The Academy Awards are tonight and one of the categories I always pay attention to is Best Original Score. I’ve written about the Oscars and AMPAS’s relationship with film music in the past. The operative question with this category, and really any category in any arts awards show, is not Which nominee deserves to win? but rather Which nominees are worthy of the attention?
With that in mind, I’ve broken down my thoughts on each nominee below — with the caveat that I won’t be seeing The Shape of Water until after this post goes up:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi — John Williams
My patience is slim for motivic identification. “Find the theme” is a self-fulfilling exercise and not much else in my mind; folks like the co-hosts of SideShow Sound Radio do a much more thorough job of it than I could ever hope to anyway.
As always, John Williams proves to be the exception in this regard, and I truly didn’t realize how much of his new Star Wars music I loved before digging into this score. The Ahch-To music from The Force Awakens made a surprisingly welcome return for me. The burst of the Resistance March propelling Poe’s one-man distraction is absolutely energizing. Kylo Ren’s signifiers feel both evil and appropriately in complete.
The new and unexpected stuff is aces, too. Williams includes sideways references to Revenge of the Sith during the most dour moments, and there’s an early ostinato in “Battle of Crait” that recalls a sped-up version of the Hoth music. The Force theme gets a sad variation in “Old Friends” before ultimately cresting to a more peaceful place. Like The Last Jedi itself, Williams — again, as always — gets us to approach the familiar in new and rejuvenating ways.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri — Carter Burwell
In my time away from professional writing, I’ve reflected on the fact that by and large film music criticism is often heavy on the “music” and light on the “criticism.” Too many writers focus on how a score sounds. Aesthetics are important in music, but film scores are ultimately functional. Full stop. They exist to aid in the telling of a story. I could go on for a dozen posts about this so I’ll get off my soapbox.
All of this is to say that Carter Burwell’s Three Billboards is a paragon of why context matters. As a body of listening, this is phenomenal, even graceful work. Burwell’s main motive has a folksy drive to it, and a second theme in cues like “The Deer” and “Collecting the Samples” has a tidy, funereal aspect. Note the woodwinds.
The problem here is intent. Were I reading Martin McDonagh’s screenplay with this in the background, I’d say Burwell checks all of his moody boxes. But like a lot in this film, McDonagh’s sloppy delivery wastes the effort. Like its unexpected protagonist Mildred Hayes, Burwell comes at us at face value, and that doesn’t work with a tone-deaf approach to the very social issues Three Billboards wants to dramatize. The music is firmly locked in several stages of grief and makes for sublime listening, yet McDonagh is determined to yank on sensibilities at all costs. If you listen to the Spotify release with its soundtrack selections, bring dramamine.
Dunkirk — Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch
Dunkirk is the polar opposite of this idea, a score that you wouldn’t throw on while chopping vegetables; it also has a clear purpose with all of its droning. Zimmer and Wallfisch pick up on their interest in time which Zimmer first teased out with James Newton Howard in The Dark Knight. Here we get more aqueous textures in cues like the opening “The Mole” and later “Shivering Soldier,” and both begin like the elevator music equivalent for a sensory deprivation clinic.
That’s not a cut, because Dunkirk is such a sonic experience. Not unlike Christopher Nolan himself, Zimmer catches an undue backlash courtesy of the zealous fanboy enthusiasm. Detractors will argue his scores are overly reliant on sound design, which places them in the unforgiving between space of gimmicks and afterthoughts. Tellingly, this is also the Best Score nominee I habitually forget about.
Dunkirk‘s sounds are so inextricable from its picture, but that’s cinema, people. In Nolan’s greatest movie in a decade (maybe ever depending on whom you ask), Zimmer and Wallfisch have a perfect marriage with the onscreen brutalism. The anxiety-laden catharsis of “Home” evokes synesthesia because the listening experience stays elemental. Dunkirk is several interwoven stories about how the ravages of war are worsened, erased even, by the ultimate ravages of time. Whereas time and space got away from Nolan in Interstellar, they couldn’t be more palpable here. Sometimes simpler is better.
Phantom Thread — Jonny Greenwood
Much has been made about how much Greenwood wrote for P.T. Anderson. Let’s parse that out. The Spotify release for Phantom Thread clocks in at 55 minutes, 9 minutes more than Greenwood’s standard release for The Master. There Will Be Blood sits at a sparse 30, but Greenwood’s slim filmography also includes Junun, an hour-long musical collab with Shye Ben Tzur. So let’s call it a draw and move on?
This overemphasis of Phantom Thread‘s length is conflated with the complexity of its cues. The title track’s variations alone are worthy of recognition. They move with a melancholy, Brahmsian lilt that’s essential for a PTA period drama. We’re left waiting for this all this dourness to slip into something happier, and we never get it. It’s Nino Rota in mourning, and boy is it good.
That’s just the interludes. “Alma” is gentle but bruised. “Catch Hold” is starry-eyed and wondrous. “Never Cursed” occupies a kind of hiccuped euphoria that pairs perfectly with the dreamy sophistication of “House of Woodcock.” It’s telling that the lightest moments feel like dreams. Greenwood’s most tangible work here is ornate and prickly. What else, right?
P.T. Anderson was an opaque director before 2017. Fussing with stuffy British sets and passive-aggressive niceties only added a few layers to the haziness, which is why the accoutrements are so crucial in Phantom Thread. The music is bursting to break free, the battered beauty behind a lifetime of sacrifice and abuse. Sublime and sickening all at once.
The Shape of Water — Alexandre Desplat
Instrumentation is the true standout for me here. The catchy title theme, both sad and sweet, features a prominent, whistled melody and plenty of nostalgic percussion choices; there’s a grand, romantic version in “Watching Ruth.” “Elisa’s Theme” operates like a waltz but with many of those same musical choices. The addition of flutes create a fine powdering of sound (love those occasional triplets throw in) against a higher-pitched harmonica this time. This is, to use an already overused touchstone, Lynchian. The Shape of Water has a distinctly middle America flavor, polka sounds with a dark, deep woods spin.
That’s also what makes Renee Fleming and Desplat’s terrific version of “You’ll Never Know” so well. Funnily enough, those porch-watching qualities pair with lax, lounge sounds, linking a legitimately great number with the broader score. (Are you taking notes, Mr. McDonagh?)
Desplat really is among the best of his contemporaries. “The Creature” teases us with something ominous. Comparisons to the Jaws theme are, if not inappropriate a little lazy. I’m actually reminded of another Desplat work and how he built up tension in Godzilla. The tour-de-force “Escape” is also remarkable, with running piano lines that put stressors on those earlier Johnny Costa, easy listening vibes. When I get to Guillermo del Toro’s latest, I’ll be curious to see if the in-film experience is as cohesive as a blind listen, because this is such varied, exciting work that still feels of the same cloth.
To reiterate, winners are the least important parts of these things, but if I’m forced to drop $50 with the bookies, my money’s on this. Best Original Score, like Best Director, has a weird relationship with Best Picture. And depending on how the AMPAS voting system makes or breaks Three Billbaords, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Desplat pick up his second statuette tonight.