Netflix has never won an Oscar for music. But that could change this year, as at least three of its late-year releases are strong candidates for nomination in the original-score category: “The Power of the Dog,” by Jonny Greenwood; “Don’t Look Up,” by Nicholas Britell; and “The Lost Daughter” by Dickon Hinchliffe.
For Jane Campion’s western “Power of the Dog,” English composer Greenwood (of Radiohead fame) searched for sounds befitting the cowboy scene in 1925 Montana, and they turned out to be a handful of string instruments, a couple of French horns and a mechanical piano that was commonplace at the time.
“We recorded the string groups while running random scenes from the film, and the colder they played, the better it suited the picture. Likewise the French horns – to me, that’s the sound of pent-up masculinity: they sound repressed, but the louder they play, the more open and angry they get.”
Greenwood’s pianola – a modern, computer-controlled version of the old player piano – was helpful in scoring the character of Rose (Kirsten Dunst), he says: “Not only is her story wrapped up in the instrument, it was a good texture for her gradual mental unraveling.”
Perhaps the most unusual element of the score is Greenwood’s own cello playing, inspired in part by star Benedict Cumberbatch’s own banjo picking in the film. “I learned to play my cello like a banjo, with the same sort of finger-picking technique,” Greenwood says. “Jane really liked the effect, and it’s used a lot in this film. It’s somber, but has momentum.”
“Don’t Look Up” is New York composer Nicholas Britell’s fourth film for director Adam McKay (counting “The Big Short,” “Vice” and the pilot for “Succession”). A comic satire on what might happen if a comet was about to collide with Earth, the film blends “reality with comedy, absurdity with truth, and the profundity of the moment. To get the tone right, and balance all these different elements” was Britell’s challenge.
The score evolved over an entire year, as the composer wrote music to be played on the set (a classically styled “overture to logic and knowledge”), a new song to be performed on screen (“Just Look Up,” sung by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi and co-written by them and Taura Stinson) and, during post-production, a score that combined big-band jazz with traditional orchestral and choral elements.
“There was something about capturing the chaos and the craziness, and it felt like the music had to go to a heightened place,” Britell says of the raucous jazz band with its screaming trumpets, saxophone and electric guitar solos.
Britell had the most fun creating various miniature electronic pieces for the film, including the corporate musical identity for tech billionaire Mark Rylance’s company, his smartphone ringtone and even the “hold” music. “They have a kind of absurdist, nefarious quality,” he says.
For “The Lost Daughter,” with Olivia Colman as a troubled professor struggling with her choices as a wife and mother years earlier, director Maggie Gyllenhaal made an unusual request of English composer Dickon Hinchliffe: “She wanted the score to sound like an old record, vinyl you’d play along with the film, and it magically fits.”
Hinchliffe came up with an infectious, ’60s-style instrumental featuring piano, Hammond organ, bass and drums, all of which he played himself – “a classic old soundtrack in a way, something that got me going in terms of texture and the fabric of the film.” He was able to add a small string section later.
“It’s a film that asks a lot of questions and doesn’t really resolve many. The music never really settles, or finishes,” he says. “It’s slightly elusive, out of your grasp, then that’ll be counterpointed by a simple melodic piano line; that was very much to do with the motherhood and children aspect of the story.”