Art by Santtu Mustonen
Editorial by Zander Kim
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Oscar season! This Sunday, February 26th, the 89th annual Academy Awards will be held in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, hosted this year by Jimmy Kimmel. It’s a very exciting time for movie buffs and enthusiasts, and movies like La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight are sure to be rewarded (all nominated for Best Picture). However, one category in particular is often overlooked: Best Music (Original Score).
It is easy to forget how influential music is in making a film. A good score can highlight a film’s strengths, evoke passionate emotion, and make a solid film even better - all with ease. Where would Star Wars be without its iconic theme music? The Grand Budapest Hotel? Inside Llewyn Davis? Simply put, a good score can stand on its own even without the movie and be remembered indefinitely whenever it plays.
This year’s nominees are no exception, as Jackie, La La Land, Lion, Moonlight, & Passengers were all fortunate enough to get the nod. So without further ado, let’s dive in into what helped these films make the cut.
Mica Levi | Past Scores: Marjorie Prime (2017), Under the Skin (2013)
Jackie follows First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (played admirably by Natalie Portman) in the days after the president and her husband John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Mica Levi, most known for his haunting soundtrack for the film Under the Skin, starts Jackie off on a blaring note, immediately grabbing your attention. Unfortunately, it didn’t do too much after that. One song blending into the next, the tracks did not add much to this somewhat stale, Oscar-bait film. The score has the same bleak, scary undertone Under the Skin had, but does not fit as well with the recovering First Lady.
The score does not stand that well on its own, and in fact I found it a little bit of a nuisance during some scenes. Not adding anything extraordinary to this movie, Jackie simply relies solely on Natalie Portman’s performance from the get-go to make this an Oscar hopeful.
Notable Tracks: Children, Vanity
La La Land
Justin Hurwitz | Past Scores: Whiplash (2014), Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
La La Land, everybody’s new favorite musical, follows Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz musician trying to make it big in Los Angeles, a city where anything and everything can happen. If you haven’t heard of this film, you’re probably not a huge moviegoer. This film, along with Moonlight, is the top contender for Best Picture. This movie-musical is beautifully shot, and captured everyone’s attention this Oscar season mainly because of its amazing soundtrack.
Justin Hurwitz, who composed most of the equally fantastic Whiplash original score, does it again with a soundtrack that comes across as magical and uplifting. Movie critique aside, this score really lifts this movie off its feet and sends it soaring into the stars (at least up to the roof of a planetarium). It would be a shock to me if this didn’t take home the gold. And this being a musical, the replay value of this music is very, very high. But maybe being a musical is also cheating. Regardless, this movie will have you singing these instant classics for years to come.
Notable Tracks: Mia & Sebastian’s Theme, Planetarium, City of Stars, Audition (The Fools Who Dream)
Dustin O’Halloran & Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann)
Lion, a moving, Oscar-bait biopic, is a powerful, powerful movie. It is based on a true story, in which five-year old Saroo Brierley (younger version played by Sunny Pawar & older by Dev Patel) gets lost in the middle of Calcutta, India. Navigating a dangerous path as a lost child, he’s eventually adopted and cared for by a couple in Australia, where 25 years later he sets out to find the family he’s forgotten.
A tough story to tackle, Lion is a solid movie, with the first half being some of the best film all year. The second half of the movie isn’t nearly as strong, but is satisfying enough. With strong, universal themes of family and home, the music does a commendable job. They play well with the scenes and evoke visceral emotions. I even teared up at multiple points in the movie, which I must admit is extremely rare for me. Watching eight-year old Sunny Pawar wander an empty train station, meet sexual predators, and almost get kidnapped was unexpected and heart-grabbing in the film’s first thirty minutes. And don’t even get me started on the (spoiler alert!) reunion 25 years later, against all doubt and disbelief.
Unfortunately, the pacing of the film, notably in the second half, was a little choppy and disjointed, which led to weird cuts of the music, making it sound like the score was only comprised of two to three songs, when it actually has 18 on the tracklist (19 if you include Sia’s original song).
There are a few moments when the music tries to give itself too big of a role. In emotional moments, the score would rise in volume and intensity, which made it seem like the music was trying too hard to hammer the point home, as if to say, “This is a big moment” when the movie does it well enough on its own. In the end, O’Halloran and Hauschka create a memorable, moving soundtrack that isn’t perfect, but can hold its own. And if you haven’t seen this film, go watch it. It is one hell of a story, and Sunny Pawar, who beat out 2000 other kids for his role, steals the show.
Notable Tracks: Lion Theme, Layers Expanding Time, Mother
Nicholas Britell | Notable Past Scores: The Big Short (2015), 12 Years A Slave (2013)
Told in three distinct parts, Moonlight is a beautifully shot movie depicting the life of a queer, black man (as a young child, a high school student, and an adult) growing up in Miami, and his struggles along the way. Moonlight’s soundtrack is as patient, forgiving, and melancholic as the movie. Even its copyrighted music (Hello Stranger by Barbara Lewis, Cell Therapy by Goodie Mob) fits the tone and pacing of the movie perfectly. It’s a head to head race between La La Land and Moonlight in several categories, including cinematography, which is too close to call. But Moonlight’s beautiful picture and deep colors distracted me from the music a little bit. It wasn’t until about halfway through the movie where I realized how seamless and intricate the music was.
In some moments of the film, it’s hard to even tell music is playing, as the music is a gorgeous, soft blend of violins, cellos, and piano. Britell does an outstanding job capturing the vulnerability of Moonlight, and if not for La La Land being nominated, would be my pick for this award, simply because La La Land’s repeat value is again, sky high. But underestimate this score at your own cost. After watching Moonlight, I immediately bought the soundtrack and listened to it on repeat for two weeks straight. It’s one of the most delicate, deliberate soundtracks in a long time and a job very well done.
Notable Tracks: Little’s Theme, The Middle of the World, Chef’s Special, End Credits Suite
Thomas Newman | Notable Past Works: Skyfall (2012), WALL-E (2008), The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Thomas Newman is a prolific writer, who has worked on over 100 titles in his career, including Finding Nemo, American Beauty, and Little Women. This is his 14th Oscar nomination (he’s been nominated in this category every year since 2013 except 2015), although he’s yet to win one. Unfortunately, I think the winless streak will continue, as his sci-fi soundtrack to Passengers is decent, but ultimately won’t beat out La La Land or Moonlight. Passengers is a film set in the future, where two passengers aboard a spacecraft (Jennifer Lawrence & Chris Pratt) are awoken from their hypersleep 90 years too early, with no way of going back to sleep.
The film itself I found to be a little lacking - Lawrence and Pratt’s name values elevate this should-be-summer-blockbuster into a middling Oscar contender. Newman’s name also probably contributed to the nomination, as the tracks itself go well with the movie, but are ultimately forgettable and indistinguishable from the dozens of other sci-fi scores. For all I know, they could’ve played the same song over and over and I wouldn’t have noticed. Maybe if the movie took itself more seriously, I would’ve too.
Notable Tracks: The Starship Avalon (Main Title), Spacewalk, Sugarcoat the Galaxy (End Title)
Overall, it’s a strong crop of music contenders once again, and music lovers should enjoy all the original works Oscar season has to offer. I predict La La Land will get the win here. I’m also somewhat surprised the scores to Jackie and Passengers were nominated, not to say they were bad, but simply due to all the other great work out there. One of my personal favorite scores of the year is not even on the list, as Arrival (composed by Johann Johannsson) was deemed ineligible because the Academy could not gauge the value of Johannsson’s original contributions to the heavily sampled and distorted soundtrack. Other notable omissions for me include: Silence, Hell or High Water, and Manchester by the Sea, the latter also disqualified for the same reason as Arrival (Manchester by the Sea borrows from multiple orchestral tracks).
Either way, there’s plenty of beautiful material to listen to out there. And who’s to say what score is better than the other? It’s all for the love of the arts. So sit back, relax, and enjoy Oscar season!