Australia” boasts one of the more complicated and diverse soundtracks in recent memory. But will the Academy reward what director Baz Luhrmann calls “as musically layered a world as the film is culturally layered”?
The “Australia” score is a patchwork quilt of David Hirschfelder’s orchestral underscore, spiced with such indigenous Australian instruments as the digeridoo, wobbleboard and clapsticks; the folk music of the Northern Territories, from bush ballads to Aboriginal chants; music of the period, from “Over the Rainbow” to big-band numbers; and new tunes written by such luminaries as Elton John and more obscure artists like Angela Little, which are woven throughout the composition.
“The idea of taking disparate elements but layering them together to make a singular whole, musically, is also the dramatic idea of the movie,” the helmer adds. “The philosophy of the story is also alive in the philosophy of the music.”
Luhrmann — whose previous film, the musical “Moulin Rouge,” won Oscars for its art direction and costume design but failed to receive any music nominations — likens Hirschfelder to the master chef in a restaurant.
“He employed many sauciers: people who do desserts, people who are fabulous with meats. … In this vast kitchen, there were musical creatives as different as scholars and singers from Arnhem Land (and) folk composers like John Butler and Felix Meagher.”
Hirschfelder — with whom Luhrmann worked on “Strictly Ballroom” — was happy to head the musical team, even though it meant that he would sometimes be working with other composers’ melodies.
“Baz wanted an Australian composer to help him plumb the depths of folk music and imbue the resonances of that into the score,” he says. “The movie is broad visually and it needed a very broad range of music to mirror its eclecticism and of Australia as a culture and a country.”
Hirschfelder estimates that he wrote “95 or 100 minutes of orchestral music,” with anywhere from 20 to 100 musicians and a 40-voice choir (plus smaller children’s choirs). More than 75%, he says, was his own.
It’s the “additional music” credit that may vex the executive committee of the Academy music branch, which decides eligibility questions. Luhrmann, his longtime musical associate Meagher and songwriter Little receive “additional music” credit on the film, and Hirschfelder’s interpolation of Harold Arlen’s
classic “Over the Rainbow” and Elton John’s new “Drover’s Ballad” in various spots could spell doom for a hoped-for “original score” nod.
Earlier this Oscar season, the committee disqualified “The Dark Knight” score for listing too many composers as having contributed to the final score, then reversed its decision. In recent years, the Academy has generally frowned on collaborations in its “original score” category.
Hirschfelder, a previous nominee for “Shine” and “Elizabeth,” points out that “composition is taking elements and bringing them together — it’s not always about writing a melody from scratch. It’s also the ability to take folk tunes, amalgamate them and extrapolate them into orchestral pieces.”
The famous Australian tune “Waltzing Matilda,” for example, is incorporated, while Bach’s hymn “Sheep May Safely Graze” becomes the theme for Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman). Elton John wrote the “Drover’s Ballad” specifically for the film. Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” even shows up at the end of the movie.
“This is a banquet of music, indigenous music, original score, quotes of movie music,” notes Fox music president Robert Kraft. “This is the way film music is being done now, a combination of mashup, remix, acknowledgement of former styles, tips of the hat to original source music.”
Adds Luhrmann: “How could I make a film that is about Aboriginal culture — a film that requires a romantic lush score, country and Western, balladeering and opera, Asian pearling music — if we did not have a collaboration? It’s time to embrace this way of working. Isn’t the world at large, given the enviroment that we’re in, about cross-fertilization, cross-referencing? Isn’t it really about collaboration?”