Four Vietnam vets return to the place that changed their lives. An alcoholic screenwriter creates a masterpiece. Korean immigrants struggle to succeed on their Arkansas farm. A Civil War vet takes an orphan home. An aspiring jazz pianist discovers his true calling only after his death.
How does music aid the storytelling in each of these films? That’s what Academy voters must weigh in deciding this year’s Oscar winner for original score.
Terence Blanchard received his second Oscar nomination, also for a Spike Lee film (2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” was his first), and boasting his largest orchestra to date: 96 players, plus the unusual addition of the duduk, an Armenian woodwind.
This is the first year in Oscar history that two African-American composers (Jon Batiste and Blanchard) are nominated for original score.
Says Blanchard: “We wanted to have a really grand sound. When I saw that opening shot with the helicopter flying through the valley, I knew the film was going to be epic and I had to rise to the occasion. We needed something huge, with a lot of different colors. [As for the duduk] I thought a double-reed instrument would be nice for the Asian part of it, and [performer] Pedro Eustache’s tone was so haunting in those scenes.”
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are nominated for David Fincher’s black-and-white film about “Citizen Kane” writer Herman Mankiewicz. This was their first excursion into orchestral music, writing a score that demanded a 1940s-style orchestra and big band.
“It became obvious, that working with an orchestral palette and splitting that with big-band and foxtrot arrangements was the right move,” Reznor says. “The challenge really became bringing a level of authenticity to it, and avoiding any of the gimmicky missteps one could make that might cheapen the overall effect — because we wanted this to feel earnest, to do what the music needed to do for the film without feeling like it was a gimmick.”
Adds Ross: “The early experiments that the film’s editor did against the picture indicated to us that the big band would probably work for the studio aspect and the orchestra could speak more to the emotional journey that Mank faces in the storyline.”
Emile Mosseri is a newcomer to the Oscar competition. Director Lee Isaac Chung set unexpected parameters for his film: no overtly Korean- or American-sounding music, a surprise considering it’s about a Korean family farm in rural America.
“It wasn’t specifically the immigrant story that we were trying to evoke,” Mosseri says. “It was more the idea of childhood memory. Isaac wrote a deeply personal film: an immigration story, an American story, but also just a story about his childhood. So the music has this dream-memory kind of quality.” Mosseri’s piano, a detuned acoustic guitar (for “an earthy sound”) and 1980s synthesizer (“dissonant and unsturdy”), plus his own voice, contribute to the overall sound.
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Meanwhile, veteran James Newton Howard earned his ninth nomination for this Tom Hanks Western (a genre he likes, and which has produced such past musical masterworks as “Wyatt Earp” and “Hidalgo”). He visited the New Mexico location during shooting.
Howard incorporated authentic 19th century instruments (including guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica) and a 70-piece orchestra. Director Paul Greengrass, he recalls, “wanted the music to somehow feel broken, jagged, tattered, with a rough-hewn edge to it…. This is about a man who has deep feelings of guilt and is kind of lost, struggling to get through his life. A gospel-like theme evolved and that was the heart and soul of his music.”
The Pixar film is the front-runner, considering its earlier Golden Globe and Critics Choice wins, and the fact that so much of the story centers on a New York educator who hopes to turn his passion for jazz into a performing career — that is, until a misstep sends him to the Great Before, which requires an entirely different soundscape.
First-time nominee and “Late Night With Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste supplied the earthly jazz (and animators used his hands as models for those of character Joe Gardner), while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — past winners for their “Social Network” score — added the mystical, entirely synthesized, music for the beyond-Earth scenes.
Says Batiste: “It was really speaking to the heroes of the jazz lineage that I had the pleasure of playing with. I wanted to find a way to capture something that was contemporary, that spontaneity and sense of surprise without it feeling like an archaic form. And then there’s also a spirit of the celestial that taps into my collaboration with Trent and Atticus, inspiration from spiritual music of all different genres.”