Approaches to film scoring have become increasingly eclectic—from jazz and classical to hip-hop and avant-garde—making it more difficult than ever for Academy voters to narrow the field to 15 for Oscar’s shortlist. Variety examines 16 of the possible choices, in alphabetical order:
‘American Fiction‘ – Laura Karpman
Cord Jefferson’s movie—about a Black writer who, as a joke, writes a bad novel that becomes a best seller—has a lead character whose name is Thelonious and whose nickname is Monk. So, to composer Laura Karpman, fashioning a score in the style of the jazz great was an obvious choice.
Much of her score is small-combo, piano-featured jazz, and while she also wrote a massive orchestral and choral score for “The Marvels,” this much smaller but acclaimed film would seem to be her best shot for awards. She has five Emmys, co-founded the Alliance for Women Film Composers, and was the first female music governor of the Academy, but she has yet to receive an Oscar nomination.
‘Barbie‘ – Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt
The Grammy-winning songwriter-producers not only supervised many of the songs in the year’s biggest box-office hit, they also composed the music between all those vocals. “We just started to play around and we essentially scored this seven-minute battle scene… then they gave us the opening credits, and we slowly ended up writing more and more music until they were like, ‘you’re scoring the film,’” Ronson told Variety.
Their beat-heavy, synth-infused pop sound worked nicely for Barbie, Ken and friends in both Barbieland and the real world. “We had to learn everything on the job,” the first-time score composer admitted, “and sometimes we learned by falling on our faces.”
‘The Color Purple‘ – Kris Bowers
The “Bridgerton” and “Green Book” composer did orchestral arrangements for some of the songs and wrote all of the underscore for this musical version of the Alice Walker novel. The musical moods ranged from “sparse and intimate for moments of privacy or contemplation by Celie, to moments of extreme emotion, with a big orchestral sound,” he reports. He enlisted a Ghanaian percussionist for the African sequences.
Bowers also scored Ava DuVernay’s “Origin,” which involved research into music of Holocaust survivors and music of India.
‘Elemental‘ – Thomas Newman
Emmy- and Grammy-winner Newman has 15 nominations but no wins as yet; a favorite of the music branch, he’s often nominated for films that are overlooked in major categories. His fourth film for Pixar (past ones include “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E,” both nominated) takes place in a world of fire and water.
“It’s like a parallel universe, it’s an imagined world,” Newman notes, describing the challenge: “How do you set up music that can accompany that kind of world and respectfully respond to cultural differences between these elements in a way that people can relate to?” The answer involved unusual musical colors mixed with traditional orchestral sounds.
‘The Holdovers‘ – Mark Orton
For Alexander Payne’s film about a difficult Massachusetts prep-school teacher who must babysit students over a Christmas 1970 break, composer Orton (who also scored Payne’s “Nebraska”) leaned into an early ’70s classic-rock and folk-rock sound: mostly guitars, keyboards and rhythm section, many of which Orton played himself.
Orton knows that part of western Massachusetts well. “I lived right in the area where this was filmed,” he says. “I really know those country roads and could connect to the winter scenes, writing music for these montages.” He sought to keep the sound “organic,” he adds, insisting on musicians playing as a band—”the homemade feel of it all.”
‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny‘ – John Williams
The most-nominated composer of all time (53 nominations, with five wins) might eke out a 54th, and potentially final, nomination, as he has hinted that, at 91, he may have written his last film score. The musical centerpiece of this fifth installment of the Harrison Ford franchise is his theme for Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a throwback to an earlier era of film scoring.
“She’s a little bit like the femme fatale of earlier film periods where you had gorgeous women who smoked and drank and were adventurous, wore a lot of makeup, and had mystery in their lives and in their faces,” Williams says. He conducted an 86-piece L.A. orchestra in two hours of music.
‘Killers of the Flower Moon‘ – Robbie Robertson
Robertson, who died Aug. 9, was a frequent musical collaborator with director Martin Scorsese. This was their 10th film together (previous films included “The Color of Money” and “The Irishman”). It was especially meaningful as Robertson’s mother was Native American and the film is based on the true story of Osage Nation murders committed by white men in 1920s Oklahoma.
He visited the film locations and, he told Variety in July, “listened to peyote hymns, drum tonalities, the rubbing of skins, and all these textures of bells and snakes and rattles. All this stuff, when it all comes together in its own music, feels good and fresh and timeless. Its soul is from Indian country.”
‘Napoleon‘ – Martin Phipps
“Napoleon was an outsider,” says the English composer of the hero of Ridley Scott’s lavish period epic. “He was from a less wealthy Corsican family, unlike the polished aristocrats of the French military. Ridley wanted this to inform the score. He was after a simple, almost folk-like melody that would reflect our central character’s origins.”
Phipps found, and played, a piano that Napoleon actually owned, and then discovered an ensemble of Corsican singers whose sound and vocal technique harkened back to Napoleon’s place of birth. Accordion, a waltz-time theme for Josephine and “quite a lot of battle music” round out the 55-minute score, interspersed with traditional classical music of the era.
‘Nyad‘ – Alexandre Desplat
The two-time Oscar winner (“Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Shape of Water”) tackled the story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad (Annette Bening), and her almost impossible goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida, with an unusual ensemble of guitars, bass guitar, strings and percussion.
“I tried to link her childhood with the final, anthemic piece, jumping from one emotion to another, connecting all these moments,” Desplat says. Attacks by sharks and jellyfish also demanded percussion for “a sense of drama and fear.” Desplat has two other scores in contention, for Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” and George Clooney’s “The Boys in the Boat.”
‘Oppenheimer‘ – Ludwig Göransson
The Swedish composer, who already has an Oscar for “Black Panther” and two Emmys for “The Mandalorian,” is nominated for his second film for Christopher Nolan (after “Tenet”). The challenge: “The music needed to channel the whole spectrum of his feelings, his emotional journey,” Göransson says.
Three months of musical experiments resulted in the sonic landscape. He followed the physicist’s journey from “a lush, organic musical landscape” for the “haunting loneliness” of Oppenheimer to an increasing reliance on synths and modern production techniques for a sense of “impending doom” and the advent of the nuclear age. His rich string writing in this score is currently up for three Grammys.
‘Poor Things‘ – Jerskin Fendrix
The first film score by English composer Fendrix (real name Joscelin Dent-Pooley) is among the year’s most unconventional, for Yorgos Lanthimos’ black comedy-fantasy about a once-dead, now resurrected Victorian woman (Emma Stone) on a voyage of self-discovery.
“The music is serving to illuminate the psychological interior of Bella,” he says. “It couldn’t be a score that was polished or invincible, and it serves to remind you of this creeping shadow that hangs over the film.” Working months before shooting even began, he sang and played many of the instruments (violin, keyboards, synthesizers) and manipulated those, and the colors of various woodwinds, into weird, often unrecognizable sounds.
‘Rustin‘ – Branford Marsalis
Marsalis, whose last feature (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) was also for director George C. Wolfe, composed a stylistically wide-ranging score for this story about the gay Black man who was largely responsible for the 1963 March on Washington.
“There was way more musical diversity in the 1960s than there is now,” Marsalis says, noting that the music for “Rustin” demanded big-band numbers (recorded with his brother Wynton’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) as well as an Elizabethan-era song for Rustin (who once sang with Paul Robeson on Broadway) and dramatic moments for orchestra at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement.
‘Saltburn‘ – Anthony Willis
Emerald Fennell, who won a screenplay Oscar for “Promising Young Woman,” returned to her college chum Anthony Willis to score “Saltburn,” a psychological thriller about a young Oxford student who befriends a wealthy fellow student and schemes to stay inside this aristocratic circle.
Willis starts with an 18th-century coronation anthem by Handel to represent Oxford. Then, Willis said, Fennell asked him to “make it as romantic we can, rather than lean into the horror of it all,” so the music also includes organ, piano, cello and choral passages. He also contributed ’90-style party music to the climactic scenes at the family estate late in the film.
‘Society of the Snow‘ – Michael Giacchino
The Oscar- and Emmy-winning composer (“Up,” “Lost”) returns with music for this harrowing chronicle of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes and the victims’ months-long struggle to survive. He previously collaborated with director J.A. Bayona on “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.”
“How would I feel if I were in their shoes?” he asks. “I tried to find that music from moment to moment in the movie.” Moods range from bleak to mournful, voiced mostly by strings, choir (singing in the Mapache language of the region) and Latin percussion. “I looked at the percussion as the inner drive and spirit of those who were daring enough to say, we’re going to climb out of here.”
‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse‘ – Daniel Pemberton
English composer Pemberton topped his 2018 “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” with music for the sequel, which “assimilated all the influences, all the musical culture, I’ve ingested in my life,” he says: hip-hop for Miles Morales, grunge for Gwen Stacy, punk for Hobie Brown, synths for the 2099 Spidey.
“Trying to bring together a huge array of sounds and approaches was like trying to control chaos,” Pemberton says. He spent more than two years on the score and says “the final three months were the most intense film scoring I’ve ever done.”
‘Wish‘ – Dave Metzger
Disney’s animated musical about a young woman who confronts a sorcerer in a medieval Mediterranean kingdom boasts songs by Grammy winners Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice, but it also has a score by Disney veteran Metzger, who has spent decades as orchestrator and arranger on such animated hits as “Frozen” and “Moana.”
Metzger’s 100-piece orchestra and 24-voice choir set the time and place with such musical colors as flamenco guitar, darbuka drum and oboe d’amore. He also arranged and orchestrated the songs in hopes of achieving “seamless transitions between the songs and the score, establish the spirit of the place and the vibe of the movie.”
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