The race for Best Original Score is marked by experimentation and invention, highlighted by the innovative frontrunner “Dune,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Spencer,” “Cyrano,” “King Richard,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “Nightmare Alley,” and “Candyman.” Plus, two animated musicals — both graced by the songwriting chops of the very hot Lin-Manuel Miranda — experiment with the cultural sounds of Colombia and Cuba: Disney’s magical “Encanto” (from Germaine Franco, the studio’s first woman composer to score an animated feature), and Sony/Netflix’s “Vivo” (scored by Alex Lacamoire).
Oscar winner Hans Zimmer (“The Lion King”) could very well win his second award for Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious “Dune” (Warner Bros.) His score is a musical masterpiece of experimental invention in conveying the beauty and danger of the Arrakis desert planet — from the rhythm of the wind pushing the sand between the rocks to the pounding percussion of the monstrous sandworms. Zimmer leaned on the spiritual, driven by a choir of female voices. As part of the hallucinatory nature, Zimmer didn’t want any of the culturally diverse instruments identifiable, so he disguised everything with the help of sculptor/welder Chas Smith and his virtual synthesizer. (Zimmer also contends for his James Bond “No Time to Die” score, which fuses John Barry’s iconic orchestral style with his own sense of moody electronics, along with unexpected shout outs to cult favorite “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”)
Jonny Greenwood achieves his own masterful musical invention for Jane Campion’s psychological western, “The Power of the Dog” (Netflix). Inspired by the repression and savagery of Montana rancher Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), Greenwood twists orchestral instruments into unique sounds to convey his loneliness, isolation, and yearning set against the beautiful landscape and his prison-like ranch house. A cello becomes a banjo for a unique sophistication, an atonal piano evokes pain, and French horns and strings have an aching quality. Greenwood essentially turns his score into a nightmare. (Greenwood also contends for “Spencer,” Pablo Larraín’s fable about the painful Christmas holiday of ’91 for Kristen Stewart’s Princess Diana. His score is about the colorful chaos of jazz set against the traditional orchestra that represents the Royal family. It starts with a baroque orchestra that mutates into free jazz by substituting instruments, one at a time, with the jazz performers.)
For Joe Wright’s musical retelling of “Cyrano” (Focus), Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National crafted an original score that flows between orchestral instrumentation performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra to understated moments they performed themselves. The score was largely influenced by the romantic setting of the story, and it evolved on set throughout filming, The Dessners worked closely with Wright to ensure that the score coalesced with the director’s vision. During the pandemic, Aaron, Bryce, and others continued to collaborate virtually using audio sharing tech. The Dessners fused elements from Cyrano’s baroque world with modern folk influences, and incorporated electronic elements throughout the score to create contrast, along with a subtle meditative qualities.
“King Richard” (Warner Bros.), the biopic about Richard Williams’ (Will Smith) uncompromising mission to propel daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) to the top of the tennis profession, was a personal project for composer Kris Bowers, whose father decided before he was born that he wanted him to play piano and who took an active role in the development of his craft. As a result, Bowers heavily featured piano and prepared piano in the score. He additionally evoked the sound and feeling of tennis through strings, harp, piano, prepared piano, and percussion, which both depicted the uniqueness of the Williams sisters breaking through the color barrier of tennis, and the grit and tenacity of the Williams family.
With “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (A24), starring Denzel Washington and McDormand, Joel Coen embraced the inherent theatricality of Shakespeare’s play in Expressionistic black-and-white tones. And since it’s more of a psychological than physical reality, composer Carter Burwell got a sense of dense black and silky gray, which inspired him to do a thrilling string sound, partly influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s chilling “Psycho.” In addition, Burwell utilized dialog as the melody and the strings as the accompaniment, so he placed most of the score in the lowest registers with cellos and basses, taking occasional flight with solo violin and a well-placed fiddle.
Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” (Universal) horror update required an unconventional score — and Black composer and co-sound designer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe delivered a visceral soundscape in tune with the movie’s urban legend about racist violence perpetrated against Black men throughout history. The mythology provided plenty of inspiration for Lowe, whose approach consists of recording his own voice and then processing and manipulating it to sound like a choir of strings, woodwinds, and metallic instruments. He did his own field recording in the crucial location of Chicago’s gentrified Cabrini Green, turning those textural elements into “psychic energy” for the score. And he recorded and manipulated the sounds of bees and other insects into strange skittering and buzzing.
For Guillermo del Toro’s noirish “Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight Pictures), about ’40s con artists and the underbelly of society (starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett), composer Nathan Johnson (“Knives Out”) created an experimental orchestral score built around Cooper’s protagonist. He began with a single, repeating piano motif, which developed into different layers, augmented by aleatoric string dissonances and the jagged internal piano lurches usually associated with hip-hop. When all of the layers are finally stripped back to that single piano motif, we’re left with an eerie, fatalistic echo.
Listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
“The Power of the Dog”
“The Tragedy of Macbeth”
“Being the Ricardos”
“Don’t Look Up”
“No Time to Die”
“The French Dispatch”
“The Harder They Fall”
“The Last Duel”
“House of Gucci”
“Last Night in Soho”
“The Card Counter”
“The Green Knight”
“The Lost Daughter”