The 89th Academy Awards takes place this Sunday to showcase the vast number of dynamic and innovative films that grace our screens over this past year. Working alongside each director, actor, editor, or cinematographer is a hard working composer putting on the finishing touches of the film, the music. The instrumental sounds in film help guide us from one scene to the next and heightens the emotions we feel as we watch the story unfold. Today, some of the most iconic scores immediately take you back to those same monumental movies whether it be John Williams score for Star Wars or A. R. Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire, both previous winners of the Oscar for Best Original Score, these soundtracks made us feel ecstatic at one point or heartbroken the next. Music has a way of taking us on a journey that transcends just the images and dialogue in a film, it makes us lose ourselves while we step into another world. And the nominations for Best Original Score at the 2017 Oscars are no exception. With 4 first time nominated composers and films taking us to the far reaches of space or back into 1963, there is no shortage of talent from the 5 composers nominated this year. Let’s take a look at what each Score brings to the table.
Everyone knows the story of Camelot, the legacy left behind by one of the most iconic couples in American history; Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and President John F. Kennedy. We’ve all watched a documentary or read about the day that JFK was assassinated in an open motorcade in Texas, but Jackie delves deeper than just the events of November 22, 1963. The film, starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy, chronicles the two weeks after her husband’s death and how a wife must cope with the loss of her husband while also being a supportive mother to her two children and a nation shaken by the loss of their president. Set behind this film is a score that creates a dark, mysterious, and ominous mood curated by Mica Levi, the previous composer of Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin. Levi, better known for her role in the band Micachu and The Shapes, has become the 4th woman nominated in Oscar history for Best Original Score. And there is no doubt that her hard work on Jackie reflects the immense amount of talent she has.
As the film flashes back to the events preceding JFK’s death, the music begins to be representative of how Jackie was reacting to her husband’s assassination. Tracks such as “Car” puts you into a moment of sudden panic while “Tears” slows down dramatically to make the viewer feel as if someone is watching you, similar to the eyes of the nation watching Jackie. While Levi was scoring the film, she had yet to see a completely edited version of the film and decided to create what she thought was representative of Jackie. While discussing her scoring process for the film with FACT she explained that, “[The director] hadn’t started cutting the film yet, so I sent him music that I thought might be Jackie Kennedy’s vibe… I just wrote some music that i thought she’d be into or would be appropriate. Then he and his editor Sebastian kind of used that to help cut the film- it worked kind of backward to how I’d worked before”. The final product came out as very representative of how anyone in Jackie’s position may be feeling and also lends unique tracks for a truly remarkable woman.
One of the most haunting tracks of the score is “The End” which sets up the conclusion of Jackie and JFK’s life in the White House, the end of Camelot. It makes you feel deep grief and sorrow but the necessity for Jackie to pick herself back up and try and put together the pieces again. Here, is “The End”.
LA LA LAND
Bringing upbeat jazz back to the screen and revitalizing the classical Hollywood musical, La La Land is a breath of fresh air while also taking us back to the days when Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds danced their way through the big screen in Singin’ in the Rain. And just like those classic films- dance and song were just as vital as the plot. Nominated for an outstanding 14 Oscars, one of La La Land’s shining elements is the upbeat theme and whimsical piano melodies that make up one of the most popular scores this year. Composed by Justin Hurwitz who has two Golden Globes for Best Original Score and Best Original Song “City of Stars”, he may be a newcomer this awards season but has been working with Damien Chazelle, director of La La Land, since college. Both Hurwitz and Chazelle met at Harvard and formed a close bond while one studied film and the other music, later forming a band called Chester French before pursuing film projects together full time. In 2014, Chazelle’s major directorial debut was for Whiplash starring J.K. Simmons and fully composed by Justin Hurwitz. Due to its great success, the birth of La La Land came to be and Hurwitz began the technical process of bringing this score to life.
A story about finding love, following your dreams, and appreciating jazz has become one of the most popular films this awards season. With a structured melody reoccurring throughout the film through the use of piano, horns, and strings there is no shortage of emotion crawling throughout the score. In a recent interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Hurwitz said, “one of the hardest things was finding an emotional balance between joy and optimism and sadness and melancholy”. No one could have described it any better. There is a wide range of emotions developing throughout the entire film. During “Herman’s Habit”, full of old swing and loud horns, one feels excited and overwhelmed by hard hitting sounds and then “City of Stars” begins with the piano setting the foundation for the melody of the rest of the film. And after that the piano takes you down an enchanting journey of love, hope, doubt, and closure. And at the center of all that sound is Justin Hurwitz, who estimates that he created 1,900 different piano memos before creating a score that would land on the Billboard top 200 chart during the first month of the year. One of the shining stars on the score is “Planetarium” that takes you down a whimsical journey and makes you feel as though you could float through the air too.
The story of Saroo Brierley emphasizes the importance of finding home but even greater, finding yourself. Based on a true story, Saroo was born in a small and impoverished town in India whose name he couldn’t fully remember before getting lost on a train that transported him nearly 1,000 miles away where he found himself in Calcutta. After being sent to an orphanage he was soon adopted by a couple living in Tasmania, Australia and nearly two decades later and with the invention of Google Earth, Brierley begins his journey to find his biological mother. And throughout this adventure we are enraptured by the heavy violin and piano making your heart feel heavy and hopeless one moment but hopeful the next. Composed by two phenomenal musicians, Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka, the score explores the creation of sounds that are hauntingly beautiful and somber as it puts you into the shoes of a kid desperate to find his family once again.
Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, Dustin O’Halloran has worked on the scores for films such as Marie Antoinette and Like Crazy and is praised for his exquisite piano skills. When he was approached by Director Garth Davis to create the soundtrack for Lion, he was told he would be partnering up with composer, and good friend, Hauschka. Known under his recording name, Hauschka, Volker Bertelmann originates from Dusseldorf, Germany and is one of few composers to devote himself to playing prepared piano. This process places objects known as reparations on or between the strings of the piano in order to create unique sounds. Their extensive piano skills and love for composing led them to create a soundtrack that blended two very different composers into one. Their styles wound together to form a score that striped down its layers in order to sound intimate and exposed yet desperate and anxious. When describing the score with IndieWire, O’Halloran said, “the score is completely subjective. It’s from Saroo’s POV and meant to reflect a singular story about his experience. But it’s ultimately a human story. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, or what class. We focused on the innate human experience”. And when the film flashes to Saroo recalling every step he took back home, the music makes you feel each and every step with him. The hope and reflection of oneself that takes place is felt in every inch of the soundtrack and really takes precedent during the track “Lion Theme”.
A story with little dialogue, amazing cinematography, and a powerful message, Moonlight chronicles the life of a black man growing up in Miami, Florida. Set into three parts, Little, Chiron, and Black; the film examines the struggles of growing up black, poor, and gay and how your upbringing can affect the person you become. The composer behind each stage of Chiron’s life is Nicholas Britell whose music was featured in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave,in which he arranged and composed the violin performances, work songs, spiritual songs, and dances. His work on Moonlight is refreshing and delightful using influences of hip-hop and classical music to evoke distinctive themes throughout the film. Aiding in this effort is the heavy use of piano and violin to delve inside the mind of Chiron. When discussing how the project first began with Vulture, Britell said that “there was just this incredible sense of beauty and of sensitivity and tenderness and intimacy in the screenplay… My first emotional reaction to the film was that sense of poetry. I actually was saying to myself, ‘What is the musical analog of poetry?’”. And out of that analysis of poetry came “Littles Theme”, “Chiron’s Theme”, and “Blacks Theme”.
During Part 1 of the film, “Little”, we learn about the importance of having control to define who you are. In the following clip for the song “Middle of Nowhere”, we’re combatted with a happy memory that holds a very heavy message. Met with high and harsh string arrangements, while blending classical components, we get an introspective view into the mind of a quiet young boy. Because of the powerful symbolism of the ocean in this scene, Britell used “the long verb on the violin, [which] felt like sound almost washing over itself somehow” and perfectly fits the spirit of Chiron and the struggles he faces in a world that at times, can be cruel and bitter.
Thomas Newman is no stranger to the Oscars. Passengers rings in his 14th Oscar nomination and is a shining example of what he does best. Set in the future of space travel, the film covers the love story between two passengers on the ship The Avalon, who wake up 90 years too early. At times endearing and upbeat, while also met with urgency and trouble, Passengers is set to a score that takes us into a world unlike anything we will ever experience. Space makes many people think of silence and the use of lots of ambient sound, but Newman wanted to focus on the marriage between piano and electronic sounds. Being his first sci-fi score, despite having scored Disney’s WALL-E, he decided to dive feet first into the world of sound experimentation by bringing something new and invigorating to the big screen.
At times the score sounds light and simple in order to make you feel stuck in the moment. But his use of simple futuristic sounds are often met with climaxes that are extremely fast and harsh before dropping back down to the simple melody to give the film a true feeling of having its own atmosphere. What Newman created was a score that followed the action of the film while still staying in unison. But, finding that unison proved to be a difficult task. When describing what he found most challenging during this composition process in an interview with Variety, Newman said “the first two thirds of the movie are more sensual and atmospheric than the last third. So I think finding an action movie tone that doesn’t violate the tone you’ve set up in the first third [is difficult]. Finding that vocabulary and music was hard”. Nonetheless, he prevailed and expanded outside of his comfort zone to create a score that transcends time and space. Primarily focusing on “piano and electronic instrumentation for the 96-minute score, [he] occasionally expanded to a full orchestra, utilizing more than 60 string players and 13 brass musicians”. And if you ever wanted to hear how that dynamic worked, there is no greater display of that than the track “Starlit” which combines the sounds of space to the music that makes you feel what it’s like to fall in love.
You can watch the 89th Academy Awards this Sunday, February 26, at 8:30pm ET/5:30pm PT. Feel free to check out other nominees up for an Oscar and predict who you think could go home with an award!