Academy Awards

Oscars Spotlight: Best Score Nominees

By Ross Hickman

Here’s some perspective on this year’s standout set of Academy Award nominees for Best Original Score:


Set in the 1970s, BlacKkKlansman is an urgent, convoluted tale of two police officers infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. The stakes couldn’t be higher, the situations more dire: the tangibility of white racial violence is acute in BlacKkKlansman, and the score brings out this palpable reality.

Terence Blanchard, the composer of the film’s score, channels the musical predilections of the ‘70s with tantalizing flights of electric guitar. Against the largely orchestral backdrop of the score, these departures – whether the jolts of the electric guitar or the war-like cascade of drums – signal moments of resolve and the panics of crisis. The score has an unmistakably epic quality; it evokes a sense of an unperturbed, righteous purpose underneath rare moments of levity.

Indeed, the score offers only glimpses of the humor that the film’s dialogue provokes. Perhaps this is a subliminal message of the score: the gravity of curbing violence lurks underneath humor.

Black Panther

The score for Black Panther finds its origins in various traditions of African music. As Ludwig Goransson conducted research for his score, he traveled to Senegal and South Africa, studying the work of both contemporary and past musicians.

The notion of a score for a superhero film with primarily African influences was entirely novel – something Goransson did not take lightly. Goransson’s compositions are meant to speak in ways that ordinary music doesn’t.

In the course of his research, Goransson found that music – in, for example, the ‘talking drums’ of several Senegalese artists – is a substantial mode of non-verbal communication for the African artists he encountered. The ‘talking drum,’ according to Goransson, was the focal point in developing a vision for Black Panther’s score.

The incorporation of musical communication as the central theme of the score is a remarkable contribution to the multi-faceted cultural encounter that is Black Panther.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Nicholas Britell, the composer of the score for the 2016 film Moonlight, returns with his second major score for the film adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk.

The novel, and its film adaptation, follow a young black couple’s love story, through multifarious trials of family disputes and criminal accusations.

Britell’s compositions for If Beale Street Could Talk are nothing less than devastating. Trumpets mark the sunrise that is burgeoning love; the piano beats like an erratic heart; and the strings tie the film’s vehement emotions together – a conflicting, exquisite tapestry of love despite circumstance.

As Britell discussed in an interview for The Atlantic magazine, the decision to include string instruments was pivotal; they provide the emotional depth requisite in conveying the breadth of Baldwin’s novel. It is hard to imagine the score without those straining, stretching strings that suffuse the space between the thrills of love and the pangs of injustice.

Isle of Dogs

Renowned composer Alexandre Desplat wrote the score for Isle of Dogs, a characteristically odd addition to Wes Anderson’s canon of films. At first glance, and first sound, Isle of Dogs doesn’t have a clearly recognizable score.

Desplat’s compositions could be mistaken for mere sound effects: thumps, bells, sharp clacking sounds, and deep chanting pervade the score. The sounds and instruments are so disparate that the whole thing might be chalked up to repeating layers of furious nonsense – think a technologically updated Ravel’s Boléro, perhaps.

Unlike Ravel, there is no breathtaking culmination in Desplat’s score; it shifts back and forth between sounds like a kind of musical algorithm gone wild. Wild or not, the ceaseless beating and banging and clanging drive the film forward, absurdity in tow.

All in all, Desplat’s score matches well with Anderson’s cinematic style: endlessly weird and hopelessly intriguing.

Mary Poppins Returns

There are some classics that can’t be approached without quivering. At the intersection of musical theatre and film, there are such monumental encounters as My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins, both of which have endured newfound renditions in the past year. Beyond immortalized figures like Audrey Hepburn’s fussily enigmatic Eliza and Julie Andrew’s delightfully narcissistic Mary, the recordings of the films’ (and musicals’) scores have, in time, fallen out of step. The grainy magic of recordings from the mid-century has given way to perfectly polished – if not jealously affected – products of modern technological clarity.

The lyrics themselves play along nicely with the Sherman brothers’ 1964 Mary Poppins. And perhaps it’s an egregious musical fallacy to look back to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke when considering the far more inclusive and inventive work of Mary Poppins Returns.

Though some of the alluring quirkiness of “Jolly Holiday” is lost on modern audiences, the caprice of childhood and the miracle of a stranger’s kindness still reverberate in Marc Shaiman’s compositions and the voices of Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Where Julie Andrews was perhaps a bit dry and a tad formal, Emily Blunt is keenly expressive – with a more varied set of music to work with. Where Dick Van Dyke was charmingly odd, Lin-Manuel Miranda gives his Jack, an ‘apprentice’ of Bert, a more pensive, dignified outlook underpinning an ever-jovial disposition.

The old music may hold its own magic, but Mary Poppins Returns will surely take on its own luster in time.

Want more Oscars? Tune in February 22 at 8 p.m. for a brand new Reel Music from host Matt Rogers, featuring interviews with some of this year’s composer nominees!

Ross Hickman is a first-year student at Davidson College, who’s deeply interested in film music and works at WDAV.

High Tech Hollywood Gets Medieval

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Fionn Whitehead in a scene from

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Fionn Whitehead in a scene from “Dunkirk.” (Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

By Bruce Scott

Director Christopher Nolan is known for slickly futuristic films including Interstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight. Yet, in the Academy Award-nominated blockbuster Dunkirk, Nolan takes his high-tech, movie-making arsenal backward in time to the early days of World War II, telling a story with legendary status — the near-miraculous rescue of stranded British troops from the beaches of France.

So, it seems appropriate that Hollywood veteran Hans Zimmer, in his Oscar-nominated musical score for that film, hints at artistic strategies that also look back into history, reflecting techniques pioneered by composers nearly 1000 years ago.

Beginning in the very first moments of the film, Zimmer’s music makes extensive use of a theme familiar to lovers of classical music everywhere, and especially in Britain. It’s the melody of the “Nimrod” movement from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Elgar’s “Nimrod” has become an artistic icon in England. It’s played at moments of great national pride and patriotism, remembrance and mourning. That makes it an obvious choice for a film evoking a pivotal moment in British history — an event vividly recalled for both its tragedy, and its heroism.

Yet, in an intensely driven film lasting 105 minutes, the extensive use of such a widely familiar melody, no matter how appropriate, might easily dilute its meaning. So, how does a composer continuously employ a familiar and beloved melody in ways that expand its significance, reflecting the profoundly moving story it helps to tell, without allowing it to become trite and repetitive?

As it happens, church composers in the Middle Ages — the days of Gregorian chant — had a similar problem. They were bound by tradition, and often by doctrine, to set each liturgical text to its own, specific melody — a plainchant. To expand their means of expression while meeting that requirement, composers used a method now known as organum.

Over decades, and even centuries, organum took many forms. In one, the plainchant became a cantus firmus, or “fixed song.” The melody was greatly extended — stretched out until each note sounded like an underlying drone. Then, over those extended notes, composers wrote freely moving harmonies and counterpoint — leaving the mandatory melody technically intact, but barely recognizable.

The music in Dunkirk does something similar. In the film’s opening scene, the “Nimrod” melody emerges slowly, its notes extended and overlapping, obscured by an eerie atmosphere of sonic effects. In subsequent scenes, the theme is stretched even further, with counterpoint provided both in the music, and by movie sounds — the chaos of battle, the pounding of the sea, the cheering of men who, finally, see rescue at hand.

In one striking instance, the opening note of “Nimrod” actually bridges two scenes — the tragedy of a dying boy, and a pilot’s glimpse of distant beaches and the troops he hopes to protect. That first note alone lasts more than 30 seconds! It’s only after the second and third notes are played that the theme itself becomes evident.

Eventually, near the film’s end, “Nimrod” is again heard in extended form, at first hard to discern, as that pilot faces a life-or-death predicament. At the pivotal moment, the rhythm accelerates, the harmonies resolve, and the famous melody reveals itself, with its full measure of tragedy, resignation … and relief. Thus, a distinctly modern film tells an immensely moving story from history, made even more effective by timely music with ancient roots.