Strictly speaking, when it comes to the two music categories, you never truly have to see the accompanying film. This is especially true for Original Song, as more often than not a good chunk of the nominees only play over the credits anyway, so they’re not truly part of the movie, but rather an accessory.
The same can’t be said for Original Score, however. Yes, technically, you can just listen to the soundtrack album and cast your vote based on your personal musical tastes. It’s not valid under the spirit of the rules, but it is legal under the letter. But if you don’t watch the films, you’re basically cutting yourself off at the knees for no reason. The whole point of an ambient score (whether its orchestral or more electronic) is to set the mood, which in turn aids in creating a context for the action unfolding on the screen.
Obviously, the best examples are the ones that go even further, becoming inextricably linked with classic movies and scenes, to the point where you can conjure up the mental image just by hearing the melodies. Think of Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme, or his gentle high-register piano that follows a feather as it floats next to Forrest Gump. Remember the shot of a a match being blown out before cutting to a sunrise and the sweeping anthem of Lawrence of Arabia. Hell, pick any number of cues from John Williams that can never be separated from the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Jaws, or Star Wars.
All of these compositions are fantastic in their own right from a purely musical standpoint. They’re well-written and beautifully paced. But the biggest trick of all is that you can close your eyes, hear the notes, and immediately see the exact moment where it played in some of cinema’s biggest achievements. There’s a true emotional effect here, one that is difficult to describe but we all know intrinsically when we experience it.
Which is why I’m honestly still laughing at how the category has shaken out this year. Of the five nominees, one in particular is just awful, two others have surprising drawbacks, and the other two are the only ones really worthy of the biggest honors. And we could have been saddled with even more shameful entries. As I mentioned in the teaser at the end of yesterday’s post, one of the oddest things that took place this Awards Season was a bit of shameless shilling in this field. During the opening scene of Tár, the title character, played by Cate Blanchett, is giving a lengthy lecture hosted by Adam Gropnik of the New Yorker. In this monologue, Blanchett makes sure to include an aside about who she feels are the best composers and conductors working today, with a specific name drop to Hildur Guðnadóttir, the Icelandic musician who won this category for the Joker score a few years back. And wouldn’t you know it, she just happens to have done the score for this movie, too! Who’d a thunk it?
Needless to say, there was a slight bit of backlash to the brazen campaigning within the very script of the movie itself. It also didn’t help that in this highfalutin film about a composer and conductor, the actual score wasn’t all that memorable, as the story focused much more on the work of Gustav Mahler. Still, not wanting Guðnadóttir to suffer for the arrogance and pretension of others, the Music Branch did shortlist her work in another movie last year, Women Talking. But if you’re drawing a blank on Tár, then you’re jolly well fucked on the other, because if you saw that movie, you know the only memorable piece of music has nothing to do with the orchestral score. It’s the moment when a census taker drives through the commune blasting the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” from his truck. Seriously, name me any other piece of music in that film that you remember. I’ll wait.
Actually, no I won’t, because we’ve got actual candidates to consider, and I want to go to bed at some point tonight. This isn’t the strongest class of candidates we’ve ever had, but there’s something to be said about each of them, for better and much, much worse.
This year’s nominees for Original Score are…
All Quiet on the Western Front – Volker Bertelmann
This is Bertelmann’s second nomination after sharing the honors with Dustin O’Halloran for Lion five years ago. Now nominated solo, Bertelmann – who records and performs under the stage name Hauschka – is best known for amelodic compositions and for playing what’s called “prepared piano,” where tones are altered by temporarily placing objects between the strings.
This tactic works wonders for Germany’s new version of All Quiet on the Western Front, as the practice helps to create a very strong grinding, mechanical motif throughout the soundtrack. There are traditional cues as well, but given the film’s themes about soldiers being led to slaughter in the machinery of war, the grittier moments are what really sells it.
The effect is further aided by what feels to me like the best snippet of film score of the year. Throughout the movie, as Paul and his comrades march to their doom, there’s an ominous three-note phrase that repeats ad nauseum. It’s an artificial sound that seems to combine cello, bass, bassoon, and tuba while feeding the whole thing through a massive distortion filter. Imagine the NBC signal tone but several octaves lower, to the point that it almost gurgles at you.
It is the creeping sound of manufactured mass death, and the unease it creates in even mundane moments is spectacular. But in an absolutely brilliant artistic decision, the phrase does not conform to the tempo or meter of any other part of the score. It shows up almost randomly, intentionally placed opposite the normal beat patterns of the rest of the music. Sometimes you can count two or three measures in your head before you hear it, but as soon as you think you’ve pinned it down so you can anticipate it, the blare completely skips several seconds before reappearing. It’s a constant threatening presence, as if Philip Glass figured out how to do a jump scare, serving as an ever-present specter that you cannot possibly prepare for.
There’s a lot in this overall score that’s fairly run-of-the-mill, and that’s perfectly fine. But the mechanized grind effects combined with that three-note drawl add a dimension that elevates the entire presentation. One of my biggest disappointments with the film as a whole is that it didn’t do anything innovative with the story, and in fact betrayed its message at points. Bertelmann’s score, however, consistently does what the rest of the movie should have.
Babylon – Justin Hurwitz
Having already bought a Golden Globe, and considering that half the marketing for this piece of cinematic dreck was centered around the assault of jazz, it’s safe to assume that this is the front-runner for the award. And that’s a shame, because while Hurwitz is normally fantastic, this soundtrack acts as a microcosm of the entire picture, in that it’s a meaningless, repetitive cycle of elephant shit.
Clocking in at over 90 minutes (the second-longest in the field, but the longest is at least justified), there are basically only three themes in the score that get thrown at us constantly. The first is the high-pitched trumpet line from “Voodoo Mama,” the main track of the thing, which was used in all the promotional materials. The second is “Manny and Nellie’s Theme,” which is just a simple, eight-note progression where the third, fifth, sixth, and seventh in the sequence are all the same key on the piano. The third is essentially a combo of the first two, where “Manny and Nellie” is sped up and played on a baritone saxophone while leading into the “Voodoo” phrase with a slightly peppy descending scale in between.
In a way, it’s almost admirable, because this elementary level of music writing carries the same basic problem of the movie, in that it goes on way too long without having anything to say. The film itself is over three hours long with basically 40 minutes of plot, and this soundtrack goes on for 90 minutes with the vast majority of it being about four measures of total originality. This is just excess for its own sake with absolutely no substance, so part of me wants to give it backhanded credit for being the perfectly terrible companion piece to the larger product.
This is the exact opposite of an effective score, because the only feelings it elicits are anger and boredom. As you play the record through, every time “Manny and Nellie” comes back up, the only normal reaction is to moan, “Again?” At least, that’s the case until the halfway point, where it’s suddenly played on a steel drum for a tune called “I Want a Man,” where a vaguely Jamaican singer warbles a simplistic song about what this film thinks a woman in the 1920s would want in a mate, namely someone who will appreciate her when she puts dinner on the table (#feminism). Once that played, all I could do was hum, “I want a Manwich, Manwich meal,” every time the theme came up the rest of the way. I guess that counts as an improvement, as it only made me hungry instead of irate.
As for the saxophone line, good lord! Did Hurwitz lose a bet or something to make him attempt to write a tune that sounds like 10-seconds of diarrhea and loop it for an hour? And again, its only purpose is to lead us back to “Voodoo Mama” so the soundtrack can jazz all over our faces for the 47th time while adding nothing to the fucking proceedings. Like a vaginal belch set to low horns, these movements only serve to make you feel even grosser than when you came in, and to yearn for a mountain of cocaine to make it all tolerable.
This is monumentally beneath Hurwitz’s talents as a composer. To hear this soundtrack is to imagine a recreation of the famous scene from Amadeus when Mozart plays in the style of different composers to the delight and mirth of his followers. Someone says, “Play La La Land!” and he obliges with something upbeat and lovely. Another chimes in with, “Play Whiplash!” and he turns over on his back to give us instrumental intensity like no other. Finally, there’s Salieri, barely hiding his face with a mask and muttering, “Play Babylon.” Hurwitz turns to the crowd and says, “Aah, now THAT is a challenge,” before mockingly banging on his instruments like he recently suffered severe head trauma before farting on everyone.
The Banshees of Inisherin – Carter Burwell
I must admit I was a touch disappointed with this one. Don’t get me wrong, the music is lovely, but it crucially leaves out the best part of the film’s music.
Most of the soundtrack is light strings and piano, headlined with hollow percussions, almost like he’s playing with wind chimes or empty glass bottles. You can almost feel an ocean breeze within it, which perfectly evokes the imagery of Inisherin as a location, and really all of rural Ireland for the time. It effectively sets the mood, leaving things just outside of the listener’s comfort zone, and if you’ve seen the movie, you can remember the tension that exists between our main characters and the small, insular community that frames it all.
But surprisingly, the biggest thing missing is the Irish fiddle. A huge part of this movie, really the motivation for the entire plot, is the desire of Brendan Gleeson’s character to disassociate with a dullard like Colin Farrell so he can focus on composing his violin music, culminating in his legacy song that also serves as the film’s title. And it’s not on the soundtrack! Somehow it doesn’t count as part of the score! I know I use the word “ambient” a lot when I talk about this category, but as far as I know there’s no requirement that all the relevant music be relegated to the background. You just can’t use singular vocal performances that could be interpreted as separate songs or dedicated musical numbers.
The actual “Banshees of Inisherin” song that Colm writes and plays doesn’t truly fit either of those categories, so it should have been included. And even if it somehow wasn’t eligible for consideration, there are still plenty of other moments where the patrons of the local pub play traditional Irish instruments like violin, flute, box, and harp. None of those show up in this score either, and by far they’re the most memorable music cues.
Again, the airy percussion is fine, great even. And Carter Burwell certainly knows what he’s doing as a composer, as he’s on his third Oscar nomination. But when I listened to the score again in preparation for this post, it felt incomplete without the music that actually drives the story. Thematically it all works, particularly in tone and minimalist style, but the best stuff is missing.
Everything Everywhere All at Once – Son Lux
I confess I’m not all that familiar with experimental music, so this film was my first exposure to Son Lux as a band. However, if this is what they’re capable of, I am decidedly on board. Coming in at almost two hours, the longest in this year’s field by a considerable margin, you never once feel like any of the time is being wasted. Most importantly, unlike Babylon, there’s enough variety and unique angles to maintain momentum throughout.
Basically, every major element of the film has its own theme, like a new “Peter and the Wolf” for the digital age. Every character has a specific tonal register on the scale. Every fight scene has a different up-tempo song to pace things out. Even more importantly, the styles of each through line are made to correspond with the visual imagery on the screen. For example, when Waymond takes off his fanny pack and uses it as a weapon, the cue begins with a slow buildup, almost like the prelude to a duel in a classic Western. Once the action begins, however, the music speeds up and blends that timbre with that of the best martial arts movies. Each of the big sequences is carried by music composed in a similarly epic manner.
And given the chaotic and varied universes from which all of this action and plot originates, it’s wholly appropriate that the band employs multiple eclectic instrumentation strategies to supplement things as we go. Sometimes we get traditional orchestral arrangements. Other times it’s electronic keyboards straight out the 1980s. Another sequence might necessitate techno and house beats. Still others a calm, Eastern woodwind section. It’s all over the place, creating a distinct aural identity for each scene.
In terms of sheer size, this is the most accomplished score of the bunch, because there’s so much going on, all of which requires an almost diametrically opposed approach from the bit that came before. And yet, because Son Lux keeps things grounded when it comes to the character themes, the whole thing is able to tie together quite nicely. If you’re a fan of this movie, you will instantly replay the best moments in your head as soon as you hear this, which helps to form the all-encompassing omnibus experience that the film seeks to provide. On its own, some of the tracks might sound incredibly odd, but this is the perfect score for this project.
The Fabelmans – John Williams
To the surprise of no one, John Williams is up again. He’s the most nominated living person in Academy history, with this score being his 53rd nod, second only to Walt Disney’s 59. He’s 91 years old, so theoretically there’s still time to pass Walt on the all-time list, but even if he doesn’t, there is no film composer that comes close to his level of brilliance and skill.
That said, this particular soundtrack is decidedly slight. It’s only 31 minutes long, and a good chunk of that isn’t even his original work, as about seven of those minutes are classical piano compositions performed by Joanne Martin and recreated in the film by Michelle Williams. The other 24 minutes are almost entirely simple piano cues. They’re absolutely lovely, and they speak to the wistfulness of Steven Spielberg’s film and his 50-year association with John Williams, but that’s about it.
There are no sweeping themes, no memorable phrases or movements, just very pleasant, gentle piano. I’ll always take a little bit of good in the form of this score than a whole bunch of garbage like Babylon, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit taken aback. This is John Williams we’re talking about here. This man is responsible for just about every iconic piece of film score over the last five decades. We’re conditioned at this point to expect something grandiose. So to have something this subdued is in its own way a bit jarring. Again, it’s wholly appropriate for the themes of The Fabelmans as a film, and it is very sweet. But if you listen to this, it doesn’t sound like something he’d do. There’s no gravitas to any of it, and you could easily argue that just about any other composer could have come up with this. Maybe my expectations are unfair, but they’re far from unreasonable.
1) All Quiet on the Western Front
2) Everything Everywhere All at Once
3) The Banshees of Inisherin
4) The Fabelmans
5) Dead air
6) All the ads I had to listen to on Spotify during the one time of the year that I use the app for this process
7) Literally listening to someone defecating into a tuba
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, Brendan Fraser gets fat, Colin Farrell becomes a bird, and a whole tribe of Marvel baddies get the blues. It’s Makeup & Hairstyling!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you listen to film scores outside of the actual films? What images come to your mind when you think of great movie music? Where can I get tickets to the next Son Lux show? Let me know!
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