Immersed Movies: Assessing the Music Oscar Race

Like cinematography, production design, editing, and sound, the Oscar-nominated music scores are all organically tied to their movies in very personal ways. So it’s hard to pick a winner among such stalwarts as Alexandre Desplat  (“Argo”), Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”), Mychael Danna (“Life of Pi”), and Dario Marianelli (“Anna Karenina”) along with the venerable old warhorse, John Williams (“Lincoln”). Still, I keep hearing a lot about Danna being the favorite in a very close race.

But what a great year for original scores: “Anna Karenina” weaves waltzes and folk tunes to complement a very brittle vision for19th century Russia on the brink of collapse; “Argo” offers a distinctive hybrid of Middle Eastern and Western musical influences in keeping with the bizarre thriller/Hollywood mash-up; “Life of Pi” mixes up Indian and Western themes to mirror the concept of a world without borders; “Lincoln” sprinkles hymns and folk tunes of the Civil War era; and “Skyfall” puts us in the proper James Bond mindset in a score that’s both familiar and unexpected.

As always with director Joe Wright, Marianelli was free to experiment on “Anna Karenina.” And because they were toying with a bold theatrical version of Tolstoy (literally set in an abandoned theater), he thought of the characters in terms of spirits or demons, and composed intersecting themes that embrace or escape from “convention, pretence, happiness, guilt, love, fun, and even truth.”

There are familiar Russian folk songs (“Beroza”) and waltzes, and orchestrations that conjure an almost unbearable lightness of being. But Marianelli didn’t strive to be historically accurate since they were creating a fantasy Russia. At the same time, the composer hints at an outside world lurking beyond the claustrophobic settings, and I find “Beyond the Stage” particularly haunting. The final result, as he suggests, “is perched between two worlds.”

“Argo” is also musically perched between two worlds. For the first time, Desplat was able to personalize his love of Middle Eastern music by mixing indigenous instruments into a classical orchestra, recruiting half a dozen musicians from Turkey and France along with sexy Persian pop star, Sussan Deyhim.

The five-time Oscar nominee was therefore able to blend an exotic sound that could only work for this score. It alternates between tender, melancholy, and thrilling. “There’s a sense of danger that never stops, propelling both the characters and the story, which is what I tried to convey in the score,” Desplat explains.

My favorite is “Scent of Death,” in which Deyhim’s voice introduces a haunting lament — a scatting cry for help. The music then swells with the Middle Eastern and symphonic orchestras. But throughout Desplat creates a distinctive sound by combining Deyhim’s voice with the Turkish flute (hey) and Turkish violin (kemenche).

Interestingly, Danna read “Life of Pi” when it came out and the novel instantly resonated with him. In fact, he secretly hoped it wouldn’t be ruined by a movie. But when Ang Lee eventually called on him to compose the score, he couldn’t resist joining his long-time collaborator on a spiritual journey going to infinity and beyond.

“I shared the same world view,” Danna offers. “It’s an open, unfettered way of looking at existence: Loss, family, religion, and storytelling, and why we’re driven to tell stories — why we need to tell stories. It’s what I do musically. I played off of Pi being an internationalist in the music [being everywhere and nowhere]. My decades’ of experience working with non-Western instruments as well as Western instruments really came to the forefront.”

Childhood innocence is indicative in the lovely “Pi’s Lullaby.” Danna then tried to shake it up and keep everything loose. The English boys choir sings Sanskrit words; the Tibetan choir sings Latin; the French instruments play Indian melodies and the Indian instruments sometimes play French melodies. It all comes crashing down in “God Storm,” full of percussive power and passion.

But in the end, it’s about achieving tenderness and calm between a boy and a tiger. “Like Pi, we wanted the music to have that effortless, non self-conscious ability to cross over borders,” Danna concludes.

With “Lincoln,” five-time Oscar winner Williams naturally went in a new musical direction with Steven Spielberg in keeping with the director’s unfettered approach. Yet it must’ve been a little like coming full circle back to “The Reivers”(1969) and “The Cowboys” (1971) sans the heavy Aaron Copeland-like orchestrations. The music here is spare, folksy, and contemplative like Lincoln himself.

Williams makes great use of spiritual music as counterpoint to the main theme, “The People’s House,” which is strong yet melancholy. It’s similar to the strategy he used for “Schindler’s List.”And for the first time, Williams conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (an indirect nod to Lincoln serving in the Illinois state legislature).

And Williams only recorded 50 minutes of music, all the better to let us concentrate more fully on Tony Kushner’s multi-textured dialogue spoken by Daniel Day-Lewis, who becomes Lincoln in our presence. As with everything else about “Lincoln,” less is more.

The same can be applied to “Skyfall,” with Sam Mendes entrusting Newman to filter Bond through his sensitive musical sensibilities. The opening 13-minute pre-credit action sequence, in which we witness the death and resurrection of Bond after a furious chase and fight in Turkey, dares us to like what we see and hear! The idea was to be more suggestive of the environment than musically indigenous.

“My approach was really hitting the demons head on and it ended up being the last thing we accomplished,” Newman says. “But along the way there’s friction and tension in trying to branch out a little bit.”

When it came to M, Newman found a regal yet bittersweet theme in “Voluntary Retirement.” After all, you can’t sentimentalize her and have to honor Judi Dench’s enormous dramatic contribution for this historic culmination.

Speaking of which, when it came to using the iconic “Bond Theme,” Newman did so sparingly but effectively, never more so than during the introduction and ride in the Aston Martin DB5.

But Newman’s favorite cue is “Skyfall,” where we metaphorically go back in time to Bond’s roots and the origin of the franchise. “I like the drive to Skyfall because I thought that was a surprising choice and somehow compelling and meaningful in an action context, ironically, considering how psychological the music was,” he reflects. “And promising… it promises the story to come.”

Spoken like a composer who leaves us wanting more.

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