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From ‘Joker’ to ‘Judy,’ Composers of Seven of the Year’s Most Celebrated Scores Discuss Their Methods

JOKER, Hildur Guðnadóttir

It isn’t often that an actor’s performance is transformed by the score (usually because the music is recorded long after the actors have gone home). But it happened on “Joker,” when director Todd Phillips played an early version of composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s theme on the set and actor Joaquin Phoenix began dancing to it.

“I was so influenced by the score,” Phoenix later told ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel. “We wanted something that illustrated the transformation into Joker that was non-verbal, and that’s what we came up with.”

The composer read Phillips’ script, and submitted – prior to shooting – musical ideas she played on her Halldorophone. It’s a specially designed electro-acoustic cello that has a separate set of mic’d resonating strings, turning the instrument into “a kind of feedback mechanism. It’s like a Jimi Hendrix cello,” she says.

That melancholy, often raw and sometimes dissonant sound follows Phoenix throughout his transformation from sad-sack clown Arthur Fleck into bitter, violent madman Joker. “In the beginning, you feel like you’re listening only to a solo cello, but there are almost 100 people playing throughout the score.

“As the film develops, the orchestra steps more and more in front and, by the end, kind of suffocates the cello,” Guðnadóttir explains. “This poor guy gets so angry, and the orchestra gets angry with him; everything gets louder and more aggressive, and the music really punches you in the face.”

The composer performed all of the cello passages in her Berlin studio. It was then mixed together with the orchestra, recorded later in New York.

“Joker” marks the Icelandic-born composer’s largest exposure to date. A close colleague of the late Johann Johannsson, she played on his scores for “Sicario” and “Arrival,” then scored the “Sicario” sequel, “Day of the Soldado.” She recently won the Emmy for her score for the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.”

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HARRIET, Terence Blanchard

Despite its mid-19th-century American setting, Terence Blanchard never alludes to the period in his score for “Harriet,” the story of slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman (played by Cynthia Erivo).

“People get bogged down with that,” Blanchard explains. “The story of Harriet is a universal story – the story of a very powerful, diminutive woman who didn’t let anything get in her way. I want everybody to relate to her story.”

The composer (an Oscar nominee last year for his music for Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”) recalls director Kasi Lemmons telling him the film was not a profile of a “shrinking violent slave. The film is really about her power and strength, her commitment to help people and follow her faith.”

Blanchard’s orchestral score is both dignified and heroic. “Kasi and I joked about her being, in a sense, an action hero. It helped me to craft what the sound should be. The strings allow me to give that very emotional element to the film, and the brass adds a certain level of strength to the character. The drums are there to give a sense of pace and culture.”

Blanchard conducted a 70-piece Nashville orchestra with substantial solos for piano and cello. “It had to have that element of tenderness, yet still convey power,” he says.

He cites a memorable moment when Harriet, free at last, walks across a field by herself in the rain. “Trying to find the right pitch took some time,” he recalls. “Sometimes you can barely tell there’s orchestra there; sometimes it’s just piano, or piano and strings, for the tender moments.”

“Harriet” is the third film for composer and director. Lemmons also supplied the libretto for Blanchard’s acclaimed opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which debuted in St. Louis in June and which has been booked by New York’s Metropolitan Opera for a future season.

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FORD V. FERRARI, Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders

Marco Beltrami has scored more than 100 films, been Oscar-nominated twice (for “The Hurt Locker” and “3:10 to Yuma”) and recently won an Emmy (for the documentary “Free Solo”). But he says “Ford v. Ferrari,” the story of two rival car companies battling for supremacy on the racetrack, is “my favorite film I’ve ever worked on.”

It’s partly because of the director (James Mangold, their fourth film together after “Yuma,” “The Wolverine” and “Logan”); the subject matter (Beltrami is also a racer, although motorcycles are his preferred speed vehicles); the band they assembled; and the relaxed schedule.

“When we started on the film, Jim sent us a playlist of things that inspired him, and the sound of what the score might be – stuff going back to the ’50s, some jazz, and in the ’60s, rock ‘n’ roll,” says Beltrami. “That was a starting point for us.”

The entire score was played by just 15 musicians: three guitarists playing six-string nylon, pedal steel, electric and fuzz guitars; keyboard including B3 organ and piano; bass, both electric and acoustic; drums, percussion and vibes; and a small horn section including trumpets, trombones, saxophone and flute.

“The whole score is centered around the band,” adds Buck Sanders (a longtime collaborator with Beltrami, co-nominated with him for “The Hurt Locker”). “The film was put together so beautifully that the action didn’t really need any help. For us, it was more about connecting the characters together.”

Because the film spans from 1959 to 1966, the range is from rockabilly (for the rural racetracks) to jazz (European scenes involving the Ferrari factory), but the majority of the score is guitar-driven and rock-based.

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MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, Daniel Pemberton

Edward Norton’s film, about a detective’s assistant who suffers from Tourette Syndrome and tries to solve his boss’s murder, is set in 1950s New York. As production neared, he asked an old friend, jazz great Wynton Marsalis, to record a handful of jazz standards as music for a Harlem nightclub. He also arranged and performed a Miles Davis-style version of a song written by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for the film.

“The film is steeped in jazz,” says composer Daniel Pemberton (“Into the Spider-Verse,” “Steve Jobs”). “It seems to make so much sense to latch onto that for the score, but I didn’t want to do a conventional jazz score. How do we make something new?”

Explains Pemberton, an Englishman known for trying unusual approaches: “One of the things I love about jazz is its abstract nature, whereas pop music always gives these hooks and riffs you grab onto quickly. Jazz always has this mysterious color to it. I wanted to get that into the score, but in a very different way.”

He began by asking a London saxophonist to record offbeat sounds which he then manipulated digitally: “instruments from the 1950s going through a process of the 2010s,” he says. His modernist approach mirrors that of Jerry Goldsmith for another period detective story, the classic “Chinatown.”

Pemberton also wrote a pair of lyrical themes for Norton’s character Lionel and his friend Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that, as played by Marsalis and his five-piece New York band, become critical parts of the musical fabric of the film.

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PAIN & GLORY, Alberto Iglesias

Pain and Glory” marks the 11th collaboration between acclaimed director Pedro Almodovar and composer Alberto Iglesias (a three-time Oscar nominee, none, curiously, for Almodovar films). “It’s a very long career, working together, I think 25 years,” he says by phone from Madrid. “He is very open to my suggestions, and we work without any temp track,” he says, referring to filmmakers’ frequent use of pre-existing music prior to the composer’s arrival.

The film focuses on a veteran director (Antonio Banderas) who, unable to work for medical reasons, recalls his childhood, reconnects with a long-estranged actor, and remembers his first love. “The film is very intimate,” says Iglesias, “so it needed music that really tells the truth, is very connected with the words, and with the inner voice of the actor.”

His solution was a chamber-music score for string sextet, clarinet and piano. Light, particularly that coming through the roof of his childhood home, is a recurring theme in the film, and Iglesias represents it with violin and piano sonorities. Solo clarinet (an unusual sound in contemporary films) often illustrates the director’s pain and inner turmoil.

Electronic music occasionally intrudes, as Iglesias explains: “I needed automatic, rapid elements to express “little tremblings, the anxiety of the character, something strange to open the door to his dark side.”

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JUDY, Gabriel Yared

While most of the talk about “Judy” has centered on Renee Zellweger’s performance, and the songs she sings in her London concerts, the score by Oscar winner Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”) helps to supply the emotion of her tortured final years.

“My music needed to reflect Judy’s doubts, her internal pain, the longing for her kids, her anxiety about performing, the nightmares of her childhood and many other struggles she endured,” says Yared. “It had to convey her solitude, that she felt like nobody loved her, even though she had been so adored in the past. The music needed to go inside her mind, her feelings, her fears, and somehow reflect her interior voice.”

Yared’s solution involved “a beautiful theme,” played by an orchestra of strings, a handful of woodwinds and a female choir. For the flashbacks to her traumatic childhood, however, he “needed to find the right tone to try and put the audience in a different space.” So he created “a new texture made of reworked samples and sounds, a mixture of electronics and real musicians.”

Director Rupert Goold flew to Paris several times to collaborate with Yared.

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US, Michael Abels

Composer Michael Abels burst on the scene last year with a strikingly effective score for Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Peele and Abels reunited for this year’s “Us,” another scary movie with an

American cultural context. A mom (Lupita Nyong’o) takes her family on a summer vacation to her Northern Callifornia childhood home, where they encounter malevolent doppelgangers of themselves.

To open the film, Abels wrote an anthem that was “multicultural and uniquely scary, slowed way down with a really funky beat that doesn’t sound like any culture you’ve ever heard.” A 20-voice choir sings vaguely Latin-sounding syllables, and it’s eventually revealed as the “march of the tethered,” the music of the “others” who menace the town.

The rest of the score is played by strings and percussion, with a handful of unusual instruments including the African kalimba, Hungarian cimbalom and Australian didgeridoo – as Abels puts it, “instruments that don’t belong together. Jordan is always saying that he wants to be surprised, he wants to be scared, and he wants it to be strange sounding. So it’s your license to throw all the usual constraints out the window.”

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