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Who Will Win The Oscar For Best Original Score?

Evening Edition

If you fill out an Oscar pool every year, this story is for you.

We’re going to look at the best original score category: not as obscure as best documentary short, not as buzzy or prominent as best picture. Yet, music is a key creative component to any film. It's just often overlooked because it's woven so carefully into the fabric of the narrative.

Oceanside-based composer Larry Groupé leads an orchestra during a recording session.

Aired 2/19/16 on KPBS News.

An Oceanside-based film composer analyzes the five contenders for best original score at this year's Academy Awards.

Larry Groupé composes music for feature films, episodic television, documentaries and games. He's been doing so for more than 25 years from his home studio in Oceanside.

"I can get into Hollywood sometimes faster than the person I’m meeting who’s coming from Santa Monica because the traffic is so bad for them," Groupé said.

His credits include "The Contender," "The Usual Suspects," "Straw Dogs" and the television series, "Commander in Chief."

Groupé offered to be our guide in analyzing the five original scores nominated to win an Oscar at this year's Academy Awards. The ceremony takes place Sunday, Feb. 28.

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

Mega composer John Williams has already won five Oscars, plus a slew of other prominent awards. His score for the "Star Wars" series is iconic. With this latest retooling, Williams retained some of the original score.

"It still applies to our characters and to the space environment," Groupé said.

But with the new story arc, there are themes for added characters. Composers often write themes for a character which signals to an audience the character's point of view. Williams wrote a theme for the lead female character Rey and for Kylo Ren, the Darth Vader-like character.

"The Darth Vader theme has been updated a little bit for the new characterization of that but it’s still reminiscent, and when you hear it, we connect to that," Groupé said.

Despite the film's phenomenal success at the box office, Groupé still doesn't think Williams' score will win.

"Of the five, I think there is so much of the original 'Star Wars' music in the movie, even though we have these new themes, too, I don’t think it’s going to be considered fresh enough," Groupé said.

'Sicario'

Groupé really likes the score for "Sicario," a smart action thriller about an FBI agent who joins a task force assigned to the escalating war against drugs on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The spare, penetrating score was written by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It involves orchestral sounds, electronica and lots of distortion, a combination that really builds tension.

"He uses these slow moving drum tracks," Groupé said. "And you hear distortions stretched out over 45 seconds and they get more and more distorted and the music just gets angrier and angrier."

Unlike "Star Wars," this score is not theme-driven. "It’s almost more of an orchestral sound design," Groupé said. "So it’s just the color of these low ebbing bases that kind of repeat themselves."

"It adds the perfect amount of dramatic tension," Groupé said.

The score's dramatic power is evident in this scene from the film.

Video

Scene from Sicario

'Carol'

Completely different is Carter Burwell’s score for the movie "Carol." In that film, two women are attracted to each other but it’s the repressive 1950s. Burwell approached the score as a way to express what the women can’t say to each other.

"He doesn’t go huge registers up and low, it’s kind of all in the same area," Groupé said. "For 'Carol,' it makes it a very personal sounding score and keeps it very much in their world, and not the world spinning around them."

Burwell is best known for scoring the Coen brothers' films. Groupé said he writes with a lot of insight into the psychological world of the film.

"In 'Carol,' there’s a certain amount of fatalism that’s in the music because of what the story does. There’s also a sense of awakening for the younger girl," Groupé said.

Groupé said the film composer's No. 1 job is to consider the musical reflection of the movie's psychological world. "Bernard Herrmann, who is probably my favorite film composer, no one has come as close as he has to really understanding the psychology of music and image," Groupé said.

Herrmann is the composer who worked most closely with Alfred Hitchcock. Groupé said there's a scene in "Psycho" that illustrates Herrmann's gifts. In the early part of the film when she's stolen the money and is driving away in a rainstorm, Groupé suggests turning the sound down. The scene is long — almost 3 minutes — and flat-footed without the sound.

"Then turn the music back up and watch it again. The score handles everything that’s going on that technically dry footage," Groupé said. "You can see her calculating and you can feel the tension and her rolling over in her mind all these things that could possibly happen."

Groupé said he only talks about the emotional and psychological underpinnings of the movie when he's meeting with the director early on. He doesn't want to consider instrumentation at that point.

"I figure out the musical nuts and bolts later."

'Bridge of Spies'

Groupé is a big fan of composer Thomas Newman, who did the nominated score for "Bridge of Spies." Newman also scored "American Beauty," the last few Bond movies and "The Player." Groupé said this is a more traditional, less innovative score from Newman.

"When you’re dealing with composers of this caliber, they’re not going to write bad scores," Groupé said. "It’s just not going to happen. It’s a matter of whether the movie is going to give you enough open space to stretch further."

In this case, the historic period world of the film did not allow for that.

"There are things in there that I would say are not a shining example of what he does that is so intriguing, but he’s doing the right job for the movie," Groupé said.

"He's very good at reinventing himself on every picture, without sounding like he’s copying and pasting himself back over these materials," Groupé said. "I have a lot of respect for how he pulls out the mileage for what he likes to do musically."

'The Hateful Eight'

Finally, there’s the score for Quentin Tarantino’s violent western "The Hateful Eight." It’s by the Italian film composer Ennio Morricone, who at 87 has had a legendary career.

He's composed for more than 70 award-winning films. Morricone's score for the 1966 film "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," is considered the quintessential sound of the western.

"He’s almost created the sound and fabric of the western that we have all stemmed from forever more," Groupé said.

The score for "The Hateful Eight" is Groupé's favorite among those nominated.

"In the score, he is so interesting in his orchestration choices," Groupé said. "The main theme in the movie is played primarily by contrabassoons, which is this really low reedy sounding thing. And then he has beautiful flute and woodwind passages above."

"He's written a theme that’s kind of mysterious, kind of a whodunit, it doesn’t commit to one thing or the other, and I just love the sound of it and I just think his melodic choices are spot on for the film," Groupé said.

Ennio Morricone has never won an Oscar, though he was given a lifetime achievement award in 2007.

So which composer will walk on stage next Sunday to get the Academy Award?

"Oh gosh, that’s chicken bones and dice rolling on that," Groupé laughed.

"I think personally it will be between 'Sicario' and 'The Hateful Eight,'" Groupé said.

"And I think it’s going to go to 'The Hateful Eight.'"

Seems like a good guess, considering he won the Golden Globe and Academy voters seem to love rewarding a legacy. And can you blame them? It would give Morricone his first Oscar after writing more than 500 original scores for movies and television.

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