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”).
In “BlacKkKlansman,” 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. 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 “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.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
“First Man,” 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. 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. 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 (Claire Foy). Score and sound design come together 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.
For “If Beale Street Could Talk,” 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).
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. 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.
20th Century Fox
For Zimmer, the Steve McQueen heist movie “Widows,” 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. 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. The Oscar contenders are listed below in alphabetical order. No movie will be deemed a frontrunner unless we have seen it.
Terence Blanchard (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Nicholas Brittel (“If Beale Street Could Talk”)
Alexandre Desplat (“Isle of Dogs”)
Justin Hurwitz (“First Man”)
Hans Zimmer (“Widows”)
Carter Burwell (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”)
Danny Elfman (“The Grinch”)
Michael Giacchino (“Incredibles 2”)
Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther”)
Marc Shaiman (“Mary Poppins Returns”)
Mychael Danna (“On the Basis of Sex”)
Dustin O’Halloran (“The Hate U Give”)
Dario Marianelli (“Paddington 2”)
Sune Martin (“22 July”)
Max Richter (“Mary Queen of Scots”)
Brian Tyler (“Crazy Rich Asians”)
Thom York (“Suspiria”)