Thursday, February 9, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Original Score

Dev Patel in Lion, which is nominated for Best Original Score.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Original Score

The nominees are:

La La Land

For the previous two years, the music categories have been an airing of grievances of a sort for me, particularly Best Original Song, but this category has drawn my ire nearly as often. Outdated rules and a branch seemingly content in its insular, stodgy tastes contribute to the problem. Once again, wonderful scores were left out in the cold after they were deemed ineligible for one reason or another, including two-time nominee Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work on Arrival.

However, to the charge of insularity, the Academy’s music branch, for once, can plead innocent. Apart from a well-deserved nomination for one of the Academy’s favorite sons, these composers are all first-time nominees, making for an exciting and eclectic list. By nominating so many first-timers, many of whom are quite young, relative to the average age in the music branch, the Academy is signaling a way forward and offering a glimpse of its own future. Based on these nominees, that future looks bright, indeed.

Jackie – The Oscars often, sadly, are a boys’ club. One need only know no woman ever has been nominated for Best Cinematography to see that fact. The Academy has taken steps to address its racial diversity problem, which is admirable, but the lack of representation for women is equally pressing, particularly in the crafts branches, where the disparities are greatest. Mica Levi is the first woman nominated for Original Score since Rachel Portman in 2000. That’s 16 years since the last nomination for a woman here. I promise you the problem is not with the women and their work.

Levi’s work here, for instance, is the best of this group, the best of the year in fact. Hers is no token nomination – and the Academy doesn’t seem sufficiently concerned about representation in its craft categories to bestow a token nomination anyway. On just her second feature film score, Levi matches the intensity and ominous portent of director Pablo Larraín’s film with a strange, unsettling series of compositions that have no equal this year.

Jackie is a film about loss, grief, pain, and the discomfort of feeling all of those emotions in the public eye. Levi’s magnificent and magnificently weird string arrangements tell us all we need to know about Jacqueline Kennedy’s (Natalie Portman) headspace. She is adrift, caught at all times among competing emotions that twist and turn not in smooth curves but at right angles. Levi’s score is willing to go dark places and is not afraid to make the audience uncomfortable, and that is its greatest strength.

La La Land – Justin Hurwitz holds the distinction of being this year’s only triple nominee with his nomination here and a double nomination in the Best Original Song category. It is not unheard for someone to score three nominations in a single year from the music branch, but it does not happen every year, and it stands as a remarkable achievement.

Like Levi, Hurwitz is relatively new to the film scoring game with just three features to his credit, all for his former Harvard roommate and buddy writer-director Damien Chazelle. Their collaborations, which all revolve in one way or another around jazz and jazz musicians, have been incredibly fruitful, and their shared ride to Hollywood prominence truly is a feel-good story.

It almost is not fair to ask other films to compete in the same category as La La Land, which is wall-to-wall music. The instrumentations are straight from the jazz playbook, and similar to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the movie has a poppy, rhythmic feel throughout thanks to its pulsing, endlessly listenable score. Even the smallest cues are given pep and verve by Hurwitz’s insistent, playful choices, all of which feel of a piece with the film’s jaunty, spritely tone. Hurwitz won a pair of Golden globes this year for song and score, and he should clear some space for the extra hardware he will pick up here.

Lion – It’s like a riddle with an easy and obvious answer: What happens when a pair of piano virtuosos come together to compose the music for a dark but uplifting saga of loss and discovery? Magic. Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann, performing under the stage name Hauschka, compose a score for Lion that is gorgeous and intricate but never overwhelming.

Director Garth Davis’ film is too delicate for the kind of overtly orchestral score it would be easy to impose on it. Instead, O’Halloran and Bertelmann find the story’s soul in the dogged commitment of its main character, Saroo (Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel). The composers’ beautiful repeating piano patterns are a tribute to and reflection of the single-mindedness possessed by the film’s hero. The push and pull between the repetitions and variations eventually become the point as the score grows and expands to encompass a world that feels larger by the minute.

Both O’Halloran and Bertelmann are first-time nominees whose primary careers exist outside the world of film, though each has numerous film scores to his credit. They are musicians and performers first and foremost, but here is to hoping they continue to explore, either together or individually, the world of cinema and its possibilities, which are limitless for composers such as these.

Moonlight – Here is an interesting bit of trivia that may seem a little convoluted but bear with me. Nicholas Britell was a co-producer on Whiplash, La La Land director Chazelle’s previous Oscar-winning film. Now, he is the nominated composer for a film competing for the top award against Chazelle’s follow-up film. I cannot be 100 percent certain, but I doubt if this has ever happened. Britell and Chazelle’s Harvard connection clears things up for the most part, but man, sometimes Hollywood seems so small.

Moonlight, from writer-director Barry Jenkins, is an arresting film from its first frames. It grabs you and brings you into its world in a way few other films can or even attempt. For most viewers, it is a jarring experience, a direct challenge to our preconceived notions of lives we have never known. It is not, however, confrontational. Instead, it evokes curiosity and, through that curiosity, empathy. As we are drawn deeper into the minds of these characters, we become more immersed in who they are, and Britell’s music expertly guides us along this process.

Like the film itself, the score refuses to coddle the audience, never simply giving in to viewers’ ideas of what a film score should sound like. Its use of strings is haunting and deeply moving, particularly on standout composition “The Middle of the World,” which featured prominently in the film’s advertising. Each of the story’s versions of the main character – Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and Black (Trevante Rhodes) – has his own theme, helping create distinct characterizations within the narrative. However, everything feels part of a cohesive whole, and we are always aware we are watching the journey of one young man, discovering who he is and who he wants to be.

Passengers – Thomas Newman’s dad, Alfred Newman, is the most awarded composer in Academy history with nine Oscars from 45 nominations – 43 for Original Score and two for Best Original Song. Such a legacy would cast a shadow over anyone, but I bring it up only because the younger Newman does not operate in that shadow. He is his own bright, brilliant light, and his fellow composers have recognized as such to the tune of 13 Original Score nominations. He also has a nomination for Original Song. However, he has never won, and his 13 nominations place him just one behind the late, great Alex North for most without an Oscar win.

This will not be the year Newman finally breaks through and has his name read out. The score is typically wonderful work from Newman, but it comes in a film that was not otherwise popular, either with the Academy or the public. Passengers is certainly the biggest film on this list in terms of scale, but Newman does not fall into the trap of going for full bombast where something subtler will do. It takes a composer of skill and courage to rely on the slow build of tension within these compositions when the action would seem to beg for something grander. It is laudable, admirable work from one of the best film composers around, and that is something to be cherished, awards or not.

The final analysis

Anyone else but Hurwitz winning would be an absolute shock. It would be an early indication perhaps La La Land is not as strong as perceived and could be in danger in other categories as well. But that is not what is going to happen. The beautifully composed music from the wonderful and well-liked musical will take this award in a walk.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: Jackie
Should have been here: Moana

Tomorrow: Best Original Song

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