It would be an exaggeration to characterize this year’s slate of Oscar hopefuls in the Best Original Score category as weak. Weakness implies poor quality, and the composers vying for the statuette have all turned in well-crafted work. (When your nominees include film music titans like Ennio Morricone, Thomas Newman, and, the grand doyen himself, John Williams, anything less would be exceedingly strange.) But skilled construction, unfortunately, does not ensure interest or innovation. What we have in these five bundles of sound is, save for a few flashes of creativity, largely a sleepy parade of competence. Whoever the academy deigns to bless—most likely Williams for Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Morricone for The Hateful Eight—they will have made a terribly safe, utterly reasonable choice.
That said, let’s make the best of it! My score ranking this year privileges compositional novelty and the stretching of genre conventions (where they exist). While effective function in the film is a big part of the award criteria in this category, this cohort’s unrelenting proficiency make that criterion go without saying. So I won’t say it. Age, eminence, or who’s-turn-it-is matter not.
5. Carol: Carter Burwell:
I have gone on the record adoring this film; I know a lot of people adore Burwell’s score. But for a movie that’s designed to carry the viewer away on a wave of frustrated sensuality, Carol’s soundtrack left me simply frustrated. Did you know that Philip Glass didn’t compose it? I was surprised to discover that fact in the credits, after assuming for the whole film that he had been asked to reprise his work from The Hours or much of his concert oeuvre. Yes, homage is legitimate and broody chamber minimalism is hot right now—but much of this score is so familiar (certain cues of Adrian Johnston’s lovely writing for 2008’s Brideshead Revisited also come to mind) as to be distracting. To my ear, it’s just too derivative and expected to merit the prize.
That’s not to say that Burwell’s take on the style is necessarily bad. His well-controlled palette of strings, piano, winds, and vibraphone is warm and appropriate to the scale of a romance, and when he strays from the lilting, Glassian harmonic patterns, he finds an elegant, penetrating two-chord motif that conjures pathos with a blush of melodrama. But overall, Burwell chose safety for a film that, in the spirit of its heroines, could have borne a bit of risk.
4. Star Wars—Episode VII: The Force Awakens: John Williams
Williams is a film composer—or, depending on how you feel about accusations of melody borrowing and neo-classicism in general, perhaps just composer—of the first degree. There is no question that his work here, both in revisiting the classic Star Wars themes and with the new material, is the most elaborate of the pack, drawing on the full range of orchestral colors to expert effect. But that’s just it: At this point, Williams (especially in this traditional, big Romantic scoring mode) sounds downright academic. Listening to this music was for me like being back in orchestration class—every melody and ornament appears in the proper instrumental voice, every harmonic progression is perfectly executed, every swell and taper and hesitation is handled with textbook facility. When a man uses, with complete earnestness, a triangle roll to texturize a dramatic hold or a glockenspiel to reinforce a line in the winds, he’s displaying a mastery of technique that’s so correct it’s almost quaint.
So while instructors might assign this score to their composition classes, I don’t think the academy should assign it an Oscar. Fans of Star Wars surely find Williams’ typically adept deployment and symbolic manipulation of hummable themes exciting—that fanfare still can’t be beat. But heard without the filter of nostalgia, this music sounds like a fine example of what’s passé, not an award-worthy standout of what’s new.
3. The Hateful Eight: Ennio Morricone
Though less well-known in the United States, the Italian Morricone is a giant of the film scoring art form; that he has never won a proper Oscar (he was granted the academy’s Honorary Award in 2006) seems to explain the sense that he will finally get his due for this soundtrack. That may well happen, but if it does, it will have little to do with the music itself.
In the cue titled “Raggi Di Sole Sulla Montagna,” there’s a gorgeous thicket of wind and string writing. I wish I could have stayed there, but unfortunately, most of the rest of the score is minimalist to the point of boredom. Drones and a plodding motive built on minor intervals create an atmosphere that’s ominous at first, but that quickly feels dusty and exhausted. This one texture is so dominant, in fact, that the score album needs random dialog tracks to keep the listener from experiencing it as more or less an undifferentiated slog. As with Williams, the orchestration here is rich and well-crafted, but, like a Vine video playing on an IMAX screen, the basic material feels overstretched by the presentation.
2. Sicario: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Some composers write for discrete instruments in various ensemble arrangements; other composers use instruments in the service of creating a novel, coherent meta-voice all their own. That’s what Jóhannsson, an Icelandic artist up for his second nomination, has done in his strikingly spare score for Sicario. Low-tuned drums become a menacing, erratic mutter, string and brass clusters morph into a growl, and guitar arpeggios transform into a troubled sigh. The overall effect is an unsettling, distorted sonic monologue in which textural bleakness is only occasionally broken by a cello’s lament or the anxious babbling of an action sequence.
In a different crop of nominees, I don’t think this score would rank so close to the top—while powerfully rendered, its sparseness, uniformity of tone, and relatively limited thematic material could cause it to fade in comparison to more dynamic or inventive competitors. But on this slate, Jóhannsson’s music stands out as a fully realized and sonically unique artistic statement; and for that, it deserves your consideration—if not the prize.
1. Bridge of Spies: Thomas Newman
I’ve outed myself as a Newman partisan before, so feel free to treat this placement with skepticism. But please know that this is not Newman’s best work by a long shot—I just think it truly happens to be the most interesting work we have to choose from this year.
In taking on a Cold War thriller, Newman had to negotiate a strong set of genre conventions—such scores usually favor martial tunes, nationalist hymns, and nondescript underscoring for fights or chase scenes. And indeed, these elements are all present in his music, but he’s managed to tweak them all in his own image. For example, the cue “Sunlit Silence” begins with a fairly standard horn fanfare, but then the grandeur gives way to an off-kilter, melodically jagged, slightly piquant march, which in turn disperses into one of the composer’s devastating, halting, lush chorales. We’re in a high-stakes drama, but it’s drama as seen through Newman’s wry gaze.
Listening to this score, it felt like Newman was somewhat constrained by the assignment. But his attempt to produce as much novel shading within the lines as possible—particularly with regard to unexpected tone colors and harmonic spice—elevated what could have been a very flat treatment to something with texture and intelligence. By my ear, that more than earns him the honor.