Eye on the Oscars: Song & Score

With all the criticism that the Academy music branch gets, the one thing that everyone can agree on is this: They follow their own very strict rules.

However, a variety of observers say that maybe the rules themselves need modification — especially when it comes to “adapted scores,” which are no longer eligible under Academy’s mandate. Or “partial scores,” which never have been.

In the past few years, several acclaimed works that were not entirely “original” have been disqualified as “scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music,” according to the Acad rule book.

So last year, Carter Burwell’s adaptation of 19th-century hymns into the “True Grit” score and Clint Mansell’s twisted version of Tchaikovsky in “Black Swan” were disallowed from the competition.

This year posed even greater challenges, as Howard Shore’s use of Wagner in “A Dangerous Method” and the numerous sequel scores — including Alexandre Desplat’s symphonic finale for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2″ and Michael Giacchino’s music for “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” — came under scrutiny by the music-branch executive committee, whose job is to decide if they are sufficiently “original” to merit a possible nomination.

Desplat’s original music for “The Tree of Life” fell into the same abyss that Jonny Greenwood’s much-talked-about score for “There Will Be Blood” did in 2007, as both partial scores were overshadowed by the other music (mostly classical excerpts) and thus deemed ineligible. Top English concert-hall composer John Tavener’s choral work for “Children of Men” in 2006 is another example.

Some observers are calling for an overhaul of the rules that would reinstate the adaptation category — the Oscar-winning scores for such films as “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music” and “Cabaret” would not be eligible on today’s restricted playing field — or otherwise provide a means to honor scores that have been banned in recent years as violating the rules.

“The Academy has made it clear that they feel the craft of film music is limited to original music,” says Maureen Crowe, president of the Guild of Music Supervisors. “That has been their definition. It really is out of step and a little condescending to the arts of filmmaking and music.”

Crowe’s colleagues cite films of Quentin Tarantino (like “Kill Bill”) and Martin Scorsese (notably “GoodFellas”) as indicative of modern ways of using popular music instead of original scores.

“It’s long overdue for the Academy to seriously look at music in a much broader sense,” says Crowe, who advocates considering a “best use of music in storytelling” approach to the awards.

Dondi Bastone, who helped director Alexander Payne assemble a traditional-Hawaiian music score for “The Descendants,” points out that “found music is used more now than ever, and not just as ‘source’ music coming out of a radio.” He says the “Descendants” score “had to be very delicately sculpted to underscore the tender moments.”

There are three Oscar music categories, although only two (original song, original score) are ever activated. Some are calling for the never-used third category (“original musical”) to revert to its 1980s status, as a hybrid category that encompassed both original musicals and scores adapted from pre-existing material.

Previous winners in that category include John Williams, who won for adapting the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof”; Marvin Hamlisch, for tailoring Scott Joplin rags into a score for “The Sting”; and Andre Previn, for adapting “Porgy and Bess” and “My Fair Lady.” The idea was, whoever took pre-existing material (often Broadway musicals) and did a stellar job of turning it into a movie score, deserved to be honored.

Academy music-branch chairman Bruce Broughton says he would consider a proposal for redesigning one of the categories to accommodate adaptation scores, but cautioned that “it would take an act of the board of governors” to approve such a move. And adding another Oscar to the broadcast, he suggested, might be an uphill battle.

Still, it may be necessary. As one studio executive put it: “If there’s a disconnect between the way music is being used in pictures and the way people are awarded, then there’s no value to the award. (Recent Oscars) have been so eclectic or arbitrary that people don’t know what to make of it. It’s become a nuisance.”

Eye on the Oscars: Song & Score
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