Sounds Like Oscar: The Sequel

As a relative newcomer to the world of blogging, I’m still learning the ropes as it were, and just learned a valuable lesson: deleting a post can’t be undone. I accidentally deleted my most recent post on the Original Score nominees, which I will now try to re-construct through memory.

I am very fond of the “technical” categories, even though most viewers tend to take bathroom breaks or change the channel altogether during these long segments where various image and sound awards are presented. To the uninitiated, the achievements in picture editing or visual effects are uninvolving and exclusionary honors that have little impact outside the various societies and trades to which these nominees belong. Strangely, however, I’ve always found these categories to reflect a more honest impression of the year’s achievements in filmmaking. No one has ever accused Gary Rydstrom’s Oscar-winning sound design to Jurassic Park to be “politically motivated.” If there can be a purity to the pageantry, then these awards represent just such a belief. Indeed, no other major filmmaking award honors the best in “Film Editing” or “Sound Mix” along with “Best Picture of the Year.”

Turning to the Achievement in Original Score, I was surprised to see the Academy recognize the talents of two composers who, despite their growing filmographies, have never been nominated. Marco Beltrami began composing for films in the mid-1990s, and immediately found a niche writing music for thrillers and horror films including the Scream trilogy, Mimic, and Hellboy. Michael Giacchino began writing music for video games (Medal of Honor), then moved to television scoring where he began a collaboration with J.J. Abrams that has transitioned to feature films (Mission: Impossible 3). Giacchino’s impressive weekly scores for Lost have drawn comparisons to early Jerry Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes).

Beltrami is nominated for his work on 3:10 to Yuma. It is, without doubt, Beltrami’s finest dramatic score to date. As a western score, he incorporates the raw instrumentation and transparent melodies of Ennio Morricone’s 1960s Italian westerns and somehow makes it sound fresh and modern. That’s a hard thing to accomplish, since Morricone’s “spaghetti” scores have always represented the leading edge of musical modernism in cinema. Beltrami hangs the score on two principal themes that are woven into the larger musical tapestry without sounding repetitive.

The percussive textures and highly original orchestral colorings contribute to the music’s originality in the film and on album. Here is a sample. For comparison, check out this clip from Morricone’s Per un pugno di dollari.

3:10 to Yuma is one of my favorite scores of the year, not only because I admire western film scores, but also because Beltrami understands the importance of melody, rhythm, and color to the western genre. It does not surprise me that Beltrami has been nominated for a western, since in the last ten or fifteen years the film industry has begun repackaging staple genre pictures like 3:10 to Yuma as prestige pictures. It was only in 1991 and 1992 that a horror film (Silence of the Lambs) and a western (Unforgiven) won Best Picture honors. It is a shame, however, that throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone were cutting their teeth on material like 3:10 to Yuma they received little to no recognition from the Academy.

Michael Giacchino’s score for Ratatouille continues the composer’s collaboration with Pixar and Brad Bird, for whom he scored The Incredibles. To be honest, The Incredibles music is more interesting and involving than Ratatouille, which never escapes the “mickey mousing” aesthetic of early cartoon music. I can’t be sure if Giacchino is using the stereotypically “French” instruments (accordion and fiddle) ironically or if he somehow still believes that Parisian locales should be underscored with accordion solos. Even if it’s supposed to be ironic, it’s not that funny. The joke’s been done to death, frankly. Judge for yourself here.

Alternatively, The Incredibles built on John Barry’s highly distinctive brass writing from the 1960s James Bond pictures. It even shares a similar melodic structure with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Hear for yourself here and here. While Ratatouille was a visual treat, its strength was not its music. I still prefer Giacchino’s inspired writing on Lost. Listen here.

Atonement is on nearly every critic’s Ten Best list for 2007. The romantic tale sports a musical score by Dario Marianelli, who was nominated in 2005 for Pride and Prejudice, which was also directed by Joe Wright. Much like Pride and Prejudice, Marianelli does not stray far from convention and has written a competent romantic score. There aren’t many orchestral flourishes one might expect from an old fashioned romance, but he does infuse the music with a nifty little gimmick: the sound of typewriter keys. For those familiar with the book or film, this will no doubt make sense. The technique never does become anything but a cute “in-joke,” and sounds as odd as the electric guitar solo in Attack of the Clones.

Alberto Iglesias’s music for The Kite Runner is also nominated. Now, over the past decade or so Academy voters have had a strange relationship with the Original Score category. There have been several instances where film music critics and fans have been left scratching their heads at the eventual outcome of the category. Most recently, Gustavo Santaolalla won back-to-back awards for his underwhelming and over-rated Brokeback Mountain and Babel music. Both scores amounted to little more than guitar strumming and simple chord changes. Back in 1995, Il Postino won over Braveheart; in 1998, Life is Beautiful won over Hans Zimmer’s ethereal The Thin Red Line; in 2002 Frida won over Catch Me if You Can and Road to Perdition; and in 2004, Finding Neverland won over The Village and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

These choices reflect, in my opinion, a preference for scores with an international pedigree over American “studio” films. The Kite Runner is an interesting score, offering an eclectic range of styles that often transports the listener to the distant time and place of the narrative. The music effectively mixes familiar Middle Eastern flavors with a Celtic rhythm, particularly during the kite flying sequences. There’s no real architecture to the music; in other words, there’s no real structure tying all the pieces together. Here’s a sample.

Finally, there’s James Newton Howard. He’s an Academy favorite, but he’s never won. I’ve never been a particular fan of Howard, although I do own several of his soundtracks, including Dave, The Village, and The Fugitive. He’s very much a journeyman composer, providing effective underscore for several different genres. He’s at home scoring an animated fantasy like Dinosaur, a political comedy like Dave, and a thriller like Unbreakable. This year, Howard scored six films, including Charlie Wilson’s War, The Water Horse, The Lookout, and I am Legend. He has been nominated for Michael Clayton, by far the weakest of all six.

Michael Clayton also happens to be weakest of all five score nominees because it falls under the category of “music as sound design.” Basically, Howard has fashioned a score out of quiet, minimalist rhythms that exists somewhere between ambient room noise and textural music. It just drones along and seems to hang uncomfortably like sonic wallpaper at the edges of the soundtrack. There’s no discernible theme or recurring motif, except the minimalist patterns that Philip Glass innovated twenty years ago. Listen here.

It is a shame that the scoring community did not see fit to nominate Hans Zimmer’s outstanding Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End or John Powell’s equally satisfying The Bourne Ultimatum. Listen here and here for clips from each. Both of these work marvelously with the movie and on album. I’ve always thought that if a composer can provide a unique “musical signature” to a film’s soundtrack, then they have succeeded in writing an effective score.

This year, the Academy is changing the way voters listen to film music. In the past, voters received “For Your Consideration” CD soundtrack albums to assist in the adjudication process. This essentially removed the need for voters to see the film for which the music was written; the music could be judged on its own merit. Now, the FYC albums have been eliminated and voters must judge the music as it appears in the film. I’m not sure how I feel about this new rule. While it might ensure that the music fulfills its cardinal function — to work within the narrative — I believe that nuance and musical detail will be lost on voters.

Indeed, the old Hollywood film music adage that “music shouldn’t be heard at all” might come back to haunt this year’s nominees.

Who Should Win? 3:10 to Yuma.

Who Will Win? Atonement.

Blame the typewriter.

One thought on “Sounds Like Oscar: The Sequel

  1. I agree on all accounts! Although it seems I enjoyed the Ratatouille soundtrack more than you did…The Incredibles is better! I’m glad I continue my Soundtrack education here.

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