Just how important is music to movies?
Not too important, according to the producers of the upcoming Academy Awards, who have decided to relegate the score Oscar — along with seven other categories — to an off-air segment prior to the three-hour telecast.
It is a slap in the face to the hundreds of composers, arrangers, orchestrators, musicians, engineers and other professionals whose work provides the emotional foundation for so much of today’s cinematic storytelling.
Anyone who saw “Dune” in a theater knows that it was an immersive experience of sight and sound, the latter led by an evocative, powerful soundscape created by musicians and singers. Even if you watched “Encanto” at home on Disney Plus, you were entranced from start to finish by the authentic musical sounds of Colombia. The music of “Don’t Look Up,” “Parallel Mothers” and “The Power of the Dog” was also recognized by Oscar’s music branch as making a significant contribution to what we watched and how we felt during those films.
But we won’t get to see those nominees or listen to their music as the category is announced. That’s not just shortsighted, it is in direct defiance of the reason the Academy Awards exist: to recognize excellence in all aspects of filmmaking, “the highest distinction attainable in the motion picture profession,” as the Academy founders wrote in 1928.
Since 1953, when the Oscars were first telecast, every category has been presented on air. There is a reason for that. The various Academy branches (acting, writing, directing, cinematography, sound, editing and others) work hard to choose the nominees and then get to showcase their craft before an audience of tens of millions.
The Academy has always viewed this as a “teaching moment”: a way of subtly educating the moviegoing public about the complexity of filmmaking and the collaborative nature of the art. Sure, viewers want to see their favorite actors, either as presenters or nominees, in their Oscar finery. But they also discover why lighting matters, why color schemes in art direction and costuming make a contribution and how music helps to propel the action, create atmosphere and heighten the drama.
That the producers chose to award Best Song on the telecast but dismiss Best Original Score to the non-televised portion shows how little they understand about filmmaking.
Yes, we all love movie songs, and yes, we all want to see famous singers like Billie Eilish and Beyoncé perform on the telecast — but the reality is that songs play a limited role in the success or failure of a movie, whereas the musical score often plays a huge role, one that most filmmakers will instantly acknowledge.
As Steven Spielberg once said of John Williams’ score for “Jaws”: “The score was clearly responsible for half of the success of that movie.” That moment in the 1975 Oscarcast, with the audience understanding and cheering the music that scared them out of the water that year, is legendary. I have to believe that Spielberg — now on his 29th collaboration, “The Fabelmans,” with the now 90-year-old composer — would not have agreed with this decision.
Academy president David Rubin says he wants to “increase viewer engagement… through comedy [and] musical numbers,” which have in recent years often fallen flat. Year after year, dull scripts and idiotic banter waste valuable time that might easily be devoted to a celebration of the crafts that make these movies what they are.
Oh, yes, and by all means let’s waste even more time with Twitter sequences on the telecast, unveiling fans’ “favorite movies” and favorite “movie moments” — “users can vote up to 20 times per day!” This is not what the Academy Awards are about.
Were you moved by “CODA”? Think about its music. Did you find “Don’t Look Up” funny? The score had something to do with that.
One wonders if Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead writer-performer who composed the nominated score for “The Power of the Dog” (and whose music will be heard if Kristen Stewart wins for “Spencer”), will even bother to fly in from London for the ceremony. Note to Oscar producers: there are millions of Radiohead fans that might like to see him win.
Think back to watching as talented, truly great composers accepted their Academy Awards for “Mary Poppins,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Love Story,” “The Way We Were,” “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” “Purple Rain,” “The Lion King,” “Titanic,” “Up,” “La La Land,” “Black Panther” – all joyous moments, publicly honoring music that we loved and that had made a difference in their movies and in our lives.
If they had pulled this stunt two years ago, we would have missed the triumphs of a woman composer (Hildur Guðnadóttir for “Joker”) and a composer of color (Jon Batiste for “Soul”) demonstrating the kind of progress that makes us proud.
The Oscars have always been about acknowledging every key craft in moviemaking, not just acting, directing and writing. That the Academy has decided that music isn’t worth presenting on the telecast tells us much about their priorities. Maybe they should rethink that.