For Once, Oscar Picked (Some of) the Best Scores
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a history of blundering badly in the Best Original Score category (see Brian Lauritzen’s post on the topic later this week). But this year they actually nominated five of the very best scores that accompanied films in 2012, and while there were (as always) some omissions of the year’s finest (from the high-profile The Dark Knight Rises to the sadly under-the-radar Jack Reacher), the final crop of five does inarguable (and uncommon) honor to the prize’s name.
Dario Marianelli won an Oscar in 2008 for his rhythmically typewritten score for Atonement, but last year’s Anna Karenina (also directed by Joe Wright) is the most holistically satisfying work of the Italian composer’s career. It’s also a major character in the film, which is uniquely “staged” within an old theatre. Rows of clerks pound their stamps to a beat (much like Atonement’s typewriters), accordionists and other musicians walk through the set as it’s redressed playing the score, and cues ingeniously morph from diegetic source music the characters are waltzing to into the turmoil and forbidden lust flowering inside them (and back again). Marianelli marinated his neo-classical voice in Russian folk tunes and romantic masters like Tchaikovsky, fully transporting the film to the cold climate of Tolstoy’s 19th century story, and he populated the score with appropriate humor, burning passion, and heartbreak. Anna Karenina deserves an Oscar both as an achievement of composition and for being so integral to its film.
In some ways this, Alexandre Desplat’s score for the popular (and best picture frontrunner) Ben Affleck film, is the oddest choice among the five. The score album is delightful, full of exotic mystery, tension, and moments of untainted jubilation—but much of this body of work was actually dropped or dialed way down in the final cut of the movie. Thus, simply watching Argo will probably not convince you this is as rich and Oscar-worthy a score as it is, but it is. Desplat is one of the most prolific and, it seems, inexhaustibly talented composers working today (he scored eight feature films in 2012 alone, including the other Oscar-nominated picture Zero Dark Thirty), and Argo is a testament to his chameleon ability to absorb and make his own the indigenous sounds of the Middle East as well as his gift of writing old-fashioned melody. The highlights of this score are the strangely beautiful vocals where what sounds like nervous, rapid breathing produces a minimalist tonal ostinato, and the main theme—swelling with strings and solo trumpet like a movie theme from days gone by—acknowledging the relief and patriotic pride in the story’s characters. It may not have been employed to its full potential in the film, but it’s definitely one of the year’s best scores, and it’s high time Desplat took home an Oscar for his talents.
Life of Pi
Mychael Danna has carved a niche for himself in Hollywood as a skilled steward of world music, and has written several outstanding scores that marry traditional symphonic sensibilities with authentic gestures from around the globe. Life of Pi may be his crowning achievement, and in a film recognized for its stunning visuals this score packs its own tidal wallop. Rooted in the gently bobbing “Pi’s Lullaby,” Danna’s music stirs the story’s French and Indian flavors into a dreamy, transporting intoxicant. With opportunities to reflect the protagonist’s primal fight for survival and emotional cries to God, Danna cuts to the heart with his score and creates a gorgeous, crystal-clear sea that reflects a sky full of unforgettable images. This poignant, buoyant score is as local as a scrawny Indian boy and as cosmic as humanity’s desperate hunger for meaning. If the Academy deems this 2012’s best score, they won’t get any argument from me.
John Williams may already have five Oscars on his mantle and more nominations than anyone in history (save Walt Disney), but he’s written far more than five Oscar-worthy scores in his unparalleled career—and Lincoln is no exception. Williams subjugated himself more than usual to Steven Spielberg’s unusually low-key film, writing a restrained, hymnal accompaniment to the epochal president’s final months and the passing of the thirteenth amendment. The score, poetically recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, oscillates between lively Dixieland material and sober passages with deliberate echoes of Aaron Copland. The themes are simple and possess the deceptively difficult quality of inevitability (as the composer’s best themes do), and the instrumentation and stylistic dressing are an outgrowth of Williams’ long exploration of the “Americana” sound. It’s just the right emotional shadow for the character as cast in Spielberg’s unobtrusive and stage-like film, and would make a perfectly fitting sixth statue over the fireplace of the best film composer who has ever lived.
Thomas Newman’s contribution to last year’s wildly (and undeservedly, in my opinion) popular James Bond serial is the least exciting of the five nominees. But it is a good score, and Newman an exceptional composer for whom an Oscar is long overdue. Shooting John Barry’s classic themes and motifs into his system, Newman scored the film’s many action/chase set pieces with a more brawny version of his trademark quirky, gestural style of writing. The Adele title song melody (which Newman did not write, and is based on the core Bond chords) slinks into the score in a few places, and feels right at home. Other than Barry’s themes Newman did not establish any strong new melodies or motifs for Skyfall, which keeps this score at the bottom of the nominee pile. But it’s a fitting entry into a series that has seen many fine composers attempt shaken but unstirred scores, and a fun exhibition of Newman in a more muscular mode. He’s written far more enduring and endearing music for cinema (though sadly his days of lyrical grandeur, it seems, are gone)—but if his first Oscar finally comes for this it would not be a crime.
Explore all the nominated scores in this Spotify playlist. The Academy Awards ceremony takes place this Sunday, February 24, at 4pm.