There’s a sentimental Oscar race brewing for Best Original Score between cousins Randy Newman (“Marriage Story”) and Thomas Newman (“1917”), who are also going head to head for the Golden Globe. And neither has ever won the Academy Award in this category.
They belong, of course, to the legendary musical Newman family (which also includes Alfred, Lionel, Emil, and David), with a record 92 nominations between them. Randy, who is also up this season for the “Toy Story 4” Original Song, “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” has won two Oscars in the category (“We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3” and “If I Didn’t Have You” from “Monsters, Inc.”), and boasts 20 nominations total (including the scores for “The Natural” and “Ragtime”). Thomas, meanwhile, has 14 nominations (including the scores for “American Beauty” and “The Shawshank Redemption”).
The Academy loves a good Hollywood story, and this current race between the dueling Newmans could finally pave the way for one of them to finally win (they went head to head only once before — in 1996, with “Toy Story” and “Unstrung Heroes”). The question is: Which one? That’s hard to predict because both scores are outstanding and push the Newmans in new musical directions. While “Marriage Story” is more emotional and thematically driven, “1917” is more nuanced and spiritually pronounced.
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In Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” about the painful divorce between Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole and Adam Driver’s Charlie, Randy effectively used a chamber orchestra for the first time to conjure an underlying romance that once defined their love story. And, in Sam Mendes’ bold, single-shot World War I thriller, “1917,” Thomas brilliantly evoked tone, pace, or intensity to accompany Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) on their dangerous obstacle course to save 1,600 British soldiers from a German ambush.
“[‘Marriage Story’] was really significant emotional content — and that’s what music can do best,” Randy said. “A little sadder, maybe, and happier, without being obtrusive about it.” However, Baumbach demanded much more of Newman than on their first collaboration, “The Meyerowitz Stories,” which required only piano music. The director wanted a French touch along the lines of composer Georges Delerue’s scores with Francois Truffaut (“Jules and Jim”). Not just romantically, but in the sound of echo. “If you listen to Delerue, it’s like a well is coming out,” he added.
And Baumbach provided Randy with a magnificent musical opportunity by introducing Charlie and Nicole through a seven-minute monologue/montage sequence, in which they express their love for one another in the form of two letters they compose in their heads. Thus, “What I Love About Nicole” and “What I Love About Charlie” launch the themes that will recur throughout the rest of the movie. “It was very brave opening with two montages like that,” Randy said. “I can’t think of any movie that does that. It’s a romantic picture even though it’s kind of rough.
“I thought there could be a little more lightness for her,” he added. “She was moving around pretty good in the beginning, and I used a lot of piano [rag] for her. And a little pomposity for him with the French horn. He was a big fella in a little pond.” But Newman was more than happy to step out for the crucial dialogue scenes. “No need to jump in there when it isn’t necessary.”
The challenge for Thomas was more delicate and abstract. Because of the experimental nature of the narrative — a series of continuous shots — the usual rules for scoring didn’t apply. He didn’t need to comment on a scene; he was better off laying low most of the time and conveying location more than energy, saving the most percussive drives for the big runs. “It was interesting from the point of view of music, the vocabulary of [scoring],” he said. “It was never going to be a period symphonic approach to a period movie.”
The opening trench walk proved painstakingly difficult to set the tone musically. Mendes rejected many ideas until Newman found the right way to absorb character with movement and pace. “Do the rules allow for repeated material? Or is it constantly changing?” he said. “It was about elevating the experience without calling attention to it.”
The first scene in No Man’s Land was one of those instances: an experiment with synthesizer and orchestra. “Is it an incredibly tense moment where their heads could be shot off at any time, or is it this hideous, sick place that they’re traveling to? We’ve been so kinetic before, so this was about conveying a dark, black sea,” he added. But it evolved into an opportunity “where scale could reveal itself. And that was the first moment that grew into orchestra [recorded at Abbey Road in London].”
That led to “The Night Window,” which occurs after a blackout and waking up in a hallucinatory state beside a strange, dystopian landscape marked by fire, flares, and shadow play. “It was a reverse foreground/background where you use an orchestral palette to accomplish what I would do with a more electronic palette in another movie,” Thomas said. “It was an instance of musical phrases developed more harmonically…acoustic moments that were more dreamy.”
Both “Marriage Story” and “1917” helped the Newman cousins reach new musical plateaus: “I love the ‘Toy Story’ series, but I don’t know if I’ve been associated with anything better,” Randy said.
“In the end, movies tell you the vocabulary they allow,” said Thomas. “And, if you’re open, that’s what gets you off the hook from making bad choices. But it was a real learn-as-you-go thing.”