Pop Star-Turned-Professor Thomas Dolby Breaks Down Oscars’ Music Nominees

In a guest column for Variety, Dolby says he's blinded by "Black Panther" for both Song and Score... but also hyperactive for "Buster Scruggs."

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Thomas Dolby is best known for hits like “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive” that earned him five Grammy nominations. But since 2014 he’s been lecturing to students at Baltimore’s John Hopkins University as a professor and, as of this fall, director of the Peabody Institute’s Music for New Media program — a position that allows him to extol one of his great loves: film music. Before turning to academia, he did his own movie and videogame scoring over the years, for projects directed or produced by Ken Russell, Barry Levinson, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

For Variety, Dolby agreed to write a guest column analyzing this year’s Oscar race in both the song and score categories. A spoiler: The British pop expat turns out to be a big fan of both African talking drums and cowboy ballads.

At the turn of the 21st century, movie scoring is continually evolving. There’s still a place for big orchestras, sure, but musical trends such as minimalism, hip-hop, jazz and EDM are changing the ways filmmakers use music to enhance drama and emotion. Storytelling has become more non-linear, while audiences are more savvy and don’t like being told what to feel. Here’s my breakdown of the contenders in both Score and Song categories:


“All The Stars” (“Black Panther”)
With its heartfelt lyrics about love and loss, silky production, and unusual chord sequence and melody, this song would play really well against “Black Panthers” epic landscapes and otherwordly technology. Problem is, it isn’t actually in the film — it’s one of the “inspired by” songs tacked on to the end credits. Which to me should mean it’s not eligible for this category. But in any case, I doubt it will win. R&B music is almost unrecognizable since the days of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and “Shaft” — and as a result, I fear Kendrick Lamar’s excellent song may be too “evolved” for the aging Academy voting audience, and will lose out to one of the more traditional offerings.

“I’ll Fight” (“RBG”)
Written for the film by hit machine Diane Warren — by far the most successful songwriter of the last 20 years — this is a great showcase for Jennifer Hudson’s powerful voice, and it strikes a timely chord with #MeToo and the women’s movement, so it may be a hit with the voters. But it’s the kind of song that Diane can dash off any morning before her cappuccino’s even foamed, and never threatens to rise to the lofty heights of her finest work such as “Unbreak My Heart” or “If I Could Turn Back Time.”

“The Place Where Lost Things Go” (“Mary Poppins Returns”)
Disney’s new spin on the Mary Poppins legacy has wrecked my happy memories of watching our kids mesmerized for hours on end by the VHS of the original. The sequel crams in way too many fantasy set-pieces, leaving no breathing space for drama and comedy. It feels frantic and insincere, but actually it’s not because of the new music and songs, which are pretty good. Given how daunting it must have felt to live up to follow evergreen classics like “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (not to mention that “Super-Cali-…” ear worm), songwriters Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman have risen to the task in admirable style. This is the sweet and simple Emily Blunt solo where the (often cold and bitchy) modern Mary reveals her softer side as she explains to the three children the loss of their mother, and somehow makes it okay.

“Shallow” (“A Star Is Born”)
One of the great mysteries about Academy voting is this: do scores and songs earn praise for the way the they work in the context of the movie, or in isolation? If the emphasis is on the former, “Shallow” is even more of a major contender for the Oscar. I was totally convinced by the way Lady Gaga inhabited the role of Ally, and especially in the scene where she first improvises the melody to “Shallow” to a drunken Bradley Cooper in the parking lot of a liquor store. Ally’s unexpected rise to fame mapped a very different course to real-life Gaga’s, yet her stage fright and wide-eyed wonderment in this role somehow speaks for all aspiring musicians. The moment Ally joins Jackson onstage for “Shallow” is the point where they briefly reach parity before Jack’s inner demons catch up with him, and all his talk about “you got to grab it, and you don’t apologize” proves to be a shallow lie.

“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”)
I absolutely loved this movie. The Coen Brothers have always had a great knack for weaving in songs (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” etc). I can’t imagine David Rawlings and Gillian Welch would have written this ballad unless it was to done to order in close collaboration with the filmmakers! And that deserves an extra plaudit, because they’ve completely captured the sadness and irony of the movie’s opening tableau. For sheer originality I’ve got a soft spot for this cowboy lament, and if it were me I’d give it the Oscar.



“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Accompanying this heart-wrenching 1970s love story, Nicholas Britell provides the music for his second collaboration with director Barry Jenkins, following last years’ serene award-winner “Moonlight.” The romantic cellos and violas here are tender and compassionate, and refreshingly low-tech. Jazz and soul singers croon out standards from vinyl record players. Trumpets and minor ninth chords are subtly reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s final score, “Taxi Driver.” But the music gets darker as the plot progresses. In one scene, driven initially by the strings and brass of the score, Tish’s mother (brilliantly played by Regina King) spends minutes doing her wig in the mirror, only to yank it off again; the music dissolves into a chorus of distant voices, signifying the sense of urgency and desperation she feels as she faces a last ditch effort to save her son in law’s life. It’s nicely executed work and I hope this collaboration emerges as one of the great director-composer partnerships behind so many great movie scores.

“Black Panther”
Composer Ludwig Goransson, who also previously scored “Creed II,” gets terrific mileage out of heavily treated African talking drums and Fula flute. We don’t often see the drums on screen, but they are present all over the Nation of Wakanda and wherever T’Challa and his warriors travel. The composer spent months traveling round Africa with Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, and back in the studio he transformed his recordings into a massive and irresistible underscore that never fails to thrill. He blends the percussive bed with the kind of big orchestral action music which is pretty standard Hollywood superhero fare; but quieter pieces like “Ancestral Plane” and “Is This Wakanda?” show off his chops for moody string and woodwind compositions. There’s a tendency for big-budget movies to use the score to tell us how to feel, but Goransson’s score steers clear of that. And in the grittier moments, including a sequence shot in Seoul, Korea, the composer uses snarling synths and hip-hop beats to make the urban connection. The richness of his score is the perfect accompaniment to the beautiful imagery and righteous emotional backbone of this movie.

“Isle of Dogs”
Two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat is a long time collaborator of Wes Anderson’s. The style and pacing of this feature are reminiscent of Anderson’s previous animation, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which Desplat also scored, and here he is completely in step with the film’s stop-start dialog and onscreen action. The main sonic feature is the the clatter of Japanese taiko drumming, but it is cleverly mixed up with Western instruments like sax and double bass. As such it makes no attempt to sound truly “indigenous,” and that’s much to its credit. The dryness of the sound is refreshing in an era when many soundtracks are loaded with the ambient rumble of a thousand distant drummers. If that’s really the sound you want for your movie it can be had for around $299 in the form of a downloadable sound library called Stormdrum; armed with that product you can pretty much score a whole movie on your laptop at Starbuck’s; but it’s getting old. The “Isle of Dogs” soundtrack is pleasantly fresh and varied, and also includes a couple of songs from mid-century Akira Kurosawa movies. So its pedigree may appeal to the Academy, the way “The Last Emperor” did in 1987. But it’s hard to see it beating out “Black Panther,” which, though also ethnic percussion driven, is richer and more diverse, and has a great heart.

Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard have made 19 films together, and that in itself deserves an award. In this one though, it’s the music supervisor who deserves the plaudits, because the source music on every car radio and jukebox really transports us to the early 1970s. Blanchard’s main theme takes a while to get established. As we get sucked down the KKK rabbit hole, and the two Ron Stallwoods face increasing danger, an electric lead guitar and rock drum driven motif is backed by muscular strings. This is a ballsy and entertaining movie, and the soundtrack works well as a whole — but I can’t see it winning the award because it contains a lot of licensed period songs, and there’s relatively little actual underscore.

“Mary Poppins Returns”
What an act to follow! Made in 1964, the original “Mary Poppins” was one of the best-loved musicals of all time, and launched a whole song catalog into the public consciousness. Disney has never shied away from a challenge, or been averse to the risk of falling on its face. In the music department at least, they did a fine job. Composer Mark Shaiman has created a joyous and raucous score here, interspersed with some fine songs even Julie Andrews would have been proud to sing. Aside from the abundance of fantasy set-piece songs, the underscore is pretty much wall-to-wall, and closely matched to the onscreen action. In this sense it bucks the stereotype of recent Hollywood soundtracks, which are moving away from Mickey Mouse-style tight orchestral integration with every onscreen gesture, in favor of more trance-like, repetitive scores in the Hans Zimmer style. So Shaiman’s work here recalls a happier and more colorful age, and that may pay off at the ballot. “Mary Poppins Returns” was shunned by Oscar in many of the top categories, so I think it might just get the sympathy vote from the Academy and take home the award for Best Original Score.