Max Comeau’s look at the five Original Musical Scores Nominated at this year’s Academy Awards

When I was a teenager in the ‘90s, before The Beatles completely changed my life, all I listened to were film scores. My “pop idols” were Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, John Williams, Dave Grusin, Marc Shaiman, Richard Robbins and Thomas Newman. In fact, in 1995, when Thomas Newman was nominated for Oscars for both his jolly, childlike reverie “Little Women” and his instant classic score for “The Shawshank Redemption”, he became my favorite composer. I would buy almost each and every one of his scores regardless of whether or not I’d even seen the film it was for. “Brooks Was Here”, from “The Shawshank Redemption” which underscored the sequence in which recently-released-from-prison Brooks struggles to adapt to the outside world, culminating into his suicide, became a household staple. I still remember one of my older brothers telling me, with a lump in his throat: “Man, the second that piano kicks in… I’m in tears. I can’t help it.” The power of music.

So while kids my age were listening to Smashing Pumpkins, Cranberries and Oasis, I was bobbing my head and hiding up in my room, pretending to conduct the orchestras behind the film scores to “The Hudsucker Proxy”, “Sleeping with the Enemy”, “The Remains of the Day”, “Il Postino” and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”.  When the Oscar Nominations would come out, I was always thrilled when my predictions would come true: “Hey! James Newton Howard got nominated for The Fugitive!” The movies meant the world to me and their music meant every bit as much, in many cases more.

When my passions turned to pop, rock and singer-songwriters in the late nineties, film scores took a back seat. Occasionally, one would really stand out for me: Jon Brion’s epic score for “Magnolia”, Gustavo Santaolalla’s striking guitar melodies in “Brokeback Mountain” or the ubiquitous Thomas Newman and his game-changing score to “American Beauty”, but I was too busy obsessing over the likes of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Lindsey Buckingham and Thom Yorke to fully plunge back into film scores.

 

This all changed in the last few months as I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing. Nothing accompanies the reading of a Michael Cunningham novel, for instance, better than a Philip Glass score. When writing a play about inner-city racial tensions, nothing better than having a Terence Blanchard score blowing in the background. Also, nothing like a quiet evening at home reflecting and collecting your thoughts with Mark Isham’s “Afterglow” jazz score keeping you company.

Now, with the Oscars just a few days away, I am thrilled to say one of my predictions came true. Nicholas Britell’s poignant taking-the-art-house-to-the-ghetto score for the extraordinary “Moonlight”, directed by Barry Jenkins, is indeed one of five deserving nominees.  Arriving at number 7 in my list of Top 10 albums of 2016, 37-year-old Britell’s score is nothing short of a masterpiece. Reminding me of Marjan Mozetich’s “Affairs of the Heart” with a definite touch of Glass, Britell utilizes piano and violin to underscore the vulnerability and profound sadness of Chiron through the three stages of his life explored in the film. Like the character, the musical themes evolve and transform.

Take a look at this moving sequence in which Mahershala Ali’s character teaches young Chiron to swim. Listen to Britell’s overwhelmed-with-emotion strings that perfectly capture the fear and trepidation in Chiron as he finds himself … in the middle of the world.

 

Rarely has film music so beautifully and so perfectly captured the essence of a moment and emotion quite like Nicholas Britell’s piece.  He is not dictating how the viewer should feel; he is simply the sound of Chiron’s heart and soul.

Relative newcomer to the game, Britell was responsible for the score to last year’s Oscar-nominated “The Big Short” as well as this year’s epic Matthew McConaughey vehicle, “The Free State of Jones”. This is his first nomination. He has performed extensively as a pianist but his time in school as a member of an instrumental hip-hop group clearly also had a considerable impact on his work on this film. The popular “chopped and screwed” technique often used in hip hop to slow down and alter the pitch and beats of tracks is used to illustrate the main character’s breakdown and transformation. The work is an absolute triumph and I know dramatic build-up dictates I should only disclose of who has my vote to win this Oscar at the end of the article but – convention be damned – Britell’s score is my pick for best score of the decade. It is that good.

I’ve mentioned Thomas Newman as being my favorite film composer. Is he nominated this year? Of course! Since 1995, the man’s been nominated 14 times but has yet to win. I’m afraid to say this is one year he doesn’t stand a chance. His score for the science fiction film “Passengers” is beautiful as are all his works, but it lacks the inventive outside-the-box approach of his finest works. It’s basically Newman doing Newman with a little bit of electronic textures added here and there for good sci-fi measure.

There are some beautiful moments in the score such as “Crystalline” which remind me of Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption” and the music successfully conveys the story’s tension, anxiety and fear of the unknown but Newman is at his absolute best when illustrating the romance between the two leads.

 

Any other year, Newman’s score may have been a contender for the top prize, but 2016 was an exceptionally strong year in the best original score category.

Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka are the two composers behind the score for “Lion”. O’Halloran, an American and Hauschka (a.k.a. Volker Bertelmann) a German, both pianists, both accomplished composers and both are famous in the world of neoclassical music. It was director Garth Davis’s idea to team the two composers with one another. Apparently, the original plan was to have one composer handle the first half of the film (which takes place in India when the main character, Saroo, is a child) and the other cover the scoring duties for the second half of the film (which takes place mainly in Tasmania with Saroo now a well-assimilated twenty-something portrayed by Dev Patel). Davis quickly dropped that idea as both composers were friends and welcomed the challenge of working in synergy to score this incredible journey.

Quite simply, it’s the score that provides the most pleasurable listening experience of these five nominees. The music is lush, emotionally-charged and melodic. Lead by piano over beds of strings, it could well be used as background music for your Yoga classes. However, that would be a shame because the compositions are truly rich and merit your full attention. The film, featuring several long sequences with little-to-no dialogue, allows O’Halloran and Hauschka’s music to become one of the main characters. The repeated lilting piano motif which serves as the main theme is nothing short of an earworm that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

Also, it is interesting to note that Davis was never interested in pushing an Indian flavor into the film’s score and also wanted both sections of the film to flow seamlessly together. The main mission he had for the two composers was to create a score that evokes home, the quest for one’s identity and sense of safety.

It is said that both composers worked so closely, hand in hand, that it is hard for them to point out their individual contributions. It was truly a collaborative effort. If you’re wondering how rare it is for two composers working together on one film score to get nominated for an Oscar, consider this: there have been only 4 instances in the last  50 years including Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ win for “The Social Network”. These two definitely stand a good chance – this music stays with you in ways scores rarely manage to.

 

Then comes this year’s best ‘surprise’ story, as far as I’m concerned. One of the youngest composers ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score, 30-year-old Mica Levi (a.k.a. Micachu, her stage name) is up for her work on Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie”. After the success and praise she received for her score to 2014’s “Under the Skin”, she’s on her way to becoming one of the most important composers in cinema. Born in Surrey, England and the daughter of two musicians, Levi started playing and composing music at the age of four. In a field still dominated by men, it is refreshing to see someone like Mica come along. In the Academy Award’s 89 year history, only two women composers have ever won the Oscar for Best Original Score (Rachel Portman for 1996’s “Emma” and Anne Dudley for 1997’s “The Full Monty”) . Because of her story and young age, Levi could be a favorite in voters’ eyes.

But never mind her age or the fact that she’s a woman – her score is fantastic! You can hear Jackie Kennedy’s grieving and melancholy through Levi’s ghostly strings. The music is weighty and sad yet never feels manipulative or obtrusive. It is simply there to accompany the story as every good film score should. Her use of piano and vibes over often-nervous and uncertain strings perfectly illustrate the isolation and all-alone-in-the-world feelings of the film’s protagonist. When JFK is evoked, as he often is in this film that follows his assassination, Levi employs marching band drums that remind me of one of my all-time favorite film scores, John Williams’ “JFK” from 1991. Coincidence? Quite possibly. Either way, I absolutely love it. You get a real sense of the gravitas and grandeur of this world Jackie finds herself in.

Like most film scores, some key leitmotifs are repeated throughout and this stands out particularly when listening to the album, outside of the film. But Levi’s score and Larrain’s film are one. Several reviews of the film mentioned that the film’s emotional core would no doubt feel incomplete were it not for Levi’s extraordinary work.  It is truly beautiful music and though it may be, of these five nominees, the least sustainable “album” experience, the fact remains that the score does a stellar job at providing the film with an emotional tapestry, a voice for the broken widow.

 

Now, for the final act, the score I predict will be taking home the famed Golden Boy this coming Sunday night. Justin Hurwitz’ absolutely irresistible score to “La La Land” plays such an important role in the film, it’s arguably more important than Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

This is only Hurwitz’s third film score, the other two also collaborations with director Damien Chazelle (“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” and “Whiplash”) but there is a swagger and confidence to these compositions which makes it sound like the work of an old Hollywood pro. The film is a celebration of classic Hollywood musicals and the score goes from jazz to bossa nova to more traditional orchestral film score textures but always stays true to its swinging personality. There is exceptional musicianship at work here in this score’s recordings and though the audience is more likely to come out of the film singing one of its Oscar-nominated songs (“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and “City of Stars”, both of which Hurwitz wrote the music to) the score also leaves a lasting impression. It’s also, surprisingly, an absolute joy to listen to apart from the film, in album form. Hurwitz insisted on recording the entirety of the score with the full bands, live in the studio. He did not want any layering and overdubbing and you can hear that when listening to the music. It feels alive.  The jazz passages, though flawlessly precise, still manage to sound like they were created live, on the spot. It helps the film have an off-the-cuff, improvised feel – no, this wasn’t all precisely choreographed and lit to perfection … it just kind of happened.
The Gary Burton-like vibes used throughout the score perfectly illustrate the melancholy of both struggling artists at the center of the story. The cues for the brighter, more hopeful moments in the film just make you happy, make you want to put on your best threads and go dancing down the street, hoping others will join in on your Gene Kelly/Debbie Reynolds folly.

The film’s success depended almost entirely on Justin Hurwitz’s music and, though it’s not my personal favorite of these five gems, the man rose to the occasion and then some. Do not underestimate the complexity and brilliance of this tour-de-force. It is nothing short of remarkable and he will be taking home the statuette, no doubt about it.

 

So, in conclusion, like every respectable Oscar-prediction article, let me leave you with this:

Who Should Win: NICHOLAS BRITELL, “Moonlight”

Who Will Win: JUSTIN HURWITZ, “La La Land”

Who Deserves To Win: All five composers. No, really. Other than Thomas Newman, these are all first-time nominees. The Academy truly got it right this time around and the choice of these five nominations is virtually irreproachable. I’ll be happy with any outcome.

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About The Author

Max Comeau
Blogueur - RREVERB

Intensely passionate about music, Max is in constant search for new sounds yet he never tires of his idols whom he calls his “Pillars”. A musician himself, he released, as singer-songwriter, an album with The Calm in 2007 and, this past June 2015, released his first solo album, “You”. Max has also written a few plays and adaptations which he staged with his theater troupe in the early 2000s. He is thrilled to be part of the RREVERB team to further explore the great classics, as well as the newer classics-to-be, whether ‘en français’ or in English.