“Original” Music at the Oscars: A Year of Artfully Blended Influences

By  · Published on February 3rd, 2013

There are currently only two Academy Awards given out for music: Best Original Score and Best Original Song. This might seem like a silly thing to point out, but it wasn’t always the case. As recently as 1998 there were separate categories for Dramatic Score and Musical or Comedy Score, divided like the Golden Globes divide their acting and picture awards. And in the past there’s been a Best Adaptation Score, the name of which was changed over and over again, while back in the late 1930s there were another two separate categories, Best Scoring and Best Original Score. Music at the Oscars has had a complicated history.

The context makes it all the more strange that, with only the Best Original Score category left, stuff can get thrown out for being too “adapted.” True Grit and Black Swan were both declared ineligible for nomination because they were based on 19th Century hymns and Swan Lake, respectively. The Academy, which once went out of its way to recognize adaptation in musical composition, now rejects it entirely. This year, however, in both musical categories the best work is full of allusion and the blending of influences. Gone are the days of Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann, whose music was often brilliant but tended to strive for originality within a single orchestral playbook.

Let’s start with Anna Karenina and Dario Marianelli’s richly romantic score. The main theme is taken from an old Russian folk song, “In a Field Stood a Birch Tree,” famously used by Tchaikovsky in his Symphony No. 4. Marianelli’s score often feels like something that could have been written by that great late 19th Century composer, blended with elements of Johann Strauss II and the Viennese waltz. Anna Karenina dances and dances until it finally falls, barely stopping to rest along the way. Earlier this season I wrote about the film as a whole and how Joe Wright builds upon the notion of adaptation at every level of the production, and the music is almost a centerpiece.

John Williams’s score for Lincoln also sounds quite a lot like something else. As became apparent last year with War Horse, Williams at this point in his career is at his best when aping Aaron Copland. In Lincoln the best music comes at moments of quiet contemplation and great historical significance. The simple woodwind and brass tones of the score evoke “Fanfare for the Common Man” and are modestly scored when compared with much of Williams’s prior orchestral bravado. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite hold up when he moves into the bouncier “Rodeo” adjacent sections. Much of the down-home country fiddling in Lincoln takes a moment of humble comedy and veers off into the direction of musical silliness.

Argo and Skyfall both blend the long-standing style of Hollywood action movie scoring with the very different musical traditions of their locations. Alexandre Desplat and Thomas Newman take the repetitive, fast-tempo rhythms we’re used to and add some Iranian and Turkish instrumentation. Skyfall has the upper hand, however, by incorporating the additional influence of 50 years of James Bond music. Newman expertly punctuates his score with the swelling brass we’ve come to instantly associate with 007, a style that also lends an air of triumph to the Best Original Song nominee from the film (Adele’s “Skyfall” ). Desplat’s score is well-orchestrated and certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it isn’t his best work.

At the end of the day, however, the most beautifully blended composition is Mychael Danna’s score for Life of Pi. In an interview with AwardsLine, the composer explained the various influences on the project.

“Pi is a 21st century citizen; he belongs nowhere and everywhere…It’s set in India but in a French colonial town. So we have accordions and mandolins playing Indian melodies and sitars playing French melodies…The goal was to carefully – and, hopefully, artfully – blend every culture that Pi comes across and then makes part of his own essence.”

The result is a score of dynamic vitality. The old French song “Sous les ceils de Paris,” a musical reference to the 1931 film by René Clair, is filtered through Indian instrumentation and matched perfectly to the lush, 3D images of a swimming pool in France and the waters of a zoo in Pondicherry. The Best Original Song nominee from the film (“Pi’s Lullaby”), with Tamil lyrics by Bombay Jayashri (who also performs it), is another great example of the international collaboration at the core of Life of Pi.

So, who wins? Adele is a lock for “Skyfall,” with “Pi’s Lullaby” a distant second. The other three nominees, especially the somewhat embarrassing “Suddenly” (from Les Miserables), aren’t examples of the fruits of adaptation and inspiration so much as bland and derivative afterthoughts. It will, however, be entertaining to see them all performed on Oscar night.

Meanwhile, Best Original Score is much more complicated. Anna Karenina and Skyfall are probably out. Since score was reduced to one category in 1999, the award has gone to films not nominated for Best Picture only twice. At the 75th Academy Awards, Frida was victorious in a category that only included a single Best Picture nominee, The Hours, scored by perennial also-ran Philip Glass. The other example is The Red Violin, which is an obvious exception. Who isn’t going to vote for the score of a movie called The Red Violin?

As for Argo, they almost never go for this style of composition. The Academy hasn’t given the Oscar to a score with so much emphasis on suspense since the 1970s. Moreover, Desplat’s work just doesn’t stick out. That leaves Lincoln and Life of Pi, 48-time nominee and five-time winner Williams against first-time nominee Danna. On the one hand, the Academy might jump at one last chance to give Williams an award. Three out of his five Oscars are for Spielberg films. On the other, they’ve honored relative newcomers many times in the last few years – it’s hard for outsiders to get nominated, but not nearly as difficult to win. First-time nominees have won the last two years in a row and seven times in the thirteen years since the introduction of the single category. My money, therefore, is on Danna.

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