With the Academy Awards rolling around, The Argus Arts writers took a look at the nominees. Read on to hear our thoughts about who might win, which underdogs we’re holding out for, and which of the absent films should have made it into the Academy’s bracket. In the process, we examined how categories are organized, judged, and evaluated, and we revisited the films that moved us over the course of 2015.
Best Original Sore
The competition for Best Original Score seems to be a battle of the veterans. Neither Ennio Morricone nor John Williams is a stranger to the Academy Awards: Morricone has one Oscar, and Williams has five. However, Morricone’s sole Oscar is an honorary award, and the Academy will most likely remedy his situation by presenting him with a golden statue come Sunday night. Nonetheless, Williams is still in the running for the Oscar, as both composers’ scores are iconic in their own regards.
In “The Hateful Eight,” Morricone channels Western works such as “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” “The Thing,” and “C’era Una Volta Il West” (Once Upon a Time in the West). He plays to the viewer’s expectations with the sounds of galloping horses and the exhilarating use of string instruments while elevating these tropes to correspond to the particular narrative.
Because “The Hateful Eight” blends mystery and thriller, Morricone must be able to suspend the audience’s disbelief and cause them to shake in anticipation of the next cue. He does so with the disharmony of the high and low woodwinds and the low brass in the main title, which begins with the vamping of strings and a whimsical oboe riff of half steps and whole steps. This instrumentation destabilizes the viewers and makes them aware that this is not their average Western.
Morricone’s use of xylophone is also quite important throughout the score and narrative. The instrument conveys that a character is deep in thought or piecing together pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of the plot. The xylophone’s shrillness provides lightness, order, and the promise of clarity; Morricone’s incorporation of its tones is highly effective and underscores his genius.
The vocals in the main theme recall the stereotype of the “native” or “savage” as well as previous classical masters, particularly of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna.” The combination of these contrasting styles echoes the nature of the violence in the film and hints at the absence of religion. The viewer is left wondering, “Are we in a godless country?”
Morricone’s score for “The Hateful Eight” also pulls in popular music such as The White Stripes, David Hess, and Roy Orbison. The inclusion of these songs opposes the Reconstruction-era setting of the film and bridges to the contemporary, revitalizing Morricone’s Western sensibilities by drawing on the reservoir of talent he has developed during his decades in Italian cinema.
Likewise, Williams’ score for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is simultaneously a nod to the past and a vehicle for the future. His 50th nomination for the Academy’s Best Original Score category is nothing short of spectacular. Moreover, for this particular score, Williams conducted a ninety-piece orchestra and composed 175 minutes of music between June and November, which was later reduced to 115 minutes.
Williams plays on nostalgia with his use of iconic themes specific to the “Star Wars” franchise. Additionally, he created five themes to accompany new characters that have already become staples. The presence of the “Imperial March” promotes continuity throughout the films and allows older viewers to reminisce about their first time hearing the song.
The action music interspersed throughout the score is energetic and contributes to the film’s successful storytelling. Overall, the soundtrack is swashbuckling in nature and capitalizes on the movie’s identity as a sci-fi western. Ultimately, the score’s complexity suggests that it will become as much a part of cinematic history as Williams’ past works.
In “Bridge of Spies,” Thomas Newman combines flavors of both Russian and American music and builds on the conflict at the heart of the film. Newman’s use of a Russian Orthodox male choir produces an ominous atmosphere and highlights his ingenuity as a composer. He is able to discern between the two countries’ musical traditions, yet blends them when the narrative calls for it.
Carter Burwell’s “Carol” is intimate and minimalistic, unlike the rest of this year’s nominees. Burwell conveys the repression and restraint of the protagonists and promotes romanticism, while also demonstrating its complications. “Carol” is a film about feelings, and when words fail the characters, the score elevates and continues the conversation.
Johann Johannsson’s work in “Sicario” is gritty and textural, and aptly communicates the intricacies of the plot, characters, and social issues in the film. Johannsson aims to discomfort the viewer with his use of low instrumentation.
“It’s like the throbbing heart of a beast charging at you: this very intense, insistent, relentless quality – also a brutality,” Johannsson said of his thematic choices in an interview with Variety.
Johannsson is able to wordlessly convey the central theme of the film, the savagery at the center of the human soul. Only music could articulate such a notion without approaching the realm of cliché.
All of the competitors for Best Original Score are musical geniuses, and thus this year’s win will most likely be a matter of either honoring a prominent classical composer or of recognizing another’s triumphant return to American cinema.
BEST MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
Will Win: Ennio Morricone, “The Hateful Eight”
Should Win: Ennio Morricone, “The Hateful Eight”, John Williams, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Snubbed: Junkie XL, “Mad Max: Fury Road”