The orchestral score of a film serves many different purposes, from setting moods to serving as an omniscient commentary on the thematic weight of a scene (or lack thereof). But in a year like 2021, where music was a central component of an uncommon number of movies, many of which got nominated in other categories, it also provides an opportunity for education and distinction.
There was an absolute glut of musical movies last year, some original, some remakes, some first-time adaptations, but all of which showcased the elite songwriting skills of their composers and lyricists. It gives me hope that, given the popularity and critical praise of films like Annette and Encanto, that we might see a mainstream revival of the musical as a legitimate genre of commercial cinema, and that we might actually one day see the official – but never awarded – Oscar for Best Original Musical be a part of the ceremony.
Because there is a notable difference between the score of a movie and its individual songs. The two are considered mutually exclusive by the Academy’s Music Branch, and after films like Dreamgirls and Enchanted overstuffed themselves with original tracks, the rules were changed to officially limit a film to two eligible songs to prevent both cynical hoarding of the category and voting splits that doom multiple nominees.
On the flipside, the score is taken as a single piece of work, even though the soundtrack listing will tell you that there are several individual cues and melodies (sometimes numbering in the dozens), and the composers themselves literally write and conduct to certain scenes. When you see video of the recording process, there will often be a playback of the edited film for the musicians to time themselves.
This is why I hope we get to the point where we can one day finally hand out the Original Musical category, because once we do, it’ll truly combine the two disparate sides of the Music Branch’s jurisdiction, and reward the complete musical profile of a film. Until that happens, we either have to split hairs and parse the accomplishment of the music departments on productions, with only rare films like Titanic being honored on both sides, or come up with an end-around, backdoor way to nominate something unoriginal, which is arguably what happened this year with the West Side Story remake being nominated for Best Sound.
Now on to this year’s competition. I will say right up front that there is not a bad score among the bunch. Every piece of music nominated here, regardless of my opinions on the accompanying film, is well-written and delightful to listen to. So as I make my rankings, bear in mind that in terms of raw quality, we’re talking a matter of degrees, and most of my preferences here will be relative to the context of the film, which has been an unwritten suggestion/rule from the Music Branch that has needed to apply more to Original Song over the years than this category, but is still pertinent to this process. All of the composers here are seasoned veterans of the craft, with all but one having been nominated before, most of them multiple times. There will be no “loser” in my mind with this category, merely the hope for a consensus among elites of their craft.
This year’s nominees for Original Score are…
Don’t Look Up – Nicholas Britell
This is Britell’s third nomination in this category, after getting nods for his work on Barry Jenkins’ films, Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. I mentioned in my review of the latter that I got to attend a Q&A session after seeing the film, and Britell discussed the process of creating that score, which involved a fusion of orchestral cues and riffs on jazz standards, with an emphasis on leaving the individual tracks unresolved – like freeform jazz – to underscore the constantly evolving dynamics of the story.
I got a similar impression listening to his score for Don’t Look Up. The main difference is that instead of mixing jazz with chamber music, he substituted electronic influences and sound effects to give everything a more sci-fi, spacey feel. Throughout the soundtrack, the bulk of the musical action is devoted to fast-paced, peppy jazz lines intercut with rhythmic beeps and boops meant to evoke the wonder of space exploration while also juxtaposing it with the absurdity playing out in the film’s overwrought satire. And just like his previous work, given the uncertainty and the hesitance to have any hope for mankind’s salvation in this fucked up world, several of the tracks are either left lingering, or fade into the next one with a noticeable tempo shift.
Funnily enough, the score only has two traditional orchestral cues, both of which occur during the attempts to destroy the comet. Used as a wink and nod to the cliché of triumphant music swelling for a daring space mission, these tracks are one of the few bits where the joke lands, as the first attempt is aborted due to corporate and political avarice, while the other fails due to hubris and incompetence, dooming us all. It’s a subtle but effective gag, ensuring that the score matches the tone of the film better than its writing and performances.
Dune – Hans Zimmer
He’s the most accomplished of the nominees, with this year marking his 12th nomination in this category and its many iterations. Yet surprisingly, he only has one win, for The Lion King, another of those rare movies where the Academy equally rewards both the score and the songs. The Dune soundtrack gives him what is arguably his best chance to pick up a second victory, as his score acts as an unseen companion to Paul Atreides on his journey.
With a clever use of electronic elements, distortion, and intentionally off-tuned strings, Zimmer begins the score in jarring fashion, representing the true alien nature of Arrakis as a world, a completely new environment for which our hero is ill-prepared at the start of the film. He creates not only an otherworldly vibe, but an imposing one, telling the listener purely through music just how massive the scale of this universe is.
But what makes this shine is how Zimmer, with each passing track, alters things just slightly enough to make the music feel more familiar, more comfortable, as it goes on. There’s still danger and intensity, especially as he scores the action scenes, but there’s a gradual progression from the atonally bizarre to more standard compositional theory. In essence, as Paul becomes more self-assured and ready to face his destiny, so too does the music, letting us know that while he’s not in the clear by any means, Paul increasingly has the tools he needs to succeed and make the most of his new home. It works so brilliantly that in the calmer tracks towards the end, I was actually relaxed enough to doze off for a nap, resuming things when I woke up, of course.
Encanto – Germaine Franco
Franco is the one newcomer to this category, and she composed the score independent of Lin-Manuel Miranda, so just like the movie itself, we will not be talking about Bruno. She’s made a good deal of history during her career, as she’s the first Latina nominated in this category, as well as the first to join the Academy’s Music Branch. She is also the first woman to take the reins and compose an original score for a Disney movie. But even before those achievements, she had an impressive list of credits, including Dope, Coco, and Tag. Her bona fides are well in order.
As to the actual Encanto soundtrack, it’s very entertaining, but probably the most detached from the overall story of the bunch. The use of traditional Latin American instruments and rhythms is very enjoyable. I’d even argue it’s the most aesthetically-pleasing music of the entire slate, as I found myself swinging my shoulders and bobbing my head a number of times while I listened. But it just didn’t feel like there was true thematic connective tissue to the actual film.
Many of the tracks are tonally the same, which does fit with Encanto‘s overall motif of using upbeat music even in situations that wouldn’t typically call for it. But that’s about as close of a link as we get, and it’s ultimately to the detriment of the score’s case to win. Every track, every cue, sounds basically just like the one before, with only surface-level changes in instrumentation and tempo along the way. There’s nothing that really connects to the lighthearted nature or severity of a given scene, much like how “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is about ominous exposition but is nevertheless presented as a dance number. It works as far as that goes, but compared to the other four, this score just doesn’t aid in telling the story the way the other four do. I still love it, and I can’t wait to hear what Franco does next, but this sticks out as being different from all the other entries, and for me, not in a flattering way. That said, the differences may be what ultimately sets it apart and gets the Academy to vote for it. We shall see.
Parallel Mothers – Alberto Iglesias
Iglesias is on his fourth nomination in this category, and of all the other multiple nominees, he arguably has the most eclectic set of honored scores, having been previously given nods for The Constant Gardener, The Kite Runner, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Quite the spectrum of stories.
More than any other nominee in this field, the score for Parallel Mothers is a complement to the established tone of the moment. This makes sense, as director Pedro Almodóvar prefers more subtle ways of conveying mood in his films than actors emoting. He even includes a joke in the film where Ana (Milena Smit) is surprised that her mom succeeds as a stage actress because she always oversells it and performs in a melodramatic way, which then carries over into a conversation between Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) and Janis (Penélope Cruz) that she treats like a press junket interview rather than a frank discussion among normal women.
So it falls to Iglesias’ score to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to filling in the intentional gaps in the performances, and he accomplishes his task admirably. No matter what the scene, or how subtly the actors deliver their lines, I know exactly what tone the movie’s trying to get across, whether its mournful, happy, or at times even suspenseful, invoking the same techniques that Bernard Herrmann used when he was scoring Alfred Hitchcock films 60+ years ago.
That said, there are times where Iglesias is a little too good at his job, giving us a few cues that end up undercutting, if not outright undermining, the intended timbre of their accompanying scenes. There was one moment in particular, which I sort of noted in my mini-review of the film, where Janis has an argument with her lover, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), where the background music makes it feel like the scene was straight out of a telenovela. By the end of the bit I was honestly waiting for a dramatic extreme close-up of Arturo’s face with a single tear flowing down his cheek, his lip quivering as he struggles to mutter a heartbroken, “Por qué?” It did get a little bit silly and obvious at times. Still, an absolutely solid job making sure Western audiences understood the emotional weight of each moment from a director who eschews that very notion.
The Power of the Dog – Jonny Greenwood
This is the second nomination for the Radiohead guitarist, having previously been up for Phantom Thread a few years ago. But again, his low number of nods does not speak to the sheer quality of his work over the years, as he’s scored the likes of There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, The Master, and You Were Never Really Here. In addition to The Power of the Dog, he also handled the music for Licorice Pizza and Spencer to make for a very busy 2021.
Greenwood’s score here is one I like to compare to one of the seminal works of orchestral music, Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” which is described as a “symphonic fairy tale.” It’s a comparison I’ve made before with other scores, because it’s the best way to describe the feel that such soundtracks provide. “Peter and the Wolf” is famous because each character in the story is represented by a different musical instrument (strings for Peter, French horns for the wolf, flutes for the bird, etc.).
In Greenwood’s score for The Power of the Dog, there’s a similar motif at play, with each of the four major characters given distinct melodies and themes to illustrate their personalities. You have calm, soothing tones for the kindly George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) and higher-register sweeping lines for Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to highlight his aspirational nature while also hinting at his cunning. Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, is at first accompanied by sweet, jovial harmonies before her mental torment and alcoholism force the music to spiral along with her.
But the real meat is reserved for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank, the expertly-crafted villain. Many of his themes use lower-register string instruments like bass and cello, as well as down-tuned banjo to hint at his diabolical nature. There’s also a faster pace to a lot of his cues, because he’s often several steps ahead of everyone he’s dealing with, and is so sharp-witted as to be able to turn the tables on practically anyone. The use of a washboard in certain points mimics the sound of heavy breathing to illustrate his quiet intensity. And then, just to sell the depth of his tragedy, both in the raw story and for the more subtle queer implications, he’s also given strong yet wistful moments of introspection, telling us that under his cruelty and malice is a pain and regret that can never be spoken, a silent mourning that he can only keep for himself lest the world devour him for a perceived sign of weakness. I mean, if you want someone who can perfectly get the idea of a dark, brooding melancholy across, who better than one of the guys from Radiohead, am I right?
1) The Power of the Dog
3) Don’t Look Up
4) Parallel Mothers
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Next up, we take a look at some of the best performances of the year, perhaps literally if I can pull it off. It’s Best Supporting Actor!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What stands out to you when hearing a film score? Are you an instrumentalist, and if so, what genres are your specialties? Is it weird that both Disney and Pixar came out with a movie last year where someone tries to silence Bruno-adjacent speech? Let me know!