'Horse Whisperer,' 'Les Miserables' among dark horses

Veteran Oscar watchers say it’s a foregone conclusion that John Williams will be nominated for “Saving Private Ryan” in the dramatic-score category and that the animated “Mulan,” “A Bug’s Life” and “Prince of Egypt” will dominate the comedy/musical category when the nods are announced Feb. 9.

But what, among the dozens of choices facing the music branch, should not be overlooked? Daily Variety put that question to five astute observers of the Hollywood music scene — a record producer, a music critic, a journalist, a music editor and a Web site overseer — for their opinions.

Royal S. Brown, film-music critic for Fanfare magazine, singled out Thomas Newman’s music for “The Horse Whisperer,” pointing out, “The fundamental Americana basis of Newman’s style gets a chance to come totally to the foreground here, and it is glorious.”

Brown thinks the Academy should “bend the rules just a tad to give Bernard Herrmann a posthumous Oscar for one of the most appropriate and influential film scores ever written” — “Psycho,” which Danny Elfman adapted and produced for the Gus Van Sant remake.

Soundtrack producer Nick Redman (the “Star Wars” trilogy) chose a pair of Elliot Goldenthal scores: the critically derided Barry Levinson thriller “Sphere” and the far better liked Neil Jordan movie “The Butcher Boy.”

Goldenthal’s complex, inventive score for “Sphere” “introduced a hermetically sealed musical environment that gave you a sense of enclosure, mystery and menace,” Redman says. For “Butcher Boy,” Redman cited the composer’s “spicy melange of sounds and styles” and “otherworldly resonance.”

Redman also liked the music of two romantic box office failures: George Fenton’s “Dangerous Beauty,” which he says “enveloped a period film with charm and whimsy,” and John Barry’s “Swept From the Sea,” which he says found “the romance and passion that was missing in the movie.”

Peter Kelly, of the popular Internet site movietunes.com, raves about Basil Poledouris’ symphonic score for “Les Miserables.” Even listening to the score apart from the movie, Kelly says, “You get the depth of passion, energy and emotion that the story is telling.”

Similarly, he found “magical” Patrick Doyle’s music for the all-but-forgotten “Great Expectations,” “like a grand opera of sorts, except the spotlights are focused less on the human voice and more on the flute, guitar and piano.”

Daniel Schweiger, who works as a music editor in addition to his role as soundtrack editor for Venice magazine, lamented the continuing “music-effects-ization” of action-film scores, as in the Jerry Bruckheimer films “Enemy of the State” and “Armageddon,” in which “music is also a sound effect” and “you forget it the second you hear it.” He thinks both films did a disservice to composer Trevor Rabin, “who wrote one of this year’s most interesting scores, for ‘Homegrown.’ “

One of the year’s best dramatic scores, according to Schweiger, is Randy Miller’s music for Robert Towne’s “Without Limits,” “a beautiful, full-on Americana score, very sparingly used but with a major impact.” He also cited Danny Elfman’s “very ethereal, almost transparent and very oddly recorded” music for Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan.”

Movieline columnist Steve Pond chose Randy Newman’s score for “Pleasantville.” “It’s emotional but it’s also very smart,” Pond says. “His nostalgia is very heartfelt but it’s not cheap and it’s not overly romanticized. He can evoke an earlier, simpler era, but at the same time, you know that he’s aware that things were screwed up then, too.”

Pond also cites Nigel Westlake’s music for “Babe: Pig in the City” and Debbie Wiseman’s score for the indie “Wilde.” As the “Babe” movie “went darker, the music stayed more bucolic and innocent, which was nice because in a certain way it grounded the movie.” Wiseman’s “beautifully evocative” music for “Wilde” doesn’t “trot out the standard Irish cliches,” he points out.

Pond also singles out Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Snake Eyes” as “a blend of austerity and tension and, for him, romanticism. This is much bigger and bolder than what he’s usually hired to do. This is a guy who comes by his boldness by way of ‘Rite of Spring’ rather than ‘Crimson Tide.'”

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