The category for Best Original Score is often left out of the fraught conversation around the Oscars every year, and that’s understandable. The most visible elements of any film up for awards consideration, or any film for that matter, are its performances and its visual style. It is also often the case that those who are paid to write and comment on the Oscars, are not adequately musically literate, or interested enough to devote any significant amount of time to discussing the scores that often help to make these films so emotionally affecting.
In the last few years, I’ve become something of an Oscars junkie, consuming as much punditry and speculation on awards season as I can, and the one thing that bugs me the most whenever the topic of best score comes up, is when a film critic says, “that score was great” or “it was a real banger”, without explaining why. Sometimes the word “atmospheric” gets bandied around, which is even more irritating because it’s such a nebulous word that can really mean anything and is almost never used in a context that makes it feel specific in describing what it means in the given context.
So, with that being said, here are the thoughts and opinions of a film-loving music student on this year’s slate of Oscar nominees for Best Original Score:
Black Panther (Ludwig Göransson)
I’m thrilled that in an awards season where Black Panther has gotten so much buzz for its performances, discursive relevance, visual direction, and cultural authenticity, that Swedish composer, Ludwig Göransson is being recognised for his contribution to such an important film. While the Kendrick Lamar helmed hip-hop soundtrack was everywhere in the lead up to the film’s release, it was the score that hit me the hardest when I saw the film for the first time.
The sensual overstimulation of the moment in which Wakanda is revealed for the first time went from being a wonderful visual spectacle to one of the most transcendent cinematic moments of 2018 when T’challa’s theme made its first appearance. Comprised of a regal horn fanfare and a talking drum rhythm that sounds out T’challa’s name was the perfect combination of Western and African sounds to give the theme a regional legitimacy, whilst signalling to Western audiences that this is the theme of a king. In contrast, the West African Fula flutes, dramatic strings and heavy trap beats of the villainous Killmonger’s theme, creates the perfect combination of dread and pathos needed to accompany such a beautifully nuanced character.
Göransson’s score was a game changer for the Marvel movies whose scores had been largely forgettable for so long, and perfectly captured the film’s unique setting. Black Panther’s score needed to perfectly capture the identities of the individual characters while staying authentic to a musical style, frequently subject to caricature in Hollywood films – Göransson straddled that line, seemingly effortlessly.
BlacKkKlansman (Terence Blanchard)
For a film as unsettling and heartfelt as it was funny, director Spike Lee is finally being recognised by the Academy for his moment defining work across the board. BlacKkKlansman has been nominated for best picture, best supporting actor (for Adam Driver’s performance, which was my favourite of the year by a long shot), and best director. One of the upsetting side effects of Lee’s filmography being largely ignored by the Academy is that the work of jazz trumpeter and composer, Terence Blanchard, who has been a frequent collaborator of Lee’s since the 1991 film, Jungle Fever, has also been overlooked.
With BlacKkKlansman, Blanchard is at his most versatile, switching between Aaron Copland-esque, pastoral orchestral moments, contrasting with funkier, jazz-informed ideas and everything in between. The one thing that ties every musical moment in the film together is how achingly beautiful all of his melodies are. The main theme is a strikingly powerful melding of orchestral strings, percussion and Hendrix-inspired, fuzzy electric guitar, retooled to accompany all of the films most poignant moments in settings that are sometimes grand and triumphant, backed by swelling strings and brass, and other times, utterly harrowing, played over terrifyingly militaristic, rattling snare drums.
It’s a rare achievement to hear so much variety in a single melodic idea, employed so well throughout a film like this where the score is so noticeable. This is Blanchard’s best work in years.
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell)
I’m going to be completely honest – I’ve not seen this one, but I’ve heard it’s pretty great.
Isle of Dogs (Alexandre Desplat)
Alexandre Desplat is an incredibly prolific composer who worked on three major films in 2018. Isle of Dogs was not his best work of the year, and he should have been nominated for the thoroughly underrated The Sisters Brothers, the darkly comedic western, starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix. The score for that film was filled with intense piano grooves, and dissonant plucked string lines, and some of the coolest percussion work I’ve heard in a western. It’s such a smart score for an equally smart film, and I’m gutted that it was completely overlooked this awards season.
The Isle of Dogs score is fine.
Mary Poppins Returns (Mark Shaiman)
The sequel to what is perhaps the most beloved Hollywood musical of all time was never going to live up to the original. Mary Poppins Returns is a charming yet formulaic sequel, filled with moments that are alternatingly transcendent and painfully cringy (let’s not dwell on the rapping and BMX bikes – two bewildering anachronisms in 1930s London). Yet, despite it’s underwhelming performance, both critically and at the box office (losing spectacularly to Aquaman of all things), the one thing that really struck me when watching this film with my family over the winter break, was how utterly remarkable the score was.
The songs in Mary Poppins Returns, with the exception of ‘Where the Lost Things Go’, are pretty forgettable, but Shaiman makes perfect us of the musical material of the original film, both as inspiration for entirely new musical ideas and for quotation in the film’s most powerful scenes, and it was the latter that caused me to sob violently in the cinema.
WARNING: this next paragraph contains mild SPOILERS. That tear-inducing moment came during a conversation between Mary Poppins and a grown-up Michael Banks, portrayed wonderfully by Ben Wishaw, that echoed a similar exchange between Poppins and George Banks from the first film. Shaiman in his infinite genius chose this moment to quote, within the score, the iconic song, ‘The Life I Lead’, in such an evocative way that I couldn’t hold back the tears. In a film as aggressively average as this one, it astonished me that the score alone was able to induce the most visceral moment in my film-going year.
For these reasons, even though I would be thrilled to see Black Panther or BlacKkKlansman walk away with the golden statue, Mark Shaiman’s score for Mary Poppins Returns is my pick for Best Original Score at this year’s Oscars.