It hasn’t been a banner year for the Academy’s Music Branch. The Best Original Song category was marred by the disastrous “‘Glasgow’ Snubbing of 2020,” and the Best Original Score category has proven to be similarly dull and unadventurous. Where is Daniel Lopatin’s cosmically neurotic accompaniment to “Uncut Gems?” Or Alex Weston’s arch, contrapuntal, and heartbreaking score for “The Farewell?” What about the soul-stirring synth opus that Dan Levy wrote for “I Lost My Body,” or the bittersweet and playfully helpless orchestrations that Jung Jae-il contributed to “Parasite” (music so vital that it achieves a mutually symbiotic relationship with the film for which it was written)? Sigh.
Instead, the Academy defaulted to a set of old standards, as the five composers nominated for Best Original Score have now earned a grand total of 99 nominations between them. Yes, ninety-nine. And when you consider that “Joker” composer Hildur Guðnadóttir is being recognized for the first time this year, that means the average man in this category has already received 24.75 Oscar nominations for their work — how exciting.
And yet, there are still a few compelling storylines to follow here. Dueling cousins! A 15-time nominee who’s never actually won! A major career highlight from perhaps the most important film composer of the 21st century! And there’s a good chance this year will give us the first female winner for Best Original Score since Marilyn Bergman won for “Yentl” in 1983 (Anne Dudley and Rachel Portman both received Oscars for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score in the ’90s, but that category has since been retired).
Here are the five nominees for Best Original Score, ranked from worst to best.
5. John Williams (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”)
No disrespect to the great John Williams, whose 52 (FIFTY-TWO!) nominations accurately reflect the life’s work of a man who’s done more to shape the sound of modern cinema than just about anyone else who’s ever lived, but even his nods for the good “Star Wars” sequels felt a bit automatic, and his recognition for “The Rise of Skywalker” is borderline indefensible. A legacy pick that reflects the breadth of the 87-year-old maestro’s brilliant career, Williams’ latest nod rewards the least exciting music he’s ever written for one of these space operas (he wasn’t even offered a seat at the show for “Duel of the Fates,” the all-time banger he contributed to 1999’s otherwise execrable “The Phantom Menace”).
Of course, it makes sense that Williams wouldn’t be inspired to do his best work on “Episode IX;” not only does the story offer precious little pathos for his music to conduct, but — in being the climactic installment of “The Skywalker Saga” — the movie also has an understandable prerogative to revisit the many iconic themes that Williams wrote for the previous chapters. In a sense, “The Rise of Skywalker” has one of the most immortal film scores ever recorded, but few of its best moments haven’t just been recycled from our memories.
Few — not none. The title track is a lovely orchestral crescendo, and it grows until achieving a climactic weight that’s worthy of this storied franchise. Likewise, “A New Home” smartly ingests Rey’s theme into such a touching swansong that it almost tricks you into thinking that the last scene of the movie makes any damn sense. A handful of similarly ingenious flexes throughout the score help remind you that Williams knows this music better than anyone else ever could (transposing Kylo’s theme to a major key at the moment of his redemption is a masterstroke), but much like the film itself, the score for “The Rise of Skywalker” feels too dependent on nostalgia to stand on its own.
4. Thomas Newman (“1917”)
Thomas Newman has composed the score for every movie that Sam Mendes has ever made (save for the score-less “Away We Go”), stretching all the way back to the indelible music he wrote for “American Beauty” in 1999 — a suite of lilting pianos and suburban discord that became instrumental in making that modest black comedy feel like some kind of modern classic (if nothing else, the music still holds up). The two artists have always harmonized well together, and Newman implicitly understood that “1917” would require him to temper the bombast of a typical war movie with something a bit softer; his score would have to be anxious, but human above all else.
Newman had no trouble splitting the difference. From the elegiac strains of the film’s string-driven theme to a rattled piece like “Up the Down Trench” (which layers a percussive heartbeat of a base with deeper purpose), his score nails the hellish do-or-die energy that Mendes’ “one-shot” WWI epic rides from start to finish. If only it did so memorably. Forgive the obviousness of the comparison, but where Hans Zimmer’s “Dunkirk” score felt inextricable from the mechanics of what that movie was doing, Newman’s contributions to “1917” are more ornamental — they amplify the energy of what’s happening on screen, but exist apart from it. Like the audacious structure of the film itself, the music is attached to this story, and not a natural outgrowth of it.
This is Newman’s 15th nomination for an award that he’s never won, and while it would be wonderful to see him with an Oscar in his hands one day, this isn’t the work that best showcases his talent. On the bright side, another loss might spare he and his cousin Randy any awkwardness at the next Newman family reunion.
3. Randy Newman (“Marriage Story”)
Randy Newman — who’s won two of the 20 Academy Awards for which he’s been nominated, but will soon be 0-for-8 in this category — has a far better showing in this year’s Best Original Score category than he does in the Best Original Song contest. Forky tribute “I Won’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” may belong in the trash, but Newman’s Sunday afternoon drive of a score for “Marriage Story” offers a clever and appropriately bittersweet accompaniment to this story of a slow-moving divorce.
Continuing an easygoing collaboration that began with “The Meyerowitz Stories,” Newman’s second assignment for Noah Baumbach is even cleverer and more involved than his first. Composed for a small chamber orchestra that manages to provide both the intimacy of a quartet and the depth of a symphony, Newman’s score helps shape the emotional tone of the movie from the very first note, as the slight differences in the pieces that play over the introductory character montages give us as much information as the voiceover narration that weaves through them. Where “What I Love About Nicole” is zesty and exciting, “What I Love About Charlie” leads with a mournful oboe that makes the entire piece feel like a requiem for a failed relationship. Those “irreconcilable differences” haunt the rest of the movie that follows, while the lightness of Newman’s touch captures the “life goes on” energy of a slow-motion tragedy that feels like it could be averted at several points along the way.
2. Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Joker”)
A classically trained cellist who’s played with bands like Múm, Throbbing Gristle, and Animal Collective, Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir would stand out from the other nominees in this category even if she weren’t the only woman among them. And while “Joker” — uh — may not be the most necessary or welcome movie in the awards mix this year, there’s no denying that Guðnadóttir is every bit as vital to its runaway success as Joaquin Phoenix or T*dd Phillips (the latter of whom deserves credit for hiring Guðnadóttir early in the process, and allowing her music to inform the mournful soul of the Joker’s origin story).
From the opening scene, Guðnadóttir’s tortured and spiraling cello theme confers a twisted new level of pathos upon Batman’s most iconic villain; “The Dark Knight” rendered Joker as a force of nature, but Guðnadóttir only needs a few ominous notes to restore the character to his more human roots, and flesh out his rage to the point where it’s able to support a film of its own. Guðnadóttir’s coiled strings endow “Joker” with a visceral measure of importance (or self-seriousness?) that allows Phoenix to play Arthur Fleck with a straight face, and the percussive elements that she eventually layers into the character’s theme helps elevate Joker’s violent rebellion into a primal scream. The music is bleak and beautiful in equal measure, and it will sound appropriately dissonant when it echoes through the halls of the Dolby Theatre after Guðnadóttir is announced as the winner of this award.
1. Alexandre Desplat (“Little Women”)
It’s not even a little close. The coldest possible take: Alexandre Desplat — an 11-time nominee who won for “The Shape of Water” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — has emerged as the most prolific and virtuosically gifted film composer of his time. And yet, the music he contributed to Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” epitomizes why each new Desplat score is still an event unto itself.
The man has a tendency to snap when he’s commissioned to work on a period piece (his intricate work on the likes of “The Painted Veil” and “Lust, Caution” is considerably more distinct and exciting than the bombast he’s concocted for studio fare like “Godzilla”), and he basically broke himself in half on this one. Making a string quartet sound like a snow globe that’s just as beautiful when it’s shaking as it is when it’s settling down, Desplat’s score for “Little Women” is every bit as exuberant and alive as Gerwig’s adaptation; it feels like nothing less than the music that’s humming through Jo’s head as she runs back home from selling her first story, or wistfully enjoys her last day at the beach with her sick younger sister.
Whisked together from four separate parts in a way that broadly symbolizes the March girls, Desplat’s suite is an all-out assault on the stodginess we’ve come to associate with costume dramas. The composer has correctly identified that Gerwig’s film is “not the story of a writer,” but rather “a story being written,” and his plucky strings and balletic orchestrations convey the unbridled energy of a life in motion (there’s a reason why Gerwig stretched the score almost every moment of the movie). But Desplat’s best tracks — like the film itself — ultimately come back to the simple piano theme that underwrites them all, a lilting melody that aches with love and longing in equal measure; the sense of holding on to something that is already gone forever. There are any number of Oscars that “Little Women” deserves to win, and this is definitely one of them.