In this century, the Academy Awards have turned into a coronation rather than an election. As an endless parade of ceremonies precedes the Oscars – not just the Golden Globes but the guilds for writers, actors, directors, producers and more – the likelihood of a surprise in a major category becomes remote. At most, two films may run neck and neck, yet even that’s rare.
On the other hand, moviegoers could see something unusual on the big night this year. Though I think the same film will win best picture and director on February 9, I believe all four acting categories and both screenplay categories may go to different nominees.
You may wonder why I’m writing about the Oscars for WDAV. I’m going to start reviewing movies later this year for the website on an occasional basis. I’ll write about pictures I think its listenership may be curious about, ones that are media phenomena or likely to pass under the radar if I don’t point them out. We’re still figuring out how this will work. But after my time as The Charlotte Observer’s film critic from 1987 to 2017, I welcome a chance to begin again.
Now about those Oscars….
Best picture and director: “1917” and Sam Mendes. “The Irishman” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” have lost momentum, and the industry respects films that are dramatically powerful, epic in scope, difficult to make and perceived to be “significant,” whatever that may mean. Mendes’ gripping “1917” is all four.
Best actor and actress: Voters gravitate toward three types of performances: Showy ones that run a gamut of emotions, those that dominate a picture (whatever their length in the film) and those depicting illnesses: addictions, physical disabilities, mental or emotional breakdowns. Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” and Renee Zellweger in “Judy” qualify on all three counts.
Best supporting actor and actress: These tend to be “It’s their turn” prizes for veterans whom voters have enjoyed for many years. Brad Pitt is an obvious choice for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Laura Dern less of one – but a clear front-runner – for “Little Women.”
Best original screenplay and adapted screenplay: “Marriage Story” has rightly been praised for many things, especially Noah Baumbach’s script about a crumbling marriage between show business people. It’s harder to pick adapted screenplay: I think Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” deserves the prize, but perennial favorite Steven Zaillian seems to be ahead for “The Irishman.”
As I’m writing for a station that sometimes features movie music, I’ll also say I think Thomas Newman will win best original score for “1917.” He’s overdue – this is his 15th nomination with no wins — and his stirring score beautifully underpins the action without overwhelming it.
The 92nd Academy Awards ceremony airs February 9, 2020. Music professor and film music scholar Neil Lerner shares his thoughts about the nominated scores, which include the first woman to compete in the category, Hildur Guðnadóttir, and family members Thomas and Randy Newman, each chosen for their work in separate films. Tune in at 8 p.m. Monday through Friday to hear him speak about the nominees or listen to his thoughts below:
Neil Lerner on Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for Joker:
Neil Lerner on the score for Little Women by Alexandre Desplat:
Neil Lerner on Thomas Newman’s music for the war drama 1917:
Neil Lerner on John Williams’ score for Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker:
Neil Lerner on Randy Newman’s score for Marriage Story:
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.
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.
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.
Each year, as movie lovers prepare their red carpet parties and office Oscar pools begin their wagers, Matt Rogers hosts an Academy Award edition of Reel Music. During the show, he previews the scores of this year’s nominees and revisits the music of past winners. But it’s his commentary on the scores and his prediction for Best Score winner that have made this show a favorite of listeners.
The big question: Who does Matt think will win this year? We talked with Matt Rogers for his take on this year’s nominees, his thoughts on what makes a perfect score, and for a hint – just one little hint! — for his pick for best score this year.
Of Note:Each year you’ve hosted Reel Music, you’ve guessed the winner of Best Original Score. What’s your track record? Matt Rogers: Well, I was doing fine until last year. There really wasn’t much of a soundtrack to Gravity, but I guess what there was of it worked so well in the film that it won. I had picked Philomena by Alexandre Desplat, who is nominated again this year for two scores.
Of Note:What are your thoughts on the nominated scores this year? Matt Rogers: Alexandre Desplat has two great scores this year [for The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game], but people are also talking about Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score [for The Theory of Everything], which, if it won, would give Desplat his eighth loss in nine years. Ouch.
Of Note:If you’re stranded on a desert island with one movie soundtrack, what is it? Why? Matt Rogers:Star Wars. Hands down. Every note of it is nostalgic for me since that saga was a huge part of my childhood. I could listen to it over and over.
Of Note:Who are some of your favorite score composers? Matt Rogers:Bernard Herrmann is really responsible for my love of movie music. When I was a kid, I saw the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Herrmann’s score captivated me. It remains one of my favorite movie soundtracks of all time. John Williams is of course a favorite as well. He’s very versatile. He can produce something as subtle as Lincoln or something as bombastic as Superman, and it all works.
Of Note: What makes for an effective film score? Matt Rogers: I think it depends on the movie. I mentioned Gravity. In that film, you don’t want the music to draw your attention away from the tension on screen. You almost want to be unaware of the score. With Indiana Jones or Star Wars, the more in your face it is, the better it is.
Of Note:Are you going to give us a hint for your pick for Best Original Score? Matt Rogers: Hah! Not a chance. You have to tune in and hear for yourself. I will tell you that we have Neil Lerner from the Davidson College Music Department back with us this year. He always offers great insights on the nominated scores and composers. Be sure to listen in!
Listen to Reel Music’s “WDAV at the Oscars” on Friday, February 20, 2015 at 9:00 p.m.
Are you in the Charlotte area? Tune into 89.9fm Classical Public Radio. Prefer to stream? Listen live at WDAV.org or on Apple and Android apps.