×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Music branch can’t please everyone

Academy group is always evolving

No Academy group has tinkered more with its rules than the music branch. Over the years, categories have been added and subtracted, and the award titles have changed repeatedly. Even the idea of what is eligible and what is not — for songs and scores alike — has been overhauled numerous times.

The thorniest issue facing the music branch each year involves what to disqualify, and why. In an era of sequels, franchises and other films in which pre-existing music is involved, the question of originality arises constantly, according to members of the branch executive committee that makes those rulings.

Only original scores are considered by the Academy, the key rule-book definitions being “substantial body of music … written specifically for the motion picture”; “scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other pre-existing music … shall not be eligible.”

But for most of its existence, the Academy also — in a separate category — honored composers who adapted the work of others into dramatically effective scores. John Williams’ first Oscar was for adapting the songs of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Marvin Hamlisch won for interpreting Scott Joplin rags for “The Sting.” Nelson Riddle won for arranging 1920s songs for “The Great Gatsby.” Leonard Rosenman won twice, for adapting classical music in “Barry Lyndon” and Woody Guthrie tunes in “Bound for Glory.”

In most years, this category combined musical scores (five or more new songs) with adaptation scores. The category was abolished after 1983. Alex North’s clever use of Italian opera in “Prizzi’s Honor” and Craig Armstrong’s production of dozens of songs in “Moulin Rouge” were ineligible for Oscar, for example, because a category to fit their accomplishments no longer existed.

In recent years there have been a growing number of calls to reinstate the category. This year alone, Clint Mansell’s use of Tchaikovsky in “Black Swan” and Carter Burwell’s use of 19th-century hymns in “True Grit” have been much discussed. If the term “adaptation score” was added to the “original musical” category — the latter of which exists for song scores but is rarely activated due to too few entries — wouldn’t the decision-making process be easier?

“I don’t think so,” says branch exec committee chairman Bruce Broughton, citing pressure to reduce, not expand, the number of awards being given. “If we had five real song scores, we could consider activating that. But adaptation? I would say that one is gone.”

Robert Kraft, president of Fox Music, supports the idea of reinstating the adaptation category. “In a postmodern world where remixing, mashups and sampling are an accepted aspect of contemporary work, we need to acknowledge the efforts of composers who experiment in this arena,” he says.

Not everyone is convinced, however.

Asks another studio music exec: “Are there enough worthy projects that would qualify for that category? Or would we be even more outraged that unworthy people are taking home our industry’s most prestigious award because it’s not a real competition in yet another category?”

A busy Oscar consultant, who also preferred anonymity because of awards-season sensitivity, admits being conflicted. “Original use of published music is still a creative endeavor. It’s not exactly original music, it’s adapted, so why not create an adapted-score category?” he says.

“On the other hand, take existing great material you know everyone loves, like the Pachelbel Canon in ‘Ordinary People,’ and voters might vote for what they like as opposed to the actual transformation of that original material. ‘Across the Universe’ would have won hands down just because it was the Beatles and for no other reason of merit.”

But that argument can be made about almost any category. Voters have their own standards, and music is a very subjective arena, even among working composers. (The Beatles, in fact, won the “original song score” Oscar for 1970’s “Let It Be” despite the fact that it was a documentary about the making of an album, not a movie for which they wrote original songs.)

Hamlisch, who won that 1973 music-adaptation Oscar for “The Sting,” thinks the category is still a valid one. “It is an art form,” he says. “It’s not just taking some stuff and slapping it together. When done correctly, it can be very artistic and important to the film. You have an element that people know,” he adds, “but you’re going to surprise them with how it is used in a totally different way.”

But, he acknowledges, there need to be enough such scores to merit an award. “Let’s say there were only two for the year. It becomes an instantaneous nomination, and I think that’s what they were trying to avoid when they abolished (the category). The way to go about this is to see whether everyone can agree on a number that makes it a contest, and not just a prize you give out. It’s an important art form, and I don’t think that it should be belittled. But it shouldn’t be automatic.”

Get more from Eye on the Oscars: Music:
Music branch can’t please all the people | Song category hangs by thread | Daft Punk immersed in ‘Tron’ | Songs in contention
Contenders:
Michael Brook | Carter Burwell | Danny Elfman | Grizzly Bear | Jan Kaczmarek | Rachel Portman | Anton Sanko

Popular on Variety

More Music

  • does self-described "family brands" business Hasbro

    With Hasbro Acquisition, Is eOne Planning to Offload Family-Unfriendly Properties?

    Hasbro’s $4 billion acquisition of eOne in August instantly put the Canadian toy giant in the league of major entertainment and content companies thanks to eOne’s arsenal of IP assets in music, television and film. But does the self-described “family brands” business that’s home to The Game of Life and My Little Pony align with [...]

  • Hopper Reserve

    Dennis Hopper's Dying Wish: His Own Strain of Marijuana

    Even as celebrity brands are starting to flood the emerging Cannabis market, Hopper Reserve stands out. The brand was launched by Marin Hopper, Dennis Hopper’s daughter from his marriage to Brooke Hayward. Hopper Reserve is a gram of California indoor-grown flower, two packs of rolling papers, a pair of matches and a trading card either [...]

  • Snoop Dogg Weed

    In the Cannabis Business, Not All Star Strains Are Created Equal

    With the cannabis green rush in full swing, many celebrities are jumping into the fray with their own brands, including such well-known stoners as Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg and Tommy Chong. But as it turns out, not all star strains are created equal, so we assembled a trio of crack experts to put the product [...]

  • The Cars - Ric OcasekThe Cars

    Ric Ocasek's Death Brings Turbo Boost to the Cars' Sales, Streams and Airplay

    For fans of the Cars, relistening to the band’s music was just what they needed in the hours and days following news of band leader Ric Ocasek’s death. The Cars was the artist with the second-highest overall album sales in the two days following Ocasek’s death, according to BuzzAngle Music, with the Sept. 15-16 long-dormant [...]

  • Richard Branson Jason Felts

    Kaaboo Festival Acquired by Virgin Fest Owner Jason Felts

    Kaaboo, which says it has “shifted the music festival paradigm by offering a highly amenitized festival experience for adults,” is now under new ownership. Virgin Fest founder and CEO Jason Felts (pictured above with Virgin founder Richard Branson) has fully acquired all of the festival brand assets through an affiliate of Virgin Fest, the music [...]

  • Live Nation Chief Michael Rapino Talks

    Live Nation-Ticketmaster Chief Michael Rapino Talks Dept. of Justice Inquiries

    Back in August, Senators Richard Blumenthal of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota made the most recent of several requests for an Department of Justice antitrust investigation into competition in the ticketing industry, and it soon became clear that the target of the probe was Live Nation and its 2010 merger with Ticketmaster, which [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content