Unlike the song category, it’s impossible to predict the winner from this year’s quintet of original-score nominees. It’s almost anyone’s game.
Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson spent a month in Africa recording unusual drums, flutes and vocals, then adding them to a massive London orchestra and choir to create a unique soundscape for the fictional land of Wakanda in “Black Panther” — the first Marvel movie to land a score nomination.
Terence Blanchard, like Göransson, is a first-time nominee for “BlacKkKlansman” — amazingly, as he has been Spike Lee’s house composer since 1991, doing acclaimed work on films like “Malcolm X” and “Inside Man.” He’s also the first African-American composer to be nominated in this category since Herbie Hancock won 32 years ago for “Round Midnight.”
Nicholas Britell, previously nominated for 2016’s “Moonlight,” reunited with director Barry Jenkins for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” from James Baldwin’s story of racial injustice. His more intimate music, mostly for strings and brass, stands in sharp contrast to the bigger, more traditionally orchestral scores in this group.
French composer Alexandre Desplat, who has won twice in the last four years (“The Grand Budapest Hotel” and last year’s “The Shape of Water”), is nominated for the animated “Isle of Dogs,” his fourth film for “Budapest” director Wes Anderson. But will Academy voters reward him a third time in five years? Only Alan Menken has accomplished that, and that was back in the days of the classic Disney musicals.
Speaking of Disney musicals, what of “Mary Poppins Returns” by Marc Shaiman? If “Shallow” wins best song, could this be the place where Academy voters honor the long-awaited sequel to one of the studio’s most famous films? Shaiman has been nominated five times before this year without a win (he’s also up for Best Song with “The Place Where Lost Things Go”). And if he wins — having already received an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony — he becomes one of only a handful of EGOT honorees.
Oscar record: First nomination
Musical style: African sounds, rhythms plus big orchestra
Composer’s POV: “I came back from Africa with a totally different idea of music. This music was so unique and special, so the challenge became, how do I have that as the foundation of the entire score, but infuse it with an orchestra and modern production in a way that it didn’t lose its African authenticity?”
Surprising fact: Famed Senegalese musician Baaba Maal and members of his band perform on the score.
Oscar record: First nomination
Musical style: Blanchard’s ’70s style “electric band” plus orchestra
Composer’s POV: “I started thinking about Jimi Hendrix playing the National Anthem. That was the most American thing I could think of — the rebellious nature of it, the classic melodic thing we all stand for and have all come to revere, but done his way.”
Surprising fact: Blanchard started playing trumpet on Spike Lee scores in ’89, began composing them in ’91
If Beale Street Could Talk
Oscar record: Second nomination
Musical style: Chamber-style score for strings and brass
Composer’s POV: “It’s mostly cellos and basses. To us, that felt like love. The film focuses on romantic love, parents’ love for their children, an almost idealized kind of love at times. The strings represented love, and the brass elements represented extremes of emotion.”
Surprising fact: Britell also scored another multiple Oscar nominee: “Vice”
Isle of Dogs
Oscar record: Two wins, seven other noms
Musical style: Strange ensemble of taiko drums, saxophones, male choir
Composer’s POV: “The taikos drive us along, like a long, tedious, difficult march that these dogs have to walk, from one point to another on the island, to find the lost dog.”
Surprising fact: Desplat’s fourth unconventional score for a Wes Anderson movie
Oscar record: Five previous noms (also nom’d this year for song)
Musical style: Classically, nostalgically symphonic
Composer’s POV: “The little boy in me had this fantasy, this dream, to somehow become part of the ‘Mary Poppins’ story. The weeks of scoring this movie were the greatest weeks of my life.”
Surprising fact: Shaiman recorded an early version of the score for director Rob Marshall to play on the set; it all ended up in the movie