Saturday, February 14, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Original Score

Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Original Score

The nominees are:

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Mr. Turner

First off, the single best score of the year was deemed ineligible, making this category a bit of a paper lion. The music branch has some of the most antiquated and arbitrary rules of any group in the Academy, and whatever spurious logic was used to disqualify Antonio Sanchez’s brilliant percussion-based score for Birdman needs to be seriously re-evaluated.

You can click here, here, or here for more on the ruling and reaction, but it essentially boils down to this: The music branch did not feel there was enough original music on the soundtrack for the score to qualify. They pulled the same trick in 2007, deeming Johnny Greenwood’s magnificent work on There Will Be Blood to be ineligible. Excuse me for thinking “best” should mean “best” and not “most.”

It is disappointing, to say the least, that the most interesting and innovative work of the year has been left on the outside, looking in. What we are left with is a field of five more or less traditional scores from four very talented composers. When it comes to Original Score, how the music fits in with the overall film is paramount, but it does not hurt if the score is nice to listen to on its own, which brings us to our frontrunner.

The Theory of Everything – Composers tend to have a field day when the film in question is about a mathematician. I suppose this has to do with how closely music composition correlates to mathematics. James Horner’s wondrous score for A Beautiful Mind stands out in my memory. This year, we have two more such examples in Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for The Theory of Everything and double nominee Alexandre Desplat for The Imitation Game.

Both are great pieces of work, but the music that stuck in my thoughts as I left the theater belonged to The Theory of Everything. Despite arguments to the contrary, The Theory of Everything is not a conventional biopic. Its emotions run deep, and Jóhannsson must convey subtle character growth in whispers rather than shouts.

These are not big characters – though Stephen Hawking’s (Eddie Redmayne) influence is undeniably gargantuan – and the bombast of a traditional score would not work. Jóhannsson strikes a wonderful balance between delicacy and propulsion while creating a melody that is as pretty to listen to on its own as it is integral to the appreciation of the film in which it appears.

The Imitation Game – Morten Tyldum’s Alan Turing biopic, on the other hand, is a more traditional Hollywood-style take on a famous historical figure, but Desplat is anything but a traditional composer. An eight-time nominee who is also nominated for his score for The Grand Budapest Hotel this year, Desplat is more than capable of elevating dicey material with the kind of off-kilter compositions that make listeners stand up and take notice.

Based around a single repeating piano motif, which mirrors the calculating mind of Turing and the machinations of his invention, Desplat builds layer upon layer of haunting strings over the keys until we feel the full weight of the dire circumstances in which these characters find themselves. However, despite Desplat’s gifts, he is somewhat hampered by the film, which does not offer much room for deviation from more traditional scoring elements.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – We should be thankful then that Desplat has also gifted us with one of his weirdest and most wonderful works this year, as well. Allow me to pause a second just to point out the sheer volume of quality work Desplat has produced recently. Just this year, in addition to The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel, he lent his talents to Godzilla, The Monuments Men, and Unbroken. Before that, he composed the scores for films as disparate as Philomena, The Tree of Life, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. By the way, if you are looking to get your film nominated for Best picture, it is not a bad idea to get Desplat on board.

As Wes Anderson’s go-to composer of late, Desplat has been allowed to let his freak flag fly, so to speak. As we have seen, Anderson’s films are crafts playgrounds, and everyone who wants to play has a lot of latitude to do so. Against the comparatively more traditional The Imitation Game, this is closer to the kind of work we might expect from Desplat – creative instrumentations, contrapuntal mood shifts, and a sense of energy that builds from the inside out. In the three films Desplat has done for Anderson – Moonrise Kingdom, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and this – he has proven to be an ideal composer for the director’s whimsical adventures. Here’s hoping they have a few more collaborations ahead of them.

Interstellar – For a certain generation of movie fans, Hans Zimmer has written the score to their lives with one iconic composition after another. In 1995, he worked on The Lion King, maybe the most famous Disney cartoon musical of the company’s modern era. The fans grew up a bit, and Zimmer was there to provide the music to The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Then, in 2006, he hooked up for the first of five collaborations and counting with director Christopher Nolan. If The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were not enough, Zimmer is the creator of the zeitgeist-capturing, impossible-to-type BWAAHH sound from Inception.

For his troubles, Zimmer has earned 10 Academy Award nominations and won his only Oscar for The Lion King. Like Desplat for Anderson, Zimmer has proven the perfect composer for Nolan, who creates pieces of massive scale but full of intricate details. Zimmer has the perfect combination of ambition and skill to match Nolan beat for beat. To say Interstellar is another score in this vein will sound dismissive, but it is meant as a compliment. I hope Nolan keeps making films forever, just for the chance to hear more of Zimmer’s pulsing, pounding scores.

Mr. Turner – Undoubtedly the most surprising nominee in this category, composer Gary Yershon has just three feature film scores to his credit, all for Mr. Turner director Mike Leigh. Of the three biographical films nominated for Original Score this year, Mr. Turner is the strangest. It is not an inspirational tale of a laudable historical figure but rather a quiet contemplation of the life of an artist as the modern world evolves around him and without him.

Yershon’s subtle, creeping string work accomplishes the dual feat of providing an appropriately melancholy tone to the film and signaling the advance of technology on this serene landscape. When the first train comes roaring through the countryside, we have already been prepped for its intrusion by the constantly nagging whine of strings hanging in the background of some of Yershon’s more traditional compositions. It is daring, interesting work, but it comes in probably the least popular film on this list and, thus, makes for the least likely winner.

The final analysis

This probably comes down to Jóhannsson for The Theory of Everything and Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel. As well liked as Anderson’s fantastical romp is, Marsh’s film has its supporters, and I would not be surprised to see The Theory of Everything come away with as many as three awards on the big night. Of course, it could go home empty-handed. You never can tell with these things, but in the dual interests of spreading the love and awarding a movie they clearly liked, voters will probably go with Jóhannsson on this one, leaving Desplat the bridesmaid once again (or twice again, as it were).

Will win: The Theory of Everything
Should win: Interstellar
Wish it had been here: Birdman

And, because it deserves to be heard, check out some of the score to Birdman:

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