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Guest Blogger: Local Writer Considers Film Scores

A Look at This Year’s Potential Oscar Contenders

Above: Ennion Morricone's score for "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" is as memorable as the film itself.

Most people are focused on the films in contention for the big Oscar prizes of Best Picture or Best Actor and Actress. But one local writer wants us to consider the music that can make a film better.

There are many elements that go into a great film. We can tip our hats to writers, directors, actors, set designers, lighting and rigging technicians, and even casting agents -- all these players give a piece to the ultimate product that is a damn good movie. There is another among them, though, and without this one individual, the magic would be lost. The words and the pictures, innovative or affecting as they might be, are rendered nil without a well-written piece of music to carry them along. Great scores and great films are often inseparable. How can one think of "Star Wars" without the echo of John Williams’ score filling their ears. His compositions being as grand in scope as the film itself? What would Sergio Leone’s westerns be without Ennio Morricone; his cavalcade of strings, horns, and human wails sweeping over the dust of the graveyard in those arresting final moments of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?" Most of the time, if those first notes sounding over a film’s opening credits can still your breath for a moment, a great film is sure to follow.

The great films have their night every year, and by extension the scores of these films receive some well deserved recognition. The first Academy Award for Best Original Score was given in 1934, in the sixth year of the ceremony, to "One Night of Love," a romantic musical that starred Grace Moore as an aspiring opera singer. Last year’s honor went to Michael Giacchino for his work on the Pixar production "Up," beating out industry veterans like James Horner and Hans Zimmer.

To predict the nominees for the 83rd Academy Awards (held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles on February 27) would take an extreme degree of prescience. The best one can do is perform guesswork until they are announced tomorrow morning at 5:30am. But here goes.

Friends no more... Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network."

Columbia Pictures

Above: Friends no more... Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network."

"The Social Network" took home the Golden Globe for Best Original Score earlier this month as well as the award for Best Drama and Best Director. The Golden Globes has been a predictor of the Oscar at times, but at other time there is little overlap between the two ceremonies."The Social Network" stars Jessie Eisenberg as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, and is directed by David Fincher ("Zodiac," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"). It is a favorite in multiple Oscar categories, including Best Original Score. It is the first foray into film music for Trent Reznor (the one-man-band behind Nine Inch Nails) and he collaborates with Atticus Ross. The two first collaborated on Ghosts I-IV, an instrumental double album released in 2008. That sprawling release suffered from a lack of consistency, short piano tracks cut off abruptly by heavy layered guitars thumping bass, all the songs being short snippets that seemed embryonic, leading to an album of bits and pieces that lacked cohesion. Though a similar animal, the score behind "The Social Network" is infinitely more listenable, working well within the context of the film and as a standalone album. Sorrowful piano melodies are laid over smart and catchy synth lines that never become overindulgent. Restrained but urgent percussion and electronic blips and bleeds add to the mix to create a soundtrack that is cold and caustic, reflecting the strained relationships of the film’s characters and the tense atmosphere that is built around their interactions.

Jeff Bridges with his CGI facelift in "TRON: Legacy."

Walt Disney Studios

Above: Jeff Bridges with his CGI facelift in "TRON: Legacy."

Daft Punk, an influential French House music duo, also wrote their first film score this year for "Tron: Legacy." The usual dance element present in their music is for the most part absent here, and they opt instead for minimalism, veering towards the Ambient genre. The twenty-two songs here are short passages, averaging out to around two-and a half minutes in length. They suffer from redundancy, the synths repeating the same progression throughout the album. The synths and the orchestra seem to be caught in a yelling match, battling for dominance rather than complimenting each other. Much like the film itself, this score still might hold appeal for some, but far better material can be found in the respective genres of each. Only die hard fans of "Tron" need see the sequel, and only die hard fans of Daft Punk should have any interest in this film’s music.

Joseph Gordon Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio operate in a dream world in "Inception"

Warner Brothers

Above: Joseph Gordon Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio operate in a dream world in "Inception"

Hans Zimmer has been composing film scores for decades, and his collaborations with director Christopher Nolan for the two films released so far in the rebooted "Batman" franchise set the right mood and gave the scenes weight. They rollick with appropriate bombast for car chases and action sequences, and build tension with taut passages during moments of suspense. Zimmer’s work in Nolan's 2010 film "Inception" is no different. The pieces build slowly into loud orchestral roars before collapsing, much like the fragile dreamscapes of Nolan’s film. In the vein of Morricone, Zimmer incorporates guitar parts into the score, performed by Johnny Marr of the Smiths. The chords are ominous, weaved into orchestration that is grandiose and appropriately mirrors the fantastical nature of the film’s setting. Zimmer has been nominated eight times, as recent as last year for "Sherlock Holmes," and won in 1994 for "The Lion King." Giving the award to Zimmer would be a safe choice on the part of the Academy, albeit a well deserved accolade.

Natalie Portman is a ballerina in "Black Swan."

Fox Searchlight

Above: Natalie Portman is a ballerina in "Black Swan."

A possible dark horse in this category, among others, is "Black Swan." Clint Mansell has worked with director Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream," "The Wrestler") before, and this could be the first time for either of them to receive Oscar nods. Opinions have been divided regarding the film itself, with some calling it a riveting psychological drama, while others theorize that it is an intentionally exaggerated popcorn thriller with Aronofsky parodying his own style and harkening back to the wild theatrics of Italian horror directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Still others simply dismiss the movie as a cheap and hackneyed effort. Despite the many differing views on the film, it is apparent that Mansell’s score is perhaps its most vital component. Natalie Portman is already receiving praise for her starring role as dancer Nina Sayers, and the ballerina’s descent into paranoia and obsession is perfectly mirrored in Mansell’s score, which implements parts of Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake." The music moves forward like a storm, calmly floating into the setting to facilitate the dance of the ballet company, and then seeping into Nina’s personal world. Mansell’s quiet phrases follow her every move and the music, initially calm but always foreboding, morphs into pomp and frenzy and Nina’s psyche starts to disintegrate.

There is a bevy of possibilities when considering what film scores will receive nominations, to say nothing of who will take the prize, at the Oscars this year. What is a certainty is that this was an interesting year for film music. This year’s compositions were diverse, at the very least. The best of them instill the film with a pulse, using sound to create and manipulate the film’s environment and enthrall its audience.

--Douglas Payne is a 22 year old writer living in Lemon Grove. His poetry has appeared in Breadcrumb Scabs and Mastodon Dentist.

NOTE: Clint Mansell's score was disqualified for a best original music score as were a number of other film scores. Here are the disqualified films and why.

Comments

Avatar for user 'flickfever'

flickfever | January 24, 2011 at noon ― 3 years, 7 months ago

I would absolutely love the score for "Black Swan" to take the gold; but I thought it was disqualified for not being "original" enough! My second choice would be the score for "The Social Network" and then "The King's Speech."

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | January 24, 2011 at 12:39 p.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

Yes Mansell's score for BLACK SWAN was disqualified as well as the scores for TRUE GRIT, THE FIGHTER, and "THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. The latter two because the scores are "diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs." Marvin Hamlisch stirred some controversy when he won an Oscar for his piano rag score for THE STING that was adapted from music by Scott Joplin. Technically his music award had the word "adaptation in it." Thanks for the comment.

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Avatar for user 'poetontheone'

poetontheone | January 24, 2011 at 4:14 p.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

Considering that they gave the award to Hamlisch, they could just as well make an exception for Mansell. His use of Tchaikovsky is a fairly radical reinterpretation. Reznor did a pretty straightforward rendering of Grieg for the Social Network score, though it's only a couple minutes out of an hour 's worth of music.

- DP

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | January 25, 2011 at 8:53 a.m. ― 3 years, 7 months ago

As was Nino Rota later disqualified for THE GODFATHER. But hey, what music scores? As Duncan Shepherd wrote a few years, ( and about the only point I concur with) is that film scores and film composers were practically a thing of the past. Herrmann and Goldsmith were long dead and Morricone was almost a 100 years old! I put the blame on the success of GOODFELLAS. Scorsese said in an interview, that the songs had nothing to do with the film or the scenes, he only put them in there because he liked the music. I love Nilson's "Jump into the Fire" too, but it would be wrong to slap it on the soundtrack of just any film! Purists will support me on this.

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