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Oscar Eligibility Decisions Give Musical Scores a Shot

Oscar’s disqualification of the original scores for “Arrival” and “Manchester by the Sea” have been much-debated in the music community in recent weeks. What has garnered considerably less attention, but may have a big impact on the music competition in years to come, is how the Academy music branch has treated this year’s musicals.

For the first time in many years, the branch executive committee has declared all of the year’s major year-end songfests – including “La La Land,” “Moana,” “Sing” and “Trolls” – eligible for the “original score” Academy Award.

This is a marked difference from previous years, when song-dominated films have been routinely disqualified from the score Oscar on the basis of a long-standing Oscar rule denying eligibility if “it has been diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs.”

Last year, for example, the dramatic score for “Straight Outta Compton” was declared ineligible under this rule, and in 2013, the score for “Frozen” was similarly barred from the competition — because there were songs in both. In earlier years, the background scores for such song-dominated films as “Enchanted” and “Happy Feet” were also declared ineligible.

So what’s changed? The rules remain the same, according to Academy officials. It is the interpretation of those rules that appears to be in flux.

This year, the Academy seems to have thrown the doors open wide, announcing that 145 original scores were eligible for 2016 films, a much higher total than in previous years (in 2015, there were 112; in 2014, there were 114; and in 2013, also 114).

The eyebrow-raisers were the inclusion of the scores for “La La Land” by Justin Hurwitz, “Moana” by Mark Mancina, “Sing” by Joby Talbot, and “Trolls” by Christophe Beck. “La La Land” and “Moana” each contain several original songs, and both “Sing” and “Trolls” feature numerous covers. (Beck was also the composer of “Frozen,” which the branch disqualified in 2013.)

Senior music-branch governor Charles Bernstein denies that any precedent is being broken, or newly established. “Each achievement is looked at,” he says. “If that achievement gets a bit of an advantage from the songs, would it be unfair to disqualify it? Each year the committee looks at each (entry) and comes to a conclusion. All of the scores stood on their own.”

Fellow governor Laura Karpman expressed similar thoughts: “Every single score was considered, and all the ramifications were considered with great, great care. Everybody is very diligent. It’s not about what happened 10 years ago. It’s about considering what we have in front of us, and what is going on in contemporary scoring.”

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