This season the Academy instituted a new shortlist procedure for Best Original Score and Song in order to open up the field to more newcomers. Among the standout scores in contention this year are experimental and modern “Black Panther” (Ludwig Göransson), “If Beale Street Could Talk” (“Moonlight” Oscar nominee Nicholas Britell), and “BlacKkKlansman” (Terence Blanchard). Returning nominees could include Oscar-winners Justin Hurwitz (“First Man”), Hans Zimmer (“Widows”), and Alexandre Desplat (“Isle of Dogs”).
The top most likely Oscar contenders are listed below in alphabetical order.
In Spike Lee’s adaptation of the true story of African-American cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrating the KKK in Colorado Springs in ’72, composer Blanchard applied his jazz, symphonic, and R&B influences into the eclectic score. “Because I’m an African-American and a musician, that story has been with me damn near all my life,” he said. “But in order for me to do the best job, is to not totally ignore those emotions but to try and put them in the context of the story about this guy’s integrity and bravery.”
While integrating his electric band, The E-Collective, Blanchard recreated some classic action music from the period, featuring guitar as the lead instrument in homage to Jimi Hendrix and the iconic way he played the National Anthem. It was a way of reminding us of the sound and presence of Hendrix as part of the American experience.
Like many of the film’s craft department heads, Swedish composer Göransson went to Africa to learn more about the culture to better underscore the social consciousness of Wakanda in Ryan Coogler’s Marvel epic. He studied African music in Senegal, and came across the talking drum and African flute, which helped form the basis of the themes associated with T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).
“I became so obsessed with the sound of the talking drum. It breathes and forms different pitches, which makes it sound like a percussive human voice — it was actually used as an early type of telephone. ” said Göransson. “I worked with a percussionist in Senegal who created a drum pattern that sounded out Ta-Cha-lla, and that became the core of T’Challa’s theme.”
A similar experience occurred with a flute player from the Fula tribe, who screamed into his instrument, creating an aggressive sound that became linked to the fierce opponent played by Jordan. The main challenge, though, was figuring out how to support the drums with the London Symphony orchestra under it, instead of the other way around.
Damien Chazelle’s NASA adventure about Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) going to the moon to say farewell to his departed young daughter provided a powerful musical opportunity for composer Hurwitz. At the director’s request, he used the otherworldly sound of the iconic theremin. “It can be very emotional, like crying or wailing, and we used the vibrato a certain way to [heighten] the emotion,” he said.
The main theme is built around the strong connection between Armstrong and his daughter, and its primary and secondary melodies are interwoven throughout the movie (there’s even a docking ballet analogous to”The Blue Danube” from “2001: A Space Odyssey”). The theremin and harp, for instance, work in counterpoint, and do not join together until the quarantine scene at the end between Armstrong and his wife (played by Claire Foy).
However, score and sound design came together magnificently during the Apollo 11 launch. Hurwitz processed strings and winds and the sound department combined them with its own frequencies for the rocket thrusters in a moment of inspired collaboration.
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
For Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, composer Britell focused musically on the integral themes of love and injustice. When the director suggested a jazz-like brass emphasis, the composer wrote a theme called “Harlem Aria.” However, they quickly realized they wanted more strings, so Britell blended strings with the brass, which morphed into a series of love themes built around romance, family, and friendship, in which the melody rises up divinely for Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James).
By contrast, Britell wanted to musically convey a sense of horror when Fonny gets together with childhood friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), who explains what it was like for him to be locked up in prison. This serves as a harbinger of terrible things to come for Fonny.
“So I created a rumbling sound musically that seems to come up from the floorboard,” said Britell. “The rumbling came from a distorted version of the ‘Eros’ track when Tish and Fonny make love, and I also distorted the perception of the source track, Miles Davis’ ‘Blue in Green,’ playing on the record player. It’s a beautiful expression of score and source interacting.”
“Isle of Dogs”
Wes Anderson’s go-to composer Alexandre Desplat happily combined his fondness for jazz and Japanese music for the stop-motion adventure about an exiled pack of dogs and a young boy’s heroic journey. Desplat looked to Kurosawa and Miyazaki for inspiration before coming up with his own musical concoction.
“I wanted the Japanese tyco drums to convey a rough and brutal sound,” Desplat said. “It provided something epic, like going through an adventure. And with Wes, it’s always about going through an adventure. And then the environment is very important.”
Here he had two environments to play with: the ’60s urban metropolis and Trash Island, where the dogs are exiled. Desplat added double bass for a spy motif to underscore the political intrigue along with a group of saxophones to embody the barking of the dogs. Meanwhile, the primary melody running through the story was evocative of childhood innocence, another important element of Anderson’s work.
For Zimmer, the Steve McQueen heist movie doused with social realism had a personal connection. The composer served as an assistant to the composer of the original UK series from which “Widows” was based, and enjoyed returning to the story. “For me, it’s about the casual brutality of women, and the times have gotten worse — less casual and more brutal. But the music is there strictly to support [the performances and the filmmaking].”
In particular, Zimmer had his primary toy taken away — the melody — because editor Joe Walker’s work was so musical in its own right. As a result, the composer found himself using a major chord to create a sense of melancholy, but with the promise of hope for protagonist Viola Davis. And, although finding the right melody caused Zimmer two weeks of struggle and despair, when he finally prevailed, it was like coming full circle in the most meaningful way.