2016 Oscar Music: A Primer

February 25, 2016

Posted in: Music, Film, Composers

This Sunday, the world's biggest awards show makes its way to the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, where a few talented actors will cross their fingers hoping for a chance to address an ocean of talented peers. The Academy Awards, this year hosted by Chris Rock, is an event uniquely beloved by casual and diehard movie fans alike. Last year, 37 million viewers watched Alejandro González Iñárritu accept the Best Picture award for his stunning "Birdman," and the 2016 nominees for the top prize are no less impressive.
Of the 24 awards to be given out this Sunday, film music fans will find a special interest in two: the awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Last year, Best Score went to Alexandre Desplat’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Best Song went to John Legend’s “Glory” from “Selma.”
These two categories have somewhat blurry requirements for eligibility. Let's take a look first at what CAN win, before we take a few guesses at who WILL.
Original Score: Who's Eligible?
According to the academy, in order to be eligible, the original score must be a substantial body of music that serves as original dramatic underscoring, and must be written specifically for the motion picture by the submitting composer. Scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music, diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs, or assembled from the music of more than one composer shall not be.
This requirement was a major disappointment to "The Revenant" composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose score for the film was not considered eligible as the Academy was not able to distinguish Sakamoto's work from that of two co-writers. Director Iñárritu called it "sad news", and lamented the fact that his "Birdman" composer Antonio Sanchez was also denied for similar reasons last year.
Astonishingly, many of the composers on this year's nominee list were eligible for several scores; Carter Burwell and Christophe Beck each composed four eligible works. James Newton Howard, Danny Elfman, and Michael Giacchino each churned out three eligible works as well.
Original Score: The Nominees
This year's nominees for Best Score are as diverse as they are masterful. Thomas Newman's score for “Bridge of Spies” is a classic, emotional score that blends elements of both American and Russian traditional music, reflecting the opposing factions of the narrative. Carter Burwell’s “Carol” is a minimalist acoustic score performed by a relatively small orchestra, with a modern tonality. Like Burwell’s work, Johan Johannsson’s score for “Sicario” in similarly minimalist, but uses a large orchestra punctuated by striking, sometimes wildly experimental electronic gestures.
Despite their three stellar competitors, this year's race really comes down to two titans of film music. First, there's John Williams’ score for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Without a doubt the most celebrated film composer of all time, 84-year old Williams produced an incredible score that served to introduce a new generation to that galaxy far, far away. Though he is known for his iconic melodies and brass arrangements, the past few decades have seen Williams putting out subtle, complex scores that do not reveal themselves completely on first listen. His theme “March of the Resistance” may not stick in the mind as quickly as “The Imperial March,” but Williams has always been a step ahead of his audiences, and this score is no different.
For most of his life and career, Quentin Tarantino treasured the film soundtrack work of Ennio Morricone, especially his pioneering spaghetti western scores. For “The Hateful Eight,” Tarantino actually managed to drag Morricone out of retirement (his first major score in 14 years and his first Western in 35 years). The result was undeniably excellent, with Morricone not resting on his laurels but instead turning in a perfect blend of old and new. Listeners were treated to Morricone's signature melodies and vocalizations, but with a modern production and a level of complexity not previously seen in his work. The sheer delight of a new Morricone score, as well as his recent string of lifetime achievement awards, makes “The Hateful Eight” our pick to take home this year’s statue.
Original Song: Who's Eligible?
The Best Original Song category has an interesting set of requirements. It must be custom made music written specifically for the film. Additionally, according to the Academy, clearly audible, intelligible, substantive rendition of both lyric and melody must be used in the body of the film or as the first music cue in the end credits.
Original Song: The Nominees
This year's lineup is eclectic. J. Ralph’s “Manta Ray” from the environmental documentary “Racing Extinction,” is a haunting ballad featuring Ralph’s idiosyncratic voice. David Lang’s “Simple Song #3” from the movie “Youth,” is a 20th century art song that plays a role in the film itself; in the story, Michael Caine plays a composer and the song is his most famous work. It is performed both in the film and credits by South Korean opera star Sumi Jo. Lady Gaga performed the vocals for the song “Til It Happens To You” for the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” about sexual assault on college campuses.
The other two nominees come from the world of pop music. The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” from 50 Shades of Grey, is a slow, sexy modern R&B track that burned up the charts in the middle of 2015. Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall,” from “Spectre,” had decent success on the charts but more on the awards circuit, taking home the Golden Globe for best song. For its popularity as well as awards track records, we're predicting Sam Smith takes home his first Oscar (putting him halfway to an EGOT!).
This year's nominees show us the obvious; it's hard to find a great movie without a great soundtrack. While it's tough to pick just five scores, or just five songs, this year's Academy have done well recognizing some great strides in the history of film music.

UPDATE: As we predicted, the 2016 Best Original Score Oscar was presented to Ennio Morricone, and Best Original Song was presented to Sam Smith.

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