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While Best Original Song is a category that often stands alone, frequently a film cannot take home a Best Original Score award without being one of the Oscar frontrunners. Conversely, a film will have trouble cracking the Best Picture field without a forceful score, which is why this is an unusual year, with movies like American Hustle and Wolf Of Wall Street depending on pre-used music, and Hans Zimmer’s active 12 Years A Slave compositions and Mark Orton’s folksy Nebraska score receiving no recognition in this category.
It’s also interesting to note the absences of the year’s two big music movies. Frozen brought back the Disney musical for many, though the orchestral work from Christophe Beck did not receive recognition. And because of technicalities, there was no recognition given to the folksy acoustics that drove Inside Llewyn Davis, though in fairness, that film opted for sonic austerity during non-singing moments.
What’s left is a competitive, dynamic field of nominees that can count 67 nominations amongst three people, while still leaving room for two first-time honorees. Could this year be a sonic passing of the torch?
DARK HORSESThree of this year’s nominees return from last year’s crop, including Thomas Newman, who provided the sounds of Skyfall in 2012. This year he’s back with his twelfth nomination, for Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, and there couldn’t be a greater difference between the two gigs. His Bond gig twisted the familiar themes into brand new adventurous renditions, but his Banks assignment was basically to keep the film afloat on its own whimsy. Again, Newman is partially taking cues from older material, in this case the songs from Mary Poppins, though his main theme smothers the material, used tastelessly by director John Lee Hancock not to underscore the material, but to underlining it. The movie’s presence in the category can be credited to the film’s "good vibes," but the actual musicians voting will recognize the vulgarity involved in slathering Newman’s work over the picture’s saccharine melodrama.
Alexandre Desplat has come on strong recently, becoming one of the industry’s most in-demand names in only a few brief years. His first nomination was in 2007, and since then he’s received six, including one for last year’s Argo. Like Newman he’s never won, but unlike Newman, it feels as if score aficionados are waiting for him to get a truly great gig. His score for Philomena is noteworthy because, like previous work (and unlike Newman’s utterly predictable Banks music), Desplat zigs where you’d expect a zag. The film is a drama with light comedic undertones, and Desplat actually goes with a light-on-its-feet melody that see-saws between what sounds like a wind-up circus tune, the delicate percussion suggesting the story behind the story, much like the cover-up that Philomena Lee attempts to unravel. It’s unusual work, and it feels almost inappropriate for the film; the picture is philosophically knotty but stylistically straightforward. It’s a combination that’s a bit too loaded for the score to be named the year’s best.
CONTENDERS:William Butler and Owen Pallett are first-time honorees for Her, and this is one of those cases where Her heads will support the score, and those who have never heard of Butler’s Arcade Fire will just wonder what Butler and Pallett are responsible for. It’s a rock score in a conventional sense, with sweetly strumming guitars, piano solos and a decidedly pop bent. It’s more immersive and obtrusive than the other scores in this category, as if it’s an additional character in director Spike Jonze’s world, and therefore the acceptance of the music is more about an acceptance of this sterile utopian world where people fall for their computer systems. Older voters need not apply.
There’s no Oscar royalty quite like John Williams. The man has collected 49 nominations, the most of anyone outside of Walt Disney, and his five wins in this category stand out amongst his competitors. These days it takes a lot to get the formerly-prolific Williams out of bed, given that he almost exclusively works with Steven Spielberg and hasn’t won a trophy in twenty years, so it was a surprise to see him lacing them up for The Book Thief, an Oscar-bait film that excited no one. A vote for this score is a vote for Williams, since opinions on the film were lukewarm and it’s likely that those who saw it weren’t eager to fire up Williams fishing through his greatest hits once again. Williams hasn’t won since Schindler’s List, but if there’s anyone not hurting for a little gold man, it’s him.
FRONTRUNNERDestined to sweep the technical awards is Gravity, which benefits from being unlike any movie released this year, blockbuster or otherwise. As such, there are several unfamiliar faces representing the film in this year’s Oscar pool, including composer Steven Price. Price worked with Basement Jaxx on his first score, the high-tempo Attack The Block tracks that gave that film its propulsive, youthful energy. Earlier last year, he added an action-film panache to The World’s End, mixing traditional percussive beats with electronic flair.
Gravity is his big studio debut, and Price turned in a sonic soundscape that perfectly accompanies Alfonso Cuaron’s tale of survival. The gimmicky trick in Gravity is that the production stayed true to the idea that there is no sound in space, which means a large pressure was placed upon Price to sneak up on audiences with a tension-ratcheting reverb that also stayed true to the emotional accuracy that moviegoers would seek. In other words, be quiet, and then be heard without being heard. Price’s escalating, Wendy Carlos-like aural fluctuations feel as much a part of the film as it does the work of an up-and-coming composer, and it’s likely the film’s going to receive a lot of support in this category as a result.