Thanks to the advocacy of composer Miriam Cutler, the TV Academy finally added a separate category for original documentary scores (series and specials) this season, and she promptly was nominated for both “RBG” and “Love, Gilda.” It’s a very competitive field with Oscar winner “Free Solo” (Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts); “Game of Thrones: The Last Watch” (Hannah Peel); “Hostile Planet” (“Oceans,” Benjamin Wallfisch) and “Our Planet” (“One Planet,” Steven Price), and Cutler couldn’t be more thrilled. “The enthusiasm for the category has been huge with all the submissions and some really good nominees,” she said. “It just opens it up.”
Cutler’s been working as an award-winning doc composer for 25 years (“Dark Money,” “The Hunting Ground,” “Lost in La Mancha”), but up until now has never gotten close to winning a Primetime Emmy. “Look what happened: the very first time, two nominations,” she added. “I think it acknowledges how interest in docs has really [grown].”
It took many years of lobbying the TV Academy with the support of Governor Rickey Minor to make the case that composing for docs was its own distinct musical craft worthy of recognition. At first, there was talk of lumping it in with reality TV scores as a non-fiction category, and then they were even asked to sacrifice Main Title themes as a category, but that wouldn’t do. Composers also had to wait in line for the launch of last season’s musical supervisor category.
“We made the case that documentaries are really surging,” Cutler said. “There’s an interest by the viewers, [and] the marketplace has expanded tremendously. So there’s a lot more of the work being done and not really an opportunity for most composers to compete because the categories were so limited. The other thing that was important is that now both the Motion Picture and TV Academy are really interested in diversity and how we can skew younger, get more women, and composers of color.
“And there was a great argument to be made in that because of the lower budgets, we get a lot of up-and-coming composers, people that aren’t in the mainstream. And, finally, we made the case that there’s different parameters, different skill sets, a different focus on how you use music in documentaries. It’s a unique situation compared to other TV formats.”
For Cutler, her two nominated scores were a contrast in exploring female empowerment with “RBG,” the Oscar-nominated doc about the life and career of pioneering Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and “Love, Gilda,” the doc paying tribute to the beloved “Saturday Night Live” comic Gilda Radner, utilizing her diaries, audio tapes, and home movies, along with revelatory interviews. “I’m always surprised at what comes out because I really try to respond with my musical instincts,” she said.
“RBG” was difficult because of the large presence of classical music with Ginsberg being such a huge fan and an opera diva. “I’m not a classical musician, but I certainly appreciate all good music and opera as well,” Cutler said. “For me, the challenge was: What’s my role? And I decided my role was to tell her more intimate story. So I used a smaller group [of musicians] and just tried to be very dignified because she’s so dignified and her role in society is so important. She is going to be a historical figure that will live on forever.
“And I felt a kind of responsibility to have a light touch but take her seriously. And also the fact that she places herself right in the timeline of feminism and having a huge role in the struggle for women’s rights. Then there was the personal side of her as a Jewish woman who had an amazing romance – that most of us can only dream of – for 50 years with her husband, Marty.”
The Main Theme, reminiscent of Elmer Bernstein’s introspective “To Kill a Mockingbird,” captured Ginsberg’s stoic strength with a touch of romance. “It was an epic love story as well,” Cutler said. “I grew up watching a lot of movies with epic scores and sweeping themes. I wanted to reference that without an orchestra and going big because the classical music was big and bombastic and already made that point. But my music was more quiet, like her. But what I was trying to do, especially with the activist sections, was to put the energy and the heft into it.”
With “Love, Gilda,” which Cutler undertook on a tight deadline when the original score was scrapped, offered the opportunity to musically explore Radner’s child-like charm, eccentric wit, struggle with an eating disorder, and, finally, the battle with ovarian cancer, which took her life in 1989. “This was one case where I could really use my own feelings about the character,” she said. “I felt such warmth about Gilda and just watching the footage brought it all back. I used that in the score: Where her comedy came from, what her struggles were, how she transformed herself through her cancer experience.”
Cutler found that Radner’s fondness for the ukulele helped connect with her childhood. Then, to evoke Radner’s involvement in theater, the composer relied on a pit band. “Anytime she does anything theatrical in the film, I bring in that theme,” she said. “And then, with the ‘Saturday Night Live’ stuff, they were just a fantastic horn band. It was fun to allude to that musically: the energy and funkiness. And also they were rowdy.
Often, music is used in documentaries to help bring greater understanding to difficult issues. The was the case here with Radner’s eating disorder, which brought shame and destruction to her life. “The music can soften a viewer’s heart when watching something like that instead of just making judgments,” Cutler said. “I can create empathy with the music, so that people will go on a painful journey with a character. Doc films are an expedition and we’re helping to guide that expedition.”