Two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat is back with a Japanese-influenced score for Wes Anderson’s stop-motion “Isle of Dogs.” The other nominees include Ludwig Göransson’s Afro-centric “Black Panther,” Nicholas Britell’s jazzy “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and Terence Blanchard’s eclectic-sounding “BlacKkKlansman.”
The momentum is with Spike Lee’s go-to composer Blanchard, a respected African-American artist who utilizes his jazz, symphonic and R&B influences for the director’s adaptation of the true story of African-American cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrating the KKK in Colorado Springs in ’72, Blanchard integrated his electric band, The E-Collective, to recreate 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.
Wes Anderson’s go-to composer Alexandre Desplat happily combined his fondness for jazz and Japanese music for “Isle of Dogs,” 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.
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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.
Like many of the “Black Panther” 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).
Similarly, a flute player from the Fula tribe 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.
For Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” adapted from 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.
The contenders are ranked by their likelihood of winning:
Terence Blanchard (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther”)
Nicholas Brittel (“If Beale Street Could Talk”)
Alexandre Desplat (“Isle of Dogs”)
Marc Shaiman (“Mary Poppins Returns”)