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Historical Dramas Are Difficult to Score, but Attract Awards Attention

Historical dramas and those rooted in real-life events can be among the most challenging to score, but also yield a proportionally high number of Oscar winners. Four such live-action releases are among the most talked-about this awards season.

“All the Money in the World”
Music by Daniel Pemberton
For Ridley Scott’s film about the 1973 kidnapping of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty’s grandson, now completing post-production after the last-minute replacement of lead Kevin Spacey by Christopher Plummer, English composer Pemberton made a bold choice: voices of many kinds, from operatic to Italian folk singers.

“Getty sees himself as this grand figure,” Pemberton explains. “We have medieval voices, which refer back to his belief that he was descended from [Roman emperor] Hadrian; and the more grand operatic music, which was a slight reflection of Rome [where much of the film was shot] but also Getty’s own vision of self-identity.”

For the kidnappers, whose world is “grubby, rural, coarse and out in the middle of nowhere,” Pemberton discovered the sound of tenores: “an amazing folk tradition passed down through the generations in rural parts of Italy.” The composer even traveled to Sardinia to record the singers and incorporated the vocals into the score.

Rather than adapt classics, Pemberton composed the grand-opera and medieval-chanting sequences himself (translating phrases into Italian and Latin, respectively) and had them performed by a 70-piece orchestra and 20-voice choir, plus soloists.

Pemberton expects the music to remain intact despite the last-minute scramble to re-edit the film with new Plummer scenes.

Adds the composer: “If we have to re-score stuff, we’ll just go and re-score it.”

Battle of the Sexes
Music by Nicholas Britell
An Oscar nomination for the score to “Moonlight” put Britell on the map in 2016. This year, he tackles a gender battle of another kind: the story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). The key to the music of “Battle of the Sexes” was in demonstrating the individual personalities of the rivals.

“Billie Jean’s personal theme is this warm, ambient soundscape, these shimmering bells,” Britell says. “Then it evolves so that when you’re in the match, you’re hearing the same thematic material with a 79-piece symphony orchestra.” Riggs’ theme is more of “a smoky kind of jazz ensemble: piano, upright bass, drum kit. I was trying to focus on his own insecurities.”

There is a difference between the Billie Jean piano and the Bobby piano, Britell notes: “Whenever you hear a piano and you see Bobby, it’s a small upright. Whenever you hear Billie Jean’s, it’s a nine-foot Steinway concert grand. There is this beauty and power and conviction to Billie Jean. The Steinway just felt appropriate to her and her mission.”

Britell even recorded the score with vintage microphones. “I processed a lot of the sound with analog tape filters,” he adds. “Even if the music isn’t overtly ‘70s, we wanted it to have that kind of texture.”

Dunkirk
Music by Hans Zimmer
If there’s one thing director Christopher Nolan and composer Zimmer are constantly trying, it’s upping the ante with music in their films. To wit: “Inception” and “Interstellar,” where the collaborators demonstrated their affinity for tinkering with concepts of time. On “Dunkirk,” they revisit the approach in soundtracking the evacuation of British forces from northern France in 1940.

It all started with a pocket watch, a favorite of Nolan’s, and a recording of its ticking mechanism. Zimmer describes “re-synthesizing” the sound, “rebuilding it electronically so that I could move it in pitch and time,” says the composer with 10 Oscar noms and one win. “We wanted you to feel that sense of time running out, and how, under pressure, you can feel time differently.”

Nolan told Zimmer he didn’t want the score to be emotional, but rather “objective.” Indeed, throughout the film, Zimmer’s music grinds and chugs and whirs and bangs away. He worked closely with supervising sound editor Richard King so that music and sound effects would intertwine completely, as boat did with sand on those bloody Channel shores. Adds Zimmer: “We made all those sounds electronically. I don’t mean sampling, but literally sitting there in front of a synthesizer and creating new sounds. … It’s really an electronic score.”

Nolan’s much later brainstorm involved using the “Nimrod” from Edward Elgar’s 1899 “Enigma Variations,” which he and fellow composer Benjamin Wallfisch slowed down, deconstructed and hinted at periodically before playing it in recognizable form at the end. “That music means something about honor that you can’t put into words. It allowed you a sense of humanity.”

The composer delivered a 100-minute score before shooting began, then wound up spending seven months “struggling with the technology and mathematics of it all” — not least of which was the musical application of the so-called Shepard tone, an audio illusion of constantly ascending pitches that helps ratchet up the tension. Adds Zimmer: “This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Mudbound
Music by Tamar-kali
First-time feature composer Tamar-kali received guidance from “Mudbound” director Dee Rees in the form of three words: “ancestors” and “dark strings.” Rees’ aim, says the Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter of the drama set in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, was “a very intimate score that was not sentimental. She wanted the music to be indicative of the physical environment. So in addition to underscoring the personalities of the characters, I’m also scoring the personality of the farm. That’s why there are deep tones and sounds that are essentially a representation of the mud.”

It’s an especially stark work of music, with just eight string players and Tamar-kali overdubbing herself on vocals during the opening grave-digging scene. “There’s this underlying sense of impending danger, and misery,” she says. “There’s also the monotony of living in that environment and what that entails. I was trying to give voice to that.”

Tamar-kali wrote the nearly 40-minute score in four weeks late last year, and hopes to do more films. “I’ve always been inspired across disciplines.”

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