments, that’s the sign of a strong score. I’m not talking about its volume relative to the film itself; that’s more a sound design aspect (an overpowering soundtrack can drown out dialogue and ruin a movie, for example). I’m talking more about the ability to close your eyes, listen to the music, and pinpoint a moment or a feeling associated with the movie. If a score can do that, then the composer has truly accomplished something.
Just like Original Song, it’s important to listen to the scores within the movies themselves, but also to take the time to listen to them by themselves later on. Think of it as a memory test to see just how much of an impression both the movie and the soundtrack left on you. Also like Original Song, the context is something that should be treated with near utmost importance, but as there’s no ironclad rule about it, we can’t exactly dismiss something because it doesn’t have a deeper connection. Thankfully, this year’s class doesn’t contain five nominees without any kind of contextual link, so if you wanted to, it’s perfectly fine to dock points if you can’t make a mental connection between audio and visual.
This year’s nominees for Original Score are:
Da 5 Bloods – Terence Blanchard
A frequent collaborator with Spike Lee, this is Blanchard’s second nomination after his work on BlacKkKlansman, which was just superb. It is criminal that this is the only nomination for Da 5 Bloods, and if there’s resulting outrage, that might help put Blanchard over the top. If I had my druthers, this film would be up for Cinematography, Film Editing, and Supporting Actor for Delroy Lindo in addition to the Score. But what the hell do I know? I just watch 100+ films a year.
Anyway, to the soundtrack. As a story about soldiers and the lifetime of trauma from the Vietnam War, the score begins by brilliantly incorporating East and Southeast Asian instruments into a traditional, brass-heavy military theme, a la Patton. The intent is to contrast the supposed glory of warfare with the disposability with which black soldiers were treated and the atrocities of modern weaponry on the locals, whether they were fighting or not.
As the film progresses and intensity ramps up, the score is there to meet the moment, particularly in regard to Paul, who suffers from PTSD in addition to his general xenophobia and political anger. A theme develops around him instrumentally to go along with his creeping paranoia and conspiracy theories. As his character becomes more unstable, so too does the music, culminating in a serene swell of grace as the late Chadwick Boseman as Norman appears to “forgive” him for his misdeeds. This is a very strong entry when it comes to creative instrumentation as well as mental association with the film.
Mank – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Reznor and Ross are up twice in this category this year, following their Oscar win for The Social Network just over a decade ago. It’s weird, though, the most memorable piece of music from that film is still the choral cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” so I take that as kind of a mulligan. Both of the pair’s nominations this time involve jazz-heavy soundtracks, but this is the lesser of the two.
Don’t get me wrong, the music is quite good. There’s a strong swing vibe throughout, with heavy drums, particularly tom-toms. It’s very reminiscent of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” at times. And all that works really well, especially as Reznor and Ross made a point to only use era-appropriate instruments for this score. There are no electric instruments or artificial sounds, and the bulk of the music very much comports with the big band/swing jazz motifs of the late 1930s.
The downside is that there’s not much connection to the film itself. As a stand-alone album, this is really, really good, but apart from a cue called “San Simeon Waltz,” which accompanies Mank’s walk, talk, and dance with Marion Davies – arguably the film’s most famous scene – pretty much the entire soundtrack is detached from the proceedings in the movie. It’s background music. It’s catchy as hell and really well orchestrated and performed, but it’s background music nonetheless. That’s not always a disqualifier, but there are other scores on this list – including from this duo – that link up so much better with the film itself.
Minari – Emile Mosseri
This is the first nomination for Mosseri, who previously created the scores for The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Kajillionaire along with his work with indie band, The Dig. This is the most minimalist of the nominated scores, but it accomplishes its goal because of how well it connects to the story, their symbiotic relationship making the soundtrack feel much bigger than it is.
Because Lee Isaac Chung wrote Minari based on his own childhood, young David, played by Alan Kim, is at times the point-of-view character when the focus isn’t on Steven Yeun’s Jacob. But they both provide the same narrative force, in that this is a small-scale adventure for the Yi family, striking out on their own and trying to succeed in rural America despite myriad problems. I think of it like a story a dad tells his kids about something very simple, but because it’s so personal, it becomes grand.
That’s what Mosseri does with the score. Using low-key strings and piano, he focuses on the potential and wonder of the Yis’ situation. It explores with David, toils with Jacob, and adapts with Soon-ja in her attempts to both assimilate and become a “real grandma.” At times the cues seem timid, because the characters do. At others there’s a majesty to the simplest things, like the planting of the titular minari seeds near the creek. You can close your eyes and feel yourself running through the fields around the farm, or just lying in the tall grass. It’s hopeful and pastoral at the same time, all while using what feels like a tiny chamber orchestra. The film itself is about doing a lot with so little, and Mosseri complements that theme spectacularly.
News of the World – James Newton Howard
James Newton Howard is no stranger to Oscar Night, as this is his ninth nomination overall and seventh in this category (including The Prince of Tides, which would have won against any other film but Beauty and the Beast). He’s yet to get a win, so if there’s an argument about anyone being “due,” he’s the one to make it.
That said, unfortunately, this is the most, well, ordinary score in the set. Again, like Mank, it’s good. The music is solid. There isn’t a bad entry in this list from that standpoint. The problem is that it’s just a standard-issue “Western” soundtrack. It’s full of banjos and low register strings. There’s a four-note progression with accompanying crescendo that serves as a running phrase throughout multiple tracks, a sort of Beethoven’s Fifth-style “dun-dun-dun-DUUUUUUUNNNN” for the proceedings. It sounds great, but there’s basically no connective tissue to the actual film.
And sadly, that kind of makes sense. I like News of the World just fine, but for our purposes here, let’s face it, it’s overrated. It’s a nice, simple, Western with some decent acting and a few eye-catching vistas. That’s it. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s not Oscar quality. It’s a, “Well, that was fun, now who wants to go for burgers?” type of family adventure with a couple of mature moments, something to enjoy with a group and maybe pretend to air-guitar the banjo when you’re bored. It is the definition of “good enough,” and that is not a knock in any way. But Oscars? No. Sorry. Good work, James, but everyone’s got you beat here.
Soul – Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross
This is far and away the most ambitious soundtrack of the bunch, because it’s essentially two scores in one. While Reznor and Ross handled the bulk of the orchestration, Batiste basically took the reins for one thematic half, handling principle playing and arrangement duties while Reznor and Ross focused on the other, with some brilliant moments of the two bleeding into each other.
More than any other film of the last year, the score for Soul is very much its own character, atmospheric proof of the joys of living, as Joe demonstrates to Soul 22. There’s a rhythm to just about everything that happens in the real and the meta world, and it’s completely by design, even if at times it’s playfully chaotic.
See, the way it works is that in the real world, Batiste handles all the jazz music, coming up with gorgeous piano lines, bass, drums, and brass. Whether Joe himself is performing – which absolutely has to come through and touch the audience to make us connect with the character – or New York is acting like a living environment, it falls to Batiste to translate all of that to us watching at home. He has to make sure characters step to a beat, whether they’re walking normally or stumbling around. As people express their passion, he has to show it to us through note progressions and trills that make subjective sense.
Contrast that with Reznor and Ross, who handle the otherworldly elements of the Great Beyond and the Great Before. This is where Reznor gets back to his Nine Inch Nails roots a bit, incorporating tinny, metal influences with electronic sounds. At times it feels like an old video game. This is what I was talking about earlier when I said electronica is okay if there’s someone controlling the action rather than relying on loops as a crutch. There’s some looping to be sure, but it’s clear he’s actually orchestrating and having someone play with sound boards to create something that adds up to a pattern.
It all serves this brilliant juxtaposition of how we perceive the world around us. The real world has defined parameters and immutable laws, and yet in this film, it’s represented by jazz, which is freeform and improvisational. There are limits, but there are so many possibilities that you could never reach them all, so find the joy in the randomness. On the other hand, you have the infinite, the meta, the supernatural, where conceivably there are no limits to anything. And yet, here the music is rigid, ordered, at times even robotic, because the Jerrys have put systems in place to control things in a compact way. It’s such a beautiful contrast that works on every level because it subverts the very idea that there’s a specific way that the world “works.”
2) Da 5 Bloods
5) News of the World
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Next up, we cut, paste, color correct, telestrate, and create a hopefully logical narrative. It’s Film Editing!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which score is your favorite? What’s the most memorable piece of score you’ve ever heard? Do you wish you had even one iota of John Williams’ talent? Let me know!