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Early Oscar Score Contenders Range From Guns of War to Sounds of Silence

Music always functions better in films when it’s given a chance to shine and not get buried in the overall sound mix. Four of this year’s most talked-about movies benefited from such treatment.

Darkest Hour
Music by: Dario Marianelli
For Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill wartime drama, the director initially suggested solo piano but also, composer Marianelli says, “great propulsion, great momentum forward,” all conveying “the sense of restlessness of the man.”

Enter world-class soloist Vikingur Olafsson. The Icelandic pianist was “particularly versed in minimalism, with an expressiveness that wasn’t remotely romantic,” Marianelli says. He quickly expanded the scope of the score to be more fully orchestral.

Rhythmic use of strings permeates “Darkest Hour,” with short motifs that act as “signposts, trying to mark the way or show you where you might be going,” Marianelli says. One associated specifically with Churchill, another a “buildup to war, a vaguely militaristic musical idea with drums and brass.”

Toughest of all was underscoring Churchill’s final, inspirational “we shall fight” speech, rousing the British to war: “It was six or seven minutes. You start from almost nothing and you build and build.” Worth noting: Marianelli already has an Oscar for “Atonement” and two additional nominations, all for Wright films.

Victoria & Abdul
Music by: Thomas Newman
There could be a 15th Oscar nomination in Newman’s future for his warm and colorful score to Stephen Frears’ “Victoria & Abdul.” The film tells of the unlikely friendship between England’s Queen Victoria and an Indian clerk who becomes her controversial confidante.

He had already encountered Indian music in two “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies (both of which also starred Judi Dench) and decided to apply “Indian flavors where appropriate,” notably sitar and tabla, to convey the atmosphere — especially in the opening and closing scenes in the Indian city of Agra.

The end title features soloist Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi, who helped popularize Indian music in the 1960s. For the rest of the score, American guitarist George Doering played electric sitar, along with dulcimer and mandolin.

Of course, what would a 19th-century setting be without a harpsichord? The familiar pluck makes an appearance, but much of the score features an 80-piece orchestra — rich with strings and woodwinds — to illustrate the complex personal connection between the title characters. Says Newman: “The idea was, how could music help to simplify the storytelling? There was something light and effervescent about the movie, and something delightful about the relationship between Victoria and Abdul.”

Wonder Woman
Music by: Rupert Gregson-Williams
For the summer smash, composer Rupert Gregson-Williams was challenged with establishing the musical character of Wonder Woman. “I didn’t start the film immediately with a superhero,” he says. “At the beginning, she is Diana — a youngster who doesn’t know her strength or her powers. That allowed me to get inside the person.”

Gregson-Williams’ score used a 70-piece orchestra, 30-vocalist choir, and also featured two cello soloists (top English cellist Caroline Dale playing acoustic, and an electric cello played by Chinese-American Tina Guo) to tell a story of love, first and foremost. “The Diana theme reflects her emotion, her conscience for the world,” he says. “There’s a strong romance to it.”

The more confident, heroic music, actually the Hans Zimmer-Tom Holkenborg theme for the character as originated in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” is hinted at but doesn’t appear in full form until much later in the film.

Wonderstruck
Music by: Carter Burwell
Burwell’s score was integral to Todd Haynes’ film because both of its young protagonists (one in 1927, the other in 1977) were deaf and at least a third
of the running time is silent.

“Rose’s story is told with acoustical instruments, and features percussion, and Ben’s story is told with more pop instruments, electric guitar and synthesizers, so their musical worlds are distinct,” says the composer.

For the percussive element, he recruited renowned musician Evelyn Glennie — deaf since age 12 — to play marimba and aluphone (a series of tuned aluminum bells). In addition, glockenspiel and wood blocks figure in the score because “[they] suggest kids right away,” adds Burwell. “And it’s a completely unsentimental sound.”

He also employed Welsh bassist Percy Jones, who played on Brian Eno’s ’70s albums and whose music (along with David Bowie’s) is referenced in the latter time period of the film. Says Burwell: “We imagine that Ben’s mom listened to this kind of music.”

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