It’s becoming clear that we may not have time to give a considerate, comprehensive breakdown of all the categories, and much as I value the effort and distinctions of Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, they’re often the most headache inducing races to handicap. Reluctantly omitting them – with a brief note that I expect them to be somehow split between Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant – gives me more room to talk about two of the most consistently fascinating Oscar races: the musical categories.
While I do admit that the Original Score lineup often favors big names in the industry, I rarely consider this category to be devoid of riches. Refreshing anomalies will always poke through, like Gary Yershon for Mr. Turner or Arcade Fire’s score for Her, but the known greats are often enough here for commendable work. I cannot say so much for John Williams this year, I’m afraid, whose work on The Force Awakens doesn’t conjure any striking new musical landscape for the new Star Wars trilogy, even in comparison to his old work. All of all the arguable shortcomings of the prequel trilogy, the themes Williams conjured there felt vivid and of a distinctly new era for the series. His work here is dutifully applied, but like much else in the film, it’s too confined to the territory of the 1977 original, something he already knocked out of the park on the first go.
Williams would’ve been a greater asset in his normal stomping grounds, aiding in Steven Spielberg’s always interesting brand of iconic craftsmanship. His fingers are all over Bridge of Spies, but filtered through Thomas Newman’s not particularly convincing impersonation of his style. Not that Newman’s work here is totally unexciting. In moments when he’s truly being himself, he’s tensely disciplined, racketing up excitement and suspense for this most table-bound of negotiation thrillers. It’s when he has to pull the heartstrings that his work starts to show its artificial seams.
As Williams and Newman are working in modes that don’t feel entirely natural to them, Ennio Morricone is sticking to his reliable brand of stomach-churning maximalism with his Quentin Tarantino collaboration, The Hateful Eight. Morricone stamps his name on the film more fervently than Tarantino himself, shattering Quentin’s inexperience with original scores in an intriguing, often fascinating way. It’s unfortunate that Morricone is only allowed to howl rapturously and giddily on the brief occasion that Tarantino’s characters shut the hell up. A more encompassing musical landscape might’ve given shape and tonal sharpness to his dusty, dry dialogue-driven scenes.
No such impediment gets in the way of Johann Johannson’s vigorous, nightmarish, thrillingly experimental score for Sicario. Darkly pulsating from the first notes, it builds to deep-gutted crescendos of intensity, comparable to death metal in its ferocity. Like Morricone’s, it’s a dream tonal evocation that one dreams the respective directors might’ve lived up to. I’ve not been on record about how I wish Villeneuve’s thriller were more psychologically involving, but Johannson’s incendiary, guttural score is a beefy achievement regardless.
Such an achievement that it even causes my powerful devotion to Todd Haynes’ Carol to waver, however momentarily. Then I remember how Carter Burwell’s score registers with equally surging feeling, without subverting the melodrama formula it’s born out of. I’ve heard plenty discarding it as a Philip Glass impersonation, and indeed its glassily composed motifs are very reminiscent of the master composer, but still of a piece with Burwell’s dark amber sensibilities, grounding this transcendent romance in a very concrete sense of social curiosity and paranoia. Just the opening notes of it are enough to sweep us back into its mesmerizing rhythms. It’s a shame Burwell isn’t likely to win for his long deserved first nomination.
Will Win: Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Should Win: Carter Burwell, Carol
Dream Oscar Ballot
- Carter Burwell, Carol
- Cat’s Eyes, The Duke of Burgundy
- David Holmes, ’71
- Johann Johannson, Sicario
- Gabriel Yared, Tom at the Farm
Runners-up: Beyond Clueless, Ex Machina, Girlhood, Macbeth, Queen of Earth
I don’t get nearly enough opportunities to sit Carol and The Duke of Burgundy side by side as romantic studies whose soundscapes refract desire in mesmerizing and intoxicating ways. I’ve talked about the bewildering hell-scape Johann Johannson conjures for Sicario, but not enough attention has been paid to David Holmes’ more somber, tersely disciplined thriller work in ’71. Neither is quite the delicious treat that Gabriel Yared’s patently Hitchcockian score for Tom at the Farm is. Yared and Dolan craft something, obviously indebted to Bernard Hermann, but uniquely spine-tingling in its own measure.
I love the original song category. I love how often it yields nominees that would otherwise, regrettably, never become Oscar runners. Dancer in the Dark, Once and The LEGO Movie are just a handful of films that’ve squeezed into the nominee ranks thanks to the category. This year none of the Original Song nominated films appear elsewhere, a tendency one wishes would spill into other Oscar categories. However, if you’re looking forward to showstopping numbers at this year’s ceremony, mellow your expectations more than little. Most of this year’s nominees are downbeat crooners, but you may not even be able to discern that on Oscar night.
Thanks to a dubious, diversity-squashing decision, the only songs that will be performed at this year’s ceremony are the ones performed by major pop stars. It doesn’t change the voters’ decisions – unless they decide it’d be too awkward if one of the unsung nominees won, or they want to vote for the underdog overtly because of that – but it favors select nominees as more important than others, simply because their performers are more famous. So, since the Academy is omitting lesser known, and more racially and sexually diverse, nominees, we might as frontload our breakdown with the two excluded songs.
“Simple Song #3” is written by Youth composer David Lang and performed by Grammy Award winning South Korean singer Sumi Jo. It’s an operatic, luridly emotional ballad, though as lusciously performed and daintily composed as it is, its lyrics tend to meander somewhat aimlessly, not extending the film’s themes of age and beauty. It’s also a repetitive composition that doesn’t suggest as inspired or inspirational a composer as the film indulges in. Still, it’s the emotional crescendo of a film that is nothing if not gushingly emotional. If Youth were a bigger presence among the nominees, I could’ve seen this happening, but the film’s absence elsewhere makes it too easily discarded.
Just as gorgeously performed a simple song as Youth‘s, “Manta Ray” reps the exhilarating rarity of being sung by a trans-woman, co-writer Antony Hegarti, commonly known as Anohni. From Racing Extinction, a little known documentary about the mass extinction of several species due to mankind’s expansion, the song’s a justly mournful ballad for the distinct species of animals dying around the world. “Without biodiversity/I’m nothing/It’s like I never/Existed,” Anohni sings as though her own species is hanging desperately on a thread. It’s easy to imagine this song missing the nominations lineup without much fuss, since it’s been nominated and put on the radar by the Academy, it’s wrenching to see it potentially discarded from the ceremony.
The rest of the nominees have the savory push of being belted out by well known artists, and are now being favored because of it. I’d implore the nominees to take a vocal stand against their fellow nominees’ exclusions, but also recognize how unlikely that is. For Diane Warren, a songwriter nominated in this category seven times prior – most recently for last year’s “Grateful”, from Beyond the Lights – the win’s been a long time coming, ever since her first 1988 loss for the ironically titled “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, from the romantic comedy Mannequin. Her Lady Gaga-performed ballad from The Hunting Ground, a crucial, if drippy, documentary on sexual assault on college campuses, feels tailor made to finally get her the Oscar. Forget the song’s clumsy structuring and fumbling emotion; the song’s themes and the artist sing them are all that matter.
I even find myself turning mildly favorable towards a song I’d previously derided, and still occasionally do. Sam Smith’s limpid Bond theme, “Writing on the Wall”, often feels more like a studio miscalculation than a half-hearted effort on Smith’s part; the faint sliver of a jazzy Bond theme gives away to lyrics that stumble through the visual motifs present in the credits scene. “A million shards of glass/That haunt me from my past” is rendered in such a brutally literal manner onscreen that it becomes clear that this theme was incongruously slipped in at the last minute. That’s especially clear when listening to Radiohead’s striking rejected theme, which succeeds in crafting a vivid new soundscape for the spy franchise and reflecting the film’s title and themes without ever feeling bluntly on the nose.
I’m not sure any of this year’s nominees benefits from being showcased in their film – “Simple Song #3”, maybe – but the songs in Fifty Shades of Grey, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s notorious BDSM-lite romance, feel smartly used across the board. “Earned It” isn’t quite the showstopper that Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” is, nor is it quite as exciting onscreen, but it’s involving and charismatic in representing the masculine perspective of a film clearly directed by female desire. It’s also a song I’d listen to casually in my free time, something none of the other nominees have.
Will Win: “Till It Happens to You” by Lady Gaga & Diane Warren, from The Hunting Ground
Should Win: “Earned It” by Weeknd, from Fifty Shades of Grey
Should Really Win: “Can’t Bring Me Down” by Awreeoh, from Dope
Dream Oscar Ballot
- “Cant Bring Me Down” by Awreeoh, from Dope
- “Dreamsong” by Amber Coffman & Nate Heller, from The Diary of a Teenage Girl
- “Flashlight” by the Barden Bellas, from Pitch Perfect 2
- “Four Doomed Men Ride Out” from Bone Tomahawk
- “Salted Wound” by Sia, from Fifty Shades of Grey
Runners-Up: “Beyond Clueless” from Beyond Clueless, “Coat of Arms” from The Duke of Burgundy, “Slow Down” from Girlhood, “Timbuktu Fasso” from Timbuktu, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” from Magic Mike XXL
I rarely keep a mental tally of great original songs I see in a year, only realizing how strong they are, within or outside of context, long after. That’s how it was for “Dreamsong”, which plays just briefly in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but is lovely and heartsore in its expression of longing. “Salted Wound” has a much greater showcase in Fifty Shades of Grey, playing against Dakota Johnson’s crucial, sensitive first sexual encounter, and rather sensuously encapsulates the films themes of trust and careful communication in relationships. “Can’t Bring Me Down” wasn’t the song the Dope team submitted for the Oscar, but it surges with the film’s electrifying energy and specific youth focus. Just as specific, but with a greater undertow of catharsis, is the finale of Pitch Perfect 2, an original song specifically tailored to its characters’ uncertainties about the future and comfort in friendship. The only end credits tune here is “Four Doomed Men Ride Out”, but it’s a deliciously daft doozy, revealing the cartoonish genre heart behind Bone Tomahawk‘s rugged candor.