Film and Television Features

Keeping Score Volume 3: Academy Awards Special

So, the Oscars are coming up and you have no clue what to make of the nominees for “Best Original Score”? Don’t fret, let me do the thinking for you! As usual, Keeping Score is here to provide you with a few, short reviews of recent film scores, both good and bad. Here’s a few blurbs on the worth of each nominated work for the 86th Academy Awards.


John Williams — The Book Thief

Does John Williams really need anymore accolades? I mean, the man has literally composed almost every memorable score to come out of Hollywood for the past 50 years or so! Unfortunately, I highly doubt The Book Thief will be among the scores he’ll be remembered for. Hell, it’ll barely be a footnote on his extensive discography. Sure, any new score from John Williams these days feels like a special event given his relative lack of activity. It seems that a nomination from the Academy is an almost knee-jerk reaction whenever he becomes involved in a project, and he’s certainly earned that. And of course, The Book Thief meets Williams’ distinct mark of quality in its own right, but it doesn’t hold any surprises either. The warmth of the film’s main theme, as well as later cues like Max Lives, are prime examples of the kind of Hollywood schmaltz that Williams has settled into in the past, not far dissimilar from his work on Schindler’s List. Though, if you’re going draw upon any work, Schindler’s List isn’t a bad source. The emotional high point of the score is hit at Rudy is Taken, which indeed is worthy of commendation. But again, I pose the question “Is this really new?” In my mind, the “Best” in “Best Original Score” is a bit of a misnomer. Fresh ideas, albeit ones that work, are what we should be celebrating here. The Book Thief is beautiful, but fresh it is not. 6/10


Alexandre DesplatPhilomena

As one would expect, Philomena is drenched in Desplat’s typical musical tendencies. Precise rhythmic ideas, brisk orchestrations, and his regular use of waltz-time are all driving forces behind his work, and this one is really no different. Farewell, one of Desplat’s many waltzes, has a sort of understated fatalism about it — somber, yet melancholic. However, somber moments like this are weakened by contrasting moments of schmaltzinessLanding in USA being one of a few. The cue’s lush string arrangement and overly upbeat major-key chord progressions are just a bit too much for my taste. In any case, the whole score is greater than the sum of its parts. But truly, last year’s Argo (or even Zero Dark Thirty) was probably more worthy of the Academy’s attention. And if I’m really going to put it bluntly, he was robbed of his Oscar for 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (though Michael Giacchino’s score for Up is wonderful, too). In any case, if Desplat is to earn his one and only Oscar off Philomena, so be it, but I just don’t think it’s his most compelling work to date. 6/10


Thomas Newman — Saving Mr. Banks

Of the entire 69 minutes of Thomas Newman’s score for Saving Mr. Banks, very little struck me as especially noteworthy. Sure, Newman is the composer behind some particularly top-notch scores, The Shawshank Redemption and Wall-E being two of his absolute best, but Saving Mr. Banks simply isn’t one of them. However, what is interesting about Saving Mr Banks is that it allowed Newman to recreate many of the songs that the brothers Sherman wrote for the original Mary Poppins movie. Classic songs like Let's Go Fly a Kite, Chim-Chim-Cher-ee, and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious are given new life as thinned-out, demos, which makes them a bit more intimate. But this can really bring the score as a whole only so far for me, as I’ve never been all too fond of Disney music from the get-go (it always seemed a little too… lively?). In any case, I must admit that I never saw Saving Mr. Banks in theaters, so it is entirely possible that the score’s effectiveness has been lost on me without its cinematic counterpart. However, I’m of the school of thought that if the score can’t quite stand on its own, it’s not worthy of your time as a listener. That said, there are some clever ideas running through this score, they just don’t come together in an all too interesting way. 4/10


Steven Price — Gravity

Steven Price is a relative newcomer to the world of film scores, composing his first score in 2011 for Attack The Block. It’s suffice to say that he’s come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Gravity certainly possesses a greater level of emotional connectivity than Attack The Block, not that that particular film called for all that much in the first place. Truly, like the infinite expanse of outer-space, Price had a lot of room to roam on Gravity. He certainly takes advantage of that scope, providing a mix of electronic ambience, stark, naked piano, orchestral abandon, and even hints of world music in the film’s finale. Unlike the scores for most modern blockbusters, Gravity maintains its subtlety — highlighting the various climaxes of the film with textural crowding, yet keeping the quiet moments air-tight as to preserve the wonder and inert tension of the film’s starry landscape. In that way, it feels like the most intelligent and, equally, the most satisfying score for a sci-fi movie in quite some time. I really wouldn’t be at all surprised if Price walks away with the Oscar for this one, folks. 8/10


William Butler, Owen Pallet — Her

Now wouldn’t this be an interesting choice for an Oscar win? Sure, purists will be none to happy if Arcade Fire’s profusely emotional, but musically minimalist score for Spike Jonze’s Her wins the Oscar. But really, there’s a hell of a lot of emotional content in the soundtrack’s modest 40-minute length — arguably more than that of Desplat’s, Newman’s, and Williams’ scores all combined. Certainly Song On The Beach resonates with a feeling of ethereality previously only found on Eric Satie’s Gymnopedies series. Additional tracks like Sleep Walker, Milk & Honey, We’re All Leaving ooze with a certain quiet yearning that is expressed more in a sort of textural obliqueness, than the typical, schmaltzy orchestral over-saturation. Yes, “Schmaltzy”, which by now I realize is a term that’s come up quite a few times in writing this, is the operative word for this year’s nominees. Bigger isn’t always better, folks. The pure matter of fact here is that Arcade Fire have achieved the same level of harmonic richness and introspective emotional depth only reached by the most classic of film scores, just without the use of a 120 piece orchestra. In all likelihood, they won’t win — the internal elitism of the Academy will ensure that. But hey, the nomination of such a score is a at least sign of progress, isn’t it? 9/10


So, what should win the Oscar? Well, Her probably should, but realistically Gravity will. However, while the Academy will only recognize these five scores in particular, there is a world of film music that came out in 2013 that will go largely unnoticed. Only God Forgives, A Field In England, The Hobbit, Mama, and Inside Llewyn Davis (just to name a few) all had massive scores that are more than worthy of your time and attention. I’m sure 2014 will be much the same way — so many movies, so many scores, and only five potential nominees. In any case, here’s to a great year of film music and another yet to come. Cheers!