Awards season nowadays means cineplexes get classed up with the music of Alexandre Desplat (who won his first Academy Award for 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), and this year is no exception. Desplat has two fall films with “Oscar” written all over them: “Suffragette” and “The Danish Girl,” both socially conscious films about the plights of oppressed groups.
For “Suffragette,” directed by Sarah Gavron, Desplat wrote stoically martial music carried by a persistent drumbeat rhythm — “to show there’s a war going on that can never stop.”
“I had two older sisters,” he says, “so I’ve been raised more by women than men. I know the value of this equity, and how hard my mother fought for that. I know what women had to go through to get rid of these chains that were keeping them from being equal.”
Desplat accompanies the defiant determination of the suffragettes with a theme filled with bluesy, minor-on-major chords. “I didn’t want the score to sound dated or classical,” he explains. “I wanted the audience to feel that there was a strong connection. And, of course, using a bluesy pattern would connect also to the struggle of black people.
“I also didn’t want the score to be ‘girly.’ I wanted the score to be grounded, to be strong, to feel the guts of this power.”
In “The Danish Girl,” Desplat comments on the real-life journey of painter Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe — who received one of the world’s first sex reassignment operations — from the perspective of Wegener’s wife, Gerda.
“We watch him become his true self through the eyes of the woman who loves him,” Desplat says. “And despite the fact that he’s changing sex, she still loves him as a human being. And I think that’s the most beautiful lesson of love. That’s what I’m trying to do with the music — to exercise her feelings.”
Both scores are painted with a traditional orchestral palette, which was deliberate. “We wanted the music to have a familiarity, something organic and warm,” Desplat says. “Not something that was otherworldly. We wanted the score to fit in, like (an) LGBT (person) should just fit in.”
The subject matter of both films could easily invite musical melodrama or bromides, but “we tried to keep the emotion restrained and deep,” says Desplat — “as subtle as we could. It’s what I prefer. I always think that less is more.”
Alan Silvestri has scored every Robert Zemeckis film since “Romancing the Stone.” But “secretly,” Silvestri admits, “I didn’t want to go up on the wire.”
“Going up on the wire” was the reason Zemeckis made “The Walk” — the true story of French daredevil Philippe Petit who, in 1974, strode across a steel cable between Manhattan’s Twin Towers.
Silvestri’s score follows Petit’s Parisian origins with playful street music and an ill-fated love theme. But he knew the 17-minute spectacle atop the wire — part action scene, part religious experience — was the key to the score.
He unlocked it with simple, arpeggiating piano figures, which he performed himself to ensure their echoing effects were just right.
“I was looking for something that would give the sense of a question,” Silvestri explains. “Then when that second foot comes out, the whole tonality changes. And as he starts to gain confidence, the motif is played on every beat… indicating, I’ve got this.”
“Brooklyn” is an Irish film, helmed by an Irish director, starring an Irish actress… scored by a Canadian.
“I think what (director John Crowley) was looking for, that he thought I might be able to do, was something that was powerful emotionally, but not cheesy,” says composer Michael Brook.
The tuneful, melancholy music of “Brooklyn” is anchored in a Celtic-flavored violin theme for Saoirse Ronan’s character. Piano, banjo and a blanket of strings surround the violin, adding warmth and complexity.
Brook does have Irish street cred. He co-composed 1986’s “Captive” with the Edge, and produced an album of Irish sean nos music with singer Iarla O’Lionaird (who makes a cameo in “Brooklyn”).
“There’s always stuff in there that’s not quite following the rules,” Brook says, “partly just because I don’t know the rules. John was looking for something that clearly referenced traditional — both film music and Irish music — but also that didn’t totally stay on the rails.”