In a season marked by movies about showbiz, social change, and superheroics, many of the contending scores experiment with new musical sounds uniting the past and present. Among the early frontrunners are Michael Abels’ genre-bending score for Jordan Peele’s flipped-out “Nope” (Universal), Son Lux’s maximalist score for the Daniels’ multiverse action-adventure, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24), and Terence Blanchard’s African-infused score for Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic, “The Woman King” (Sony).
They are joined by the legendary John Williams’ final collaboration with Steven Spielberg on his TIFF-winning, semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans” (Universal); Carter Burwell’s mystical score for Martin McDonagh’s dark bromance “The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight); Christopher Spelman’s spare score for James Gray’s semi-autobiographical “Armageddon Time” (Focus Features),Tom Holkenborg’s expansive score for George Miller’s romantic fantasy “Three Thousand Years of Longing” (UA), and Rob Simonsen’s nautical score for Darren Aronofsky’s somber “The Whale” (A24).
Additionally, there are several composers (many winners in previous years) with multiple scores in contention, including Oscar winner Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Joker”) for both “Women Talking” (UA) and “TÁR” (Focus Features), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for “Empire of Light” (Searchlight) and “Bones & All” (UA), Michael Giacchino for “The Batman” (Warner Bros.) and “Lightyear” (Pixar/Disney); Ludwig Göransson for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel/Disney) and “Turning Red” (Pixar/Disney); and Danny Elfman for “White Noise” (Netflix) and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Marvel/Disney).
Still to come are Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz’s jazzy score for “Babylon” (Paramount), Nicholas Britell’s gripping score for “She Said” (Universal), Abel Korzeniowski’s uplifting score for “Till” (UA), and two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat’s Italian-infused score for Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion “Pinocchio” (Netflix).
In 2021, the bar for eligibility in the category was dropped from 60% original music to 35% — this potentially increases the number of eligible scores that rely heavily on pre-existing songs (or needle drops) and source music.
Hollywood, Music, and the Power of Cinema
Williams has scored all but five of Spielberg’s celebrated films since the director’s 1974 debut, “The Sugarland Express.” But “The Fabelmans” is special for two reasons: It marks Spielberg’s most personal film — and, with Williams’ impending retirement after “Indiana Jones 5,” it’s their last film together after a nearly 50-year collaboration. In channeling Spielberg through alter ego Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), Williams musically explores all of the themes of suburbia, isolation, dissolution, and passion for movies that have illuminated their work together. But the center of the story is Sammy’s strong connection with his free-spirited mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), who gave up a promising career as a concert pianist to raise her family; the composer’s piano emotionally conveys that bond in the main theme while exploring a range of styles (including ragtime for Sammy’s filmmaking). While the score shares time with Mitzi’s piano playing, it is confirmed to be eligible. If nominated, Williams would be the oldest to hold such an honor, chasing his sixth Oscar at the age of 90.
“Babylon” marks the fifth collaboration between composer Hurwitz (“La La Land”) and director Damien Chazelle, hurling viewers into the Wild West days of Hollywood in the late ’20s. The composer wanted to give “Babylon” a musical universe of its own: a sound that wouldn’t be anachronistic but also a far cry from the quaint jazz of the period. This consisted of wailing trumpets, screaming saxes, shades of rock ‘n’ roll riffs, and modern house beats. It’s scored for the band led by Jovan Adepo’s character, Sidney, while other cues are scored for a manic 100-piece orchestra, and some even by circus sounds.
The darker side of Hollywood is further exposed in “She Said” (Universal), based on the New York Times investigation (and subsequent book) that brought down Harvey Weinstein and bolstered the #MeToo movement. The score by three-time nominee Britell establishes the accelerating tension and the steely commitment of reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan). The music evokes regret, hope, fear, and the collision of dreams stolen, accomplished through Britell’s sensitive orchestral textures and the exquisite cello solos performed by Caitlin Sullivan, marking the first score co-produced by the husband-and-wife team.
“Empire of Light” marks Sam Mendes’ first solo script, a love letter to the importance of the theatrical experience. It’s about a May-December, interracial romance between Olivia Colman and Michael Ward, who work at the art deco Empire movie theater on the English coast at the dawn of the ’80s. Mendes turned to composers Reznor and Ross for the first time, who got involved early on to discuss the director’s world building so they could involve him in their musical world building. They chose a piano score to explore Colman’s harrowing journey in search of love and tied it to the decline and resurrection of the Empire. Along the way, they treat and beat up the piano before also experimenting with a host of organic instruments to attain unique synthesized harmonic themes that fit into a world unsettled by political upheaval.
Guðnadóttir (“Joker”) was brought on very early for Todd Field’s “TÁR” and served a multilayered role as composer, setting the tone and tempo for its musical landscape, and the inner tempos of the main characters. For this she created a tempo map and wrote music for them to listen to in an earpiece as they were shooting. In addition, she composed the original, unfinished piece worked on throughout the film by its namesake, conductor/composer Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett). As for the actual score, it is nearly imperceptible, but believed to be long enough to be eligible. It functions as part of Tár’s musical mindscape and elicits a sense of unease.
Scoring the Spectacle
For “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the minimalist L.A. post-rock band Son Lux (keyboardist and vocalist Ryan Lott, guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, and drummer Ian Chang) created an outrageous, genre-bending score — ranging from synthetic beats to Chinese opera — for one hour and 50 minutes of music within the two-hour blockbuster film. Son Lux was tapped by directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert because of its ability to coalesce different musical elements into a cohesive whole. This became a microcosm of the movie, in which Michelle Yeoh’s badass Evelyn traverses the multiverse. Lott, Bhatia, and Chang employed certain melodies for specific relationships, creating the effect of flipping between TV channels — but the key was connecting the intimate moments to everything else, along with avoiding a sense of musical monotony for the lengthy fight sequences, including experimenting with Chinese drums and tuned gongs.
“Nope” marked composer Michael Abels’ third collaboration with director Jordan Peele. To achieve a sense of chaos, Abels used new tools and techniques to make us squirm before the rousing climax. It all hinged on musically defining “a bad miracle” as the dichotomy between awe and dread. In other words, Abels created motifs that embraced and subverted the horror genre, sometimes working with sound designer Johnnie Burn to pit negative space against music. The composer utilized snap pizzicato in the basses, Wild West brass, some percussive tricks, and a wordless choir to convey the otherworldly sensation. There are also moments when he played with the disparate musical elements for the final attack on the alien threat.
“The Batman” is Michael Giacchino’s fifth score for a Matt Reeves film. It’s an operatic musical vision for the grunge-like procedural, in keeping with Robert Pattinson’s sullen Bruce Wayne and a totally corrupted, Gothic-inspired Gotham. The Batman theme is divided between an ominous musical idea for the Caped Crusader and a melancholy one for the orphan Wayne. Crucially, the theme for Paul Dano’s emotionally stunted Riddler is built around Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which the actor sings in elegy to his own lost childhood. There’s even a creepier, more grown-up variation of the theme that’s still tied spiritually to the iconic Schubert song.
With “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Ludwig Göransson gets to not only expand his musical expression of Wakanda (which involved the use of talking drum and African flute), but also introduce new themes associated with the Atlantis-inspired Talocan civilization (led by baddie Namor the Submariner, played by Tenoch Huerta) and its Aztec and Mayan influences.
For “The Woman King,” Terence Blanchard brought in elements of West African culture to pay homage to the unsung heroes of the Agojie, including West African drums, the Koto, the kalimba, and the marimba. In addition, he used West African rhythms to drive the fight scenes and the final test scene, and a 75-piece orchestra for time and color. He also found inspiration in the harmonic progressions sung by many African voices whose sound and music are similar to American gospel or spiritually based music.
For “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” the adult genie-in-a-bottle story starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba, Tom Holkenborg delivered a score that moves from the ancient to the contemporary. This was apparent in the main melody, which took two years to create. The theme that was recorded using the duduk and viola was then loaded in various sound design programs to stretch the length up to 800 percent of the original length. The eerie artifacts that came with this digital process made it seem like the sound has always been here, and always will be.
Uniting a Divided World
In “Women Talking,” several Mennonite women meet in secret after learning they’ve been repeatedly drugged and raped by men in their community. One of the central questions the women grapple with is the difference between leaving and fleeing. For Guðnadóttir, this was an extremely difficult subject to tackle and she initially channeled her anger musically. However, she changed course and composed a score as a vehicle for hope. Working with guitarist Skúli Sverrisson and violist Eyvind Kang, the score lives solely in the acoustic world (appropriate to the rural environment), with the guitar doing the heavy lifting.
Martin McDonagh’s go-to composer Carter Burwell brought a fairy tale vibe to “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which is set on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland in 1923, and concerns two lifelong friends, Pádraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), who have a sudden breakup with dire consequences. This musical choice plays off of Pádraic’s child-like nature, makes the physical violence more allegorical, and allows the island and its people to be mystical. While the director didn’t want an Irish score, Burwell embraced low-pitched wind instruments such as bass flute and clarinet that helped convey the windswept island of Inisherin.
With Noah Baumbach’s nightmarish “White Noise,” four-time nominee Danny Elfman could finally break through with a win. The film is a dark, complex allegory set in the ’80s — a period Elfman ran wild in with Oingo Boingo and his early scores for Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” and “Batman.” Elfman not only taps into an ’80s-influenced, synth-based aesthetic, but also adds classical orchestral touches. It’s a tour de force of Americana that’s both emotional and surreal.
Gray’s personal coming-of-age memoir, “Armageddon Time,” was inspired by his childhood upbringing in Queens at the dawn of the ’80s. It’s about the crumbling American Dream, friendship, racism, compromise, and betrayal. With the focus on the interracial friendship between the director’s alter ego, Paul (Banks Repeta), and Johnny (Jaylin Webb), composer Spelman used spare melodies scored for solo guitar to evoke the intense but delicate emotions of the young characters, and then gradually expanded both the orchestral palate and the harmonic complexity to underscore the boys’ inevitable collision with the wider world beyond their innocent daydreams.
For Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio,” go-to composer Alexandre Desplat slid in very comfortably with the director’s retelling of the famed Italian folktale. The father-son story is set in ’30s Fascist Italy and serves as an allegory about the importance of disobedience. As such, Desplat musically evokes a sense of the culture, setting, and mood. Emphasizing acoustic instruments (including the guitar, strings, brass, and accordion), the composer brings a sense of wonder, joy, and sadness to del Toro’s first-time embrace of stop-motion animation.
“Till,” which dramatizes the true story of legendary Black educator-activist Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) and her fight for justice after the 1955 lynching of her 14-year-son, Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall), is given a symphonic journey by Korzeniowski befitting the emotional arc of the protagonist. The composer provides a range of musical themes that underscore the effects of the violence on the survivors, finding strength where there is no more hope, and summoning the courage to overcome unbearable pain. The final piece, “Emmett’s Room,” is a mother’s love theme during a daydream that is spiritually transcendent.
For “Bones & All,” Reznor and Ross built their score around a solo acoustic guitar to musically convey this bizarre love story between cannibals Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet), who journey across America in the ’80s. According to director Guadganino, it’s about disenfranchisement and the impossibility of love. This allowed the composers to branch off and musically experiment in new ways. They built a modular instrument that they could feed sounds into it (including treated synths and vocal techniques). It became a musical dialogue between the two social misfits.
For “The Whale,” a drama about a 600-pound middle aged man (Brendan Fraser) who tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter (Sadie Sink), Rob Simonsen conjured a score that was like the protagonist adrift at sea, rowing toward a dark storm on the horizon. This tied in with the sound design as well. The overtone flute (from Winne Clement) provided the perfect instrument for creating the impression of forms drifting by underwater. This was rounded out by large brass forces and swelling strings from the London Contemporary Orchestra.
Michael Abels (“Nope”)
Michael Giacchino (“The Batman,” “Lightyear”)
Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Women Talking,” “TÁR”)
Son Lux (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”)
John Williams (“The Fabelmans”)
Note: Only films that the author has seen will be named frontrunners at this time
Terence Blanchard (“The Woman King,” “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues”)
Nicholas Britell (“She Said”)
Carter Burwell (“The Banshees of Inisherin,” “Catherine Called Birdy”)
Alexandre Desplat (“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”)
Danny Elfman (“White Noise,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”)
Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Turning Red”)
Justin Hurwitz (“Babylon”)
Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough (“The Northman”)
Bruno Coulais (“Wendell & Wild”)
Mychael Danna (“Where the Crawdads Sing,” “My Father’s Dragon,” with Jeff Danna)
Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (“Living”)
Simon Franglen (“Avatar: The Way of Water”)
Matthew Herbert (“The Wonder”)
Henry Jackman (“Strange World”)
Tom Holkenborg (“Three Thousand Years of Longing”)
Nathan Johnson (“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”)
Abel Korzeniowski (“Till”)
Daniel Pemberton (“Amsterdam”)
John Powell (“Don’t Worry Darling”)
Steven Price (“My Policeman,” “The Swimmers”)
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“Empire of Light,” “Bones & All”)
Rob Simonsen (“The Whale”)
Christopher Spelman (“Armageddon Time”)
Isabella Summers (“Lady Chatterley’s Lover”)
Benjamin Wallfisch (“Thirteen Lives”)
Elliot Wheeler (“Elvis”)
Marcelo Zarvos (“Emancipation”)
Hans Zimmer (“The Son”)