Back to IndieWire

Oscars 2023: Why Best Original Score Is the Most Interesting and Competitive Craft Race

Upstart Son Lux ("Everything Everywhere All at Once") takes on the legendary John Williams ("The Fabelmans") and wild card Volker Bertelmann ("All Quiet on the Western Front").

Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once

“Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Allyson Riggs/A24

 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

This year’s Oscar race for Best Original Score is the most interesting and competitive in years. You’ve got surprise composers Son Lux (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) and Volker Bertelmann (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) going up against 90-year-old legend John Williams (“The Fabelmans”) and returnees Justin Hurwitz (“Babylon”) and Carter Burwell (“The Banshees of Inisherin”).

Which means there are several unusual components to this race. Four out of five films are Best Picture nominees (with “Babylon” as the outlier) and period pieces (with “EEAAO” as the contemporary multiverse entry), and there’s old-school versus new-school, with experimental rock band Son Lux taking on four celebrated vets: Williams has five Oscars and a record 53 nominations; Hurwitz has two Oscars for “La La Land” (score and original song “City of Stars”); and Burwell and Bertelmann have three and two nominations, respectively.

And not a clear favorite among them. Hurwitz was the early frontrunner for his brash jazz score for Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon,” which hurled viewers into the days of Hollywood’s hedonism during the Roaring ’20s. But Son Lux and Bertelmann are riding a wave of momentum for their films. The Daniels’ “EEAAO” leads the pack with 11 nominations — and is the favorite to win Best Picture — while Edward Berger’s epic anti-war drama captured nine nods (including six for crafts, tied with “Elvis”) and is the favorite to win Best International Feature. Either Son Lux or Bertelmann could benefit from a sweep and win the Oscar.

However, does Williams get the sentimental vote for an inspired summary score that caps his 50-year collaboration with Steven Spielberg, despite renouncing his intention to retire? Or does Burwell finally break through for Martin McDonagh’s bittersweet “Banshees,” the most haunting score of his impressive career? And Hurwitz could still manage to win again for a standout score that was integral to the storytelling.

"All Quiet on the Western Front"

“All Quiet on the Western Front”

Courtesy of Netflix

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” (Son Lux)
L.A. rock band Son Lux (Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia, and Ian Chang) impressed with its first film score. It’s an adventurous wall-to-wall sound, with a lot of chopped-up and processed instrumentation that perfectly captures the multiverse vibe. The mere fact that they got nominated by one of the Academy’s most conservative branches, which frowns upon honoring scores by multiple composers, is already a triumph, as is the fact that Bhatia and Chang are the only people of color represented here. If Son Lux wins, they join an elite group of trio composers (from “Soul,” “The Last Emperor,” and “Limelight”). It demonstrates that people really like the film and bodes well for its chances among the voters at large.

Upside: The film is well-liked, which bodes well now that the voting pivots to the Academy at large. Plus, a Best Picture win could spill over into score (Son Lux is also nominated for the Best Original Song “This Is a Life”).

Downside: All the reasons that make Son Lux such a refreshing departure from the typical Oscar-winning score could work against it by being too radical for the Academy.

“The Fabelmans” (John Williams)
Williams musically explores Spielberg’s origin story with the advantage of knowing his late mother, Leah Adler, a talented concert pianist, and knowledge of the director’s prodigious start as a filmmaker. Williams was inspired to compose one of his most beautiful piano-based themes around the strong bond between aspiring director Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) and his free-spirited mom, Mitzi (Best Actress nominee Michelle Williams). This theme helped inform the rest of the score with chamber-like solos for piano, harp, guitar, and celeste. In addition, the composer sprinkled in period nods during the making of Sammy’s films (including piano rag and surf guitar).

Upside: Williams is always a strong contender, and his 50-year collaboration with Spielberg takes on greater significance with such a personal film. It’s also helped that they’ve campaigned together with FYC Q&As.

Downside: The sentimental vote is not so urgent, and the score is heavily dependent on the classical piano pieces that were favorites of Adler (including Johann Sebastian Bach’s Adagio from Concerto in D Minor).

“All Quiet on the Western Front” (Volker Bertelmann)
Few expected Bertelmann (previously nominated for “Lion” with Dustin O’Halloran) to be nominated for “All Quiet,” which re-imagines Erich Maria Remarque’s world-renowned bestseller as an intense POV experience of unrelenting artillery attacks and massive carnage on the World War I battlefield. The composer provided an almost atonal score that reflects the harrowing emotional state of protagonist Paul (Felix Kammerer) and the sounds of battle itself (a mixture of raw synths and snare drums). Bertelmann relies on acute, staccato drumbeats and a burst of sinister, spare chords. Snare drums were bullet-like by design; the bass became a primary instrument, and Bertelmann found personal inspiration in his great-grandmother’s refurbished harmonium, which he treated like a modern synthesizer.

Upside: Bertelmann’s score is the wild card in the race and has received praise from members outside the music branch, who appreciate his fusion of classical and avant-garde sensibilities.

Downside: Bertelmann’s score might be perceived as more cerebral than emotional.

“Babylon” (Justin Hurwitz)
Hurwitz gives “Babylon” a loud musical universe to complement Chazelle’s vision of extreme living during Hollywood’s seismic shift from silents to talkies. It’s a sound not anachronistic enough to take anybody out of the ’20s but a far cry from the jazz of the period. This consisted of wailing trumpets, screaming saxes, shades of rock ’n’ roll riffs, and modern house beats. Some cues are scored for the band led by Jovan Adepo’s character, Sidney, and others for a manic 100-piece orchestra — circus sounds even back some scenes. In fact, the score was so important that it served as a linchpin for Tom Cross’ muscular editing, particularly the downbeats used for transitions during the opening 30-minute bacchanal.

Upside: Hurwitz is revered, and his score stands out for its musical power.

Downside: “Babylon” was the most divisive film of the awards season.

“The Banshees of Inisherin” (Carter Burwell)
As McDonagh’s go-to composer, Burwell brought a fairytale vibe to “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which is set on a remote island off the West Coast of Ireland in 1923 and concerns the abrupt end of a lifelong friendship that leads to dire consequences. This musical choice plays off of the childlike nature of Colin Farrell’s character, makes the physical violence more allegorical, and imbues the island and its people and animals with a mysticism. The composer embraced low-pitched wind instruments, such as bass flute and clarinet, which helped convey the windswept island of Inisherin.

Upside: Burwell’s score eschews an Irish musical flavor in favor of something far more imaginative and indicative of the film’s light and dark tones and allegorical connection to the concurrent Irish Civil War.

Downside: The meditative vibe could be overshadowed by the competition.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Awards and tagged , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox