• Weighing in on the 2010 Oscar Score Nominees

    It's time to take a look at the 5 Oscar nominees for Best Original Score.  Here are some general thoughts plus, in most cases a few reasons why they should win an Oscar.

    AVATAR—James Horner

    Think about this for just a minute:  the last Oscar nomination James Horner received was for House of Sand and Fog.  That score and Avatar could not be more different.  Yet in the mix of oddly-chosen scores for this year’s Oscar run, it represents one quite distinct scoring approach compared to the others it is competing against. 

    It is likely that the film itself, though heavily-nominated, has peaked enough that the score itself will be lost in the shuffle.  Certainly within the context of the film, Horner’s score works alright.  The best parts of it are the created native music for the Na`vi.  There is no grander sense that we are experiencing something any more different than other Hollywood ethnic music sensibilities that were commonplace back in the Golden Age of film.  The score itself often felt like a mixture of Aliens meets Titanic with a primary theme uncannily similar to the love theme from the latter score.

    All that said, Horner’s score is a reminder of the big orchestral fantasy style that was once a hallmark, and even cliché in the 1980s.  Now the orchestration is a bit fuller and the variety of unusual instruments that can be used to imply a new world are a far cry from the late-19th century romanticism often visited on Science Fiction.  Perhaps that is the appeal of this score with its foot very firmly in mid-20th century art music style with its delicious blend of Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrapped in an occasional new age blanket.

    Five Reasons Why this Should Receive the Oscar

    1.      The score’s biggest moments are those for the Na’vi which are so natural that one forgets that these are all newly-composed “ancient” musics.

    2.      The flying sequence features some soaring music that still stands back from the screen images enough so that one is not distracted by the music.  (That does mean though that it can lose its luster heard on its own.)

    3.      Orchestration that sets up the mechanistic and natural worlds so that even themes are not necessary to underscore sequences where either world influences or impacts the other.

    4.      The scoring of larger sequences in this film are a hallmark of Horner’s dramatic style and come from a time when this was the norm and not the rule.  Even if these may be several cues tracked together in the final film, the effect shows a mastery of narrative underscoring.

    5.      Somehow the score is a part of the fabric of the film without ever really overpowering it.  In other words, while the music may be a consistent presence, it naturally flows out of the screen action rather than lathering it with sound and fighting the foley and other sound design effects.



    FANTASTIC MR. FOX—Alexandre Desplat

    I can almost imagine that phone call Desplat received to tell him he was a nominee and the possible consternation at the score he was nominated for this year.  Desplat had a lot of really amazing scores in 2009 all of which are far more fascinating musically than the meager material he was able to provide here.  In all honesty, having seen this film, I couldn’t tell you if there was any score material.  The nomination seems to have been for the use of music in the film which was populated by pop songs often fitting well.  The use of popular songs in Fantastic Mr. Fox actually approaches that of the live-action comedy genre more than an animated film.  The result though is that there is little connection with the characters on screen and the film felt a bit cold considering we are essentially supposed to fall in love with a James Bond-like thief whose only sympathetic character identification is his need to feed and save his family.     

    Five Reasons Why this Should Receive the Oscar

    1.      The one thing you can say about this score is that it is a mark of economy in scoring this film. 

    2.      Desplat illustrates how to use simple brushstrokes of orchestral or jazz-like music so that it does not stand out in the midst of other source material.  (We saw this on display in last year’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.)

    3.      The score approach is different from other over-orchestrated animation scores a la Disney.


    I’d love to have two more reasons but it already feels like a stretch to have three!  Desplat won’t ever get an Oscar if he can’t get his best music on the list.  But at least he’s busy!



    The Hurt Locker—Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders

    The nomination of The Hurt Locker was a surprise especially due to the inclusion of both composers.  Perhaps an example of a film gaining critical attention at precisely the right time, the score is one of Beltrami’s most experimental and riveting.  In listening to the music one realizes why both composers needed to be included because here the sound design elements are as much an integral part of Beltrami’s musical vision as the pitched music is of Sanders’ contribution.  In some ways this is the serious version of non-traditional scoring approach that can be heard somewhat in the aforementioned Desplat score.  The score is one of the tensest listening experiences I have heard in some time and helps to highlight the gripping on-screen action.  Of all the scores nominated, this one is perhaps the most original with its command of atonal and aleatoric compositional writing and blending of sound design.



    Five Reasons Why this Should Receive the Oscar

    1.      The most striking thing about this score is the way it blurs musical underscoring, ambient design, and on-screen sound effects.

    2.      Thematic elements are highlighted within the texture by distinct instrumental combinations.

    3.      Ethnic musical sounds become important signposts to the narrative in the way themes might normally be used.

    4.      Fuller thematic writing becomes apparent only as the film and score reaches its climax as they are deconstructed and used motivically, texturally, and in specific instrumental statements earlier in the score.

    5.      The score demonstrates a full command of contemporary scoring technique coupled with a real finesse of electronics and other experimental approaches.



    Sherlock Holmes—Hans Zimmer

    Out of the many films I saw last year, this one was the one I wanted to like a lot more than I did.  Part of the problem for me was the odd choice of scoring that felt so totally out of synch with the period of the film.  It was not about timelessness and Zimmer did not try to create a Bond score, but more a Sherlock the Greek.  This is the first time since Gladiator that Zimmer has received a nomination which has more to do perhaps with the films he has been working on then any lack of quality on his part. 


    That said, this score is really quite fun to listen to on its own where one can appreciate Zimmer’s main theme and orchestral writing on its own.  The one thing you can say about this score is that it is quickly identifiable as belonging to this film even if the sound feels like it should be for a different one.  It is sort of like imagining Thomas Newman woke up one day and decided to write traditional folk music instead of using traditional folk instruments to create new sounds.



    Five Reasons Why this Should Receive the Oscar

    1.      Exploration of traditional thematic writing but with a sound that runs counter to period.

    2.      Realizes an updated version of the thematic score that is then treated to variations throughout the film. 

    3.      Demonstration of action sequence writing in very long passages (that really seems to be conceived even greater than in Avatar).

    4.      Unusual blend of folk/ethnic instrumentation within the context of a regular scoring orchestral sound.  (Hear is the closest we get to a period feel.)

    5.      Uses a technique that creates a big ensemble sound through enhanced miking of soloists which results in a big sound but one that has an intimacy missing from the use of a large symphony orchestra.



    UP—Michael Giacchino

    With a busy spring, I missed this film in the theater but caught up with it on video where all the buzz proved to really be correct.  This is really a special little film whose suspension of reality never really hits you until the film is over but you still somehow hope that a house really could fly with balloons attached.  The truth of the matter is that even without the rest of the score fitting so nicely, Giacchino’s music that follows the married life of Carl and Elly is so beautifully matched to picture and never sinks to being melodramatic.  It is a celebration of life’s rhythm which is filled with hopes and dreams and the fact that we get old together and die sometimes without our dreams realized—though sometimes our “dreams” turn out to be the life we lived.  All of that is summed up in the opening sequence as we watch Elly grow old and die.  Her life was her dream even if Carl hurts so deeply for feeling they never achieved it.  That bittersweetness is also part of the charm of Up and the score captures this at every turn.  The experimental quality on display here is that the filmmakers let Giacchino’s instrumental score carry that sequence instead of sticking it with a pop song montage.


    The score is also monothematic in its waltz-like theme that dances and bubbles and soars its way through the film.  This is a score conceived in a grander Hollywood style with a big orchestral sound that warms the characters and makes us forget that these are animated people.  The score works very well on its own in the film though perhaps less so on its own (a reason it may have been “unreleased” as a traditional disc).  Giacchino shows an uncanny ability to be a chameleon in writing songs as if we have already heard them before.  There is a decided Gallic quality to the song for this film that is reminiscent of his last score nomination, Ratatouille.  Dare we say though that while experimentation is the rule of thumb for every score on Oscar’s list this year, Up is the anomaly—a strong, traditional score whose music will linger far after all the other music of the year fades from memory.  In fact, much of what made Giacchino’s last nomination worthy of an Oscar can be said of Up.



    Five Reasons Why this Should Receive the Oscar

    1.      Exemplary command of orchestration and instrumental voicing.

    2.      Perfect example of traditional thematic scoring with requisite variation technique.

    3.      Scoring that approaches the film no different from a live-action feature, inviting the viewer into the world from the outset of the film.

    4.      Demonstrates how to carry nonverbal narrative sequences musically in “Married Life” to an amazing degree of perfection

    5.      The score warms this picture up and becomes an integral part of Carl’s story so much so that you cannot imagine it without the music.



    The one thing that appears to link these scores is their experimental techniques whether it be for sound design, ethnic instrumentation, actual ensemble size, or a shift in the way a particular composer is known for working.  Of the lot, The Hurt Locker is really the most “original” score by definition and could be the surprise upset.  The appeal of Avatar and familiarity of Up may cancel each other out in this category which might allow Belatrami to emerge as the winner.  It is the first time though where at least 4 of the 5 scores feel like they are good choices even though there were so many other better scores that could have taken their place. 

  • Review: The Hurt Locker (Beltrami & Sanders)

    Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film, The Hurt Locker, appeared at the Venice Film Festival where it received the Gucci Prize for screenwriter Mark Boal.  The film appeared in limited release last June and is getting a new lease on life this year with its appearance on DVD and numerous critical awards including the more high profile Golden Globes where it has 3 nominations.  The film is a gritty and realistic story of American bomb squads whose job it is to disarm Iraqi roadside bombs.  The film’s narrative is drawn from Boal’s firsthand observations with a special bomb unit in Iraq.  For the score, Bigelow turned to Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders to create a non-traditional score eschewing the more overtly orchestral accompaniment.  The results, while not always the most easy music to listen to, are perhaps among one of Beltrami’s most experimental and riveting scores.

    Macabre might be the best way to describe the unsettling title track that opens this score release.  A suspense-filled beat drives the various sounds while pitched ideas try to bubble to the surface.  The pained vocalise, with a bit of Middle Eastern quality, breaks into this sound forcefully jarring the listener and alerting them to the drama about to occur.  “Goodnight Bastard,” which follows, includes some of these same design elements as well, but a couple of minutes in we get a more Beltrami-like melodic idea for guitar.  Atonal string clusters creep into the music over time and soon this gives way to more frightening aleatoric music.  Imagine Beltrami’s Scream scores but with restrained tense sound design elements and dissonant clusters and you will begin to get a closer picture of what the score holds.  The Hurt Locker is a tense listen that is experimental in its sound design and musical elements—among some of the creepiest music Beltrami and Sanders have dreamed up together in their more recent partnerships.  Perhaps what is most striking about the score is that it seems to blur further musical underscoring, ambient design, and on-screen sound effects to create an often surreal and gripping musical narrative.  There are still bits and pieces of thematic content that Beltrami’s fans will recognize as the composer’s stamp, but they have been stretched to the breaking point.  “Oil Tanker Aftermath” encapsulates these various design, effect and thematic elements quite effectively with an erhu giving the music a plaintive quality in the midst of tense surroundings.  By the time we get to a more thematic musical statement in the final “The Way I Am” the music takes on an almost Western quality (a little taste of what Beltrami would expand on in 3:10 to Yuma).  The final track helps put a bit of closure to the proceeding tension and makes for a fitting close to the disc.

    What really makes The Hurt Locker work on its own is the regular occurrence of thematic material coupled with some very intense sounds that feel integrated into the texture of the score itself.  This may not be a score you return to often, but it is yet another indication of Beltrami’s adaptability into current scoring trends while maintaining a unique musical voice.  Though brief, the sequencing of the score here makes for a satisfying experience.