by Marisa Mecke
On Sunday, April 25, five exciting and innovative film scores will go head to head for Best Original Score at the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony. Ranging in style and sound, the nominees up for the Oscar are Soul, Mank, Minari, News of the World, and Da 5 Bloods.
Composers: Jon Batiste, Atticus Ross, and Trent Reznor
Pixar’s Soul, a frontrunner in this year’s Best Original Score category, swept the world in 2020 with beautiful animation, heartfelt storytelling, and music at its core. Jamie Foxx stars as Joe, a middle school band teacher on the verge of his big break as a jazz musician. When Joe’s soul is accidentally transported outside of his body, he must find his way back to life on earth – and rediscover what truly matters to him.
The film required two separate musical sounds to capture its distinct worlds: New York City and the “ethereal cosmic realms of The Great Before.” To achieve this, frequent collaborators (and Nine Inch Nails bandmates) Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross teamed up with the acclaimed jazz and R&B musician Jon Batiste. A pianist and composer, Batiste hails from a New Orleans dynasty of jazz musicians who have helped to shape the city’s distinctive music scene. Batiste composed the film’s jazz sequences, while Reznor and Ross scored the new-age landscape that emerges as the protagonist, Joe, crosses into an alternate world.
Reznor and Ross have earned not one, but two nominations this year for Soul and Mank. Previously, the duo has won one Oscar together for their work on The Social Network (2010). Spanning cinematic genres, Reznor and Ross have also crafted scores for blockbuster hits such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Gone Girl (2014), Bird Box (2018), and documentaries such as Before the Flood (2016).
Composers: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Reznor and Ross’s second nominated score accompanies the dramedy Mank, which follows alcoholic social critic and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he completes the screenplay of Citizen Kane (1941) for Orson Welles. In homage to the films of the 1930s and 40s, the biographical picture was shot entirely in black and white.
Though Reznor and Ross usually favor industrial, electronic sounds, the duo created a dark, lush soundscape for the old Hollywood backdrop in Mank using only instruments authentic to the 1940s, incorporating the brass tones and swing tempos popular during the time period to set the scene.
Composer: Emile Mosseri
Minari (meaning “water celery”) is a semi-autobiographical film based on the childhood of writer and director Lee Isaac Chung. Depicting a Korean family who start a farm in rural Arkansas during the 1980s, the film illustrates the family dynamics between children, parents, and grandparents as they adapt to their lives in a new country.
Composer, pianist, and singer Emile Mosseri created a rich, ethereal score for Minari that required a full 40-piece string orchestra. Before writing the screenplay, Chung presented Mosseri with 80 snapshots of childhood memories, which served as inspiration for the sweet, sweeping melodies Mosseri utilizes throughout the film. While Mosseri has scored for films such as The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) and Kajillionaire (2020), Minari is his first Academy Award nomination.
News of the World
Composer: James Newton Howard
A veteran of cinematic scoring, composer, conductor, and record producer James Newton Howard has scored over 100 films and has received nominations for Academy Awards, Emmy Awards, and GRAMMY Awards. This year, Howard is nominated for his work on the film News of the World, starring Tom Hanks as Civil War veteran Jefferson Kyle Kidd. Kidd is charged with delivering a young girl (who had been taken by the Kiowa people years before) to her aunt and uncle against her will.
Howard contributes an engaging soundtrack with a southern twang to the Western drama, chronicling the pair’s travels and trials together across the plains of Texas. Howard has scored for blockbuster films such as The Dark Knight (2008) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) and most recently won awards for his contributions to the 2008 movie Defiance.
Da 5 Bloods
Composer: Terence Blanchard
Trumpeter, composer, and multi-decade Spike Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard’s Best Original Score nomination for Da 5 Bloods follows his first Oscar nod for the hit film BlacKkKlansman (2018). Da 5 Bloods tells the story of four Black Vietnam War veterans, who return to Vietnam seek the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide.
Blanchard has composed the scores for over 40 films and recorded for more than 50, winning five GRAMMY Awards from 14 past nominations. Blanchard’s sweeping score to Da 5 Bloods avoids synthetic instruments, opting for wide orchestral suites and smaller instrumental ensembles. Director Spike Lee chose to highlight Marvin Gaye’s music in the film’s soundtrack, a decision which Blanchard explains shaped the score:
“It automatically just sent me down a direction, musically, where I wanted the score to have a grand feel to it… I knew that Gaye’s music was going to cover a certain aspect of the emotion of dealing with social injustice in this country.”(Grammy.com)
Whether or not Blanchard wins the Oscar, he has another exciting development on the horizon: Blanchard’s opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones will debut in the 2021-2022 Metropolitan Opera season, the first opera by a Black composer staged by the Met in its 136-year history.
Sources and Further Reading:
Emile Mosseri- Minari (Sacred Bones Records)
Trent Reznor (All Music)
Atticus Ross (All Music)
Mank on Netflix: who wrote the music and can you buy the soundtrack? (BBC Music Magazine)