It's that special time of year again – award season is just around the corner. Saddle up, movie buffs and hobby composers, as we review this year's nominees for the Academy Awards’ Best Original Score and Best Original Song. From the enthralling soundscape of Dune to the magical melodies of Encanto, we’re offering our take on the best film music of the year and a guess on who might just win at the upcoming Oscars.
Best Original Score
DON’T LOOK UP (NICHOLAS BRITELL)
Don't Look Up tells the story of two astronomers (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo Di Caprio) trying to warn the world of a giant comet about to collide with Earth. It is composer Nicholas Britell's fourth collaboration with director Adam McKay after Vice, The Big Short, and HBO hit series Succession. Britell, who has already raked in two Oscar nominations for scoring Barry Jenkins's Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, faced a difficult polarity with this film. As the two scientists panic from one meeting to the next and encounter the most incapable of politicians and an ignorant public, there was a central theme of absurdity and chaos that needed conveying. But the film also has an element of reverence to the universe and awe that couldn't go unscored.
The final result is a skillful amalgamation of both, with an unhinged “Don’t Look Up (Main Title Suite)” played by a mid-century big band ensemble (Britell said in an interview that he was trying to capture the feeling of being in WW2 but losing it), with unexpected instruments like a banjo or toy piano thrown in the mix. The other key piece is “Overture to Logic and Knowledge”. Completed before shooting began, it was be played on set, featuring a celesta metallophone and a rather galactical chord progression. Britell succeeds in matching the tricky tone of the film, and it’s a great joy to join his wavering between grave melancholy and the absurd humor of the moment.
ENCANTO (GERMAINE FRANCO)
Disney's 60th feature film marks a first in the studio's history: Germaine Franco is the first woman at the helm of a score. The Mexican American composer had worked with Disney before, contributing significantly to the music on Coco. For Encanto, a film about the magically gifted Madrigal family, she dug deep into the traditional sounds of Colombia (although never actually getting to visit the country due to Covid restrictions).
Inspired by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and featuring the whole range of Afro-Colombian and indigenous sounds, the result brings to life a particularly Colombian form of magical realism. The twangy sound of the Andean tiple, the Afro-Colombian marimba de chonta, bandolas, cuatros, harps, and bamboo flutes, the Cantadora singing, and the typical Cumbia rhythm all come together to lay bare a world in which magic flows spontaneously from deep emotions. They are complimented by an authentic Colombian female choir, as Franco “imagined that the voices of women would be representative of this world.”
Clearly, this magical music resonates with a lot of people. The soundtrack, which also features songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, reached number one on the top albums streamed on Spotify with heavy rotations from all over the world.
PARALLEL MOTHERS (ALBERTO IGLESIAS)
This Almodóvar melodrama follows two single women of different ages (Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit) who form a deep relationship when meeting at the hospital where they give birth on the same day. Composer Alberto Iglesias has been a long-time collaborator of Almodóvar's; in 25 years, this is their thirteenth film together. With this one, the four-time Oscar nominated Spaniard expected the score to give colour to the film – move through it almost unnoticed, yet still touch the viewer.
The Academy's recognition underlines that the score did, in fact, get noticed. And rightly so: Iglesias delivers a captivating orchestration that is full of little surprises. He was inspired by the idea of parallel structures, not just with regards to the dual motherhood portrayed in the film, but also with life and death in general. Complex strings take the center stage in his composition, reminiscent of classic American mid-century films. They branch out into three motifs: the vital force of life, suspense and thriller, and a hypnotical vibration. Woven together brilliantly, Iglesias gives us an aching tribute to motherhood, human connection, and the parallelism of life through sound.
RUNNER-UP: POWER OF THE DOG (JONNY GREENWOOD)
This Netflix original is this year's Oscars front runner with a whopping 12 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Based on the eponymous novel, it tells the story of a fierce Montana rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose brother brings home a new wife and her son. It is one of three films Jonny Greenwood scored this year, having also composed for Pablo Larraín's Spencer and Paul Thomas Anderson's Liquorice Pizza.
Greenwood, who was previously better known as lead guitarist for alternative rock darling Radiohead, delivers nothing short of a masterpiece. The atonal brass of a French horn duet conveys the aching beauty of Montana's vast country and captures the isolation of Cumberbatch's character. The detuned mechanical piano underlines the mental unraveling of Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Yearning pours from every note. You can hear Aaron Copland in the fanfare trumpets, Nick Drake and Damien Rice in the ache of the Cello, and by his own admission, 1960's Star Trek in the atonal brass. After all, he wanted to avoid a classical Western score.
But it is the improvised production that really makes this music. Recorded during the height of the pandemic, he had to build most of the orchestral texture himself. And because he didn't want to follow the same old Western tropes, he picked up a shabby old Cello and fingerpicked it like a Banjo to create a hauntingly offbeat and powerfully confusing atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a butter knife.
OUR PICK: DUNE (HANS ZIMMER)
Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction classic has been particularly lauded for its stunning visuals and enthralling soundscape. And we have got to say, we’re almost certain the Oscar will go to Hans Zimmer's score for Dune; this music is unlike anything we’ve ever heard.
Zimmer wanted the audience to hear sounds that might as well have come from thousands of years in the future, something not of this world. To achieve that, he made up entirely new instruments to capture the eeriness of the desert planet. This involved him and his “exotic instruments” supervisor Chas Smith distorting what is already an eclectic range of culturally diverse instruments by means of a virtual synthesizer until they were no longer identifiable.
Staying away from overtly melodic motifs for locations and groups, the score masterfully uses sound to invoke the Harkonnen, the House Atreides, and the Bene Gesserit – and how they all conflict with each other. This makes for a psychedelic, spiritual experience that is more reminiscent of a pre-Covid Psy Festival in Goa than what you’re used to in a cinema. You can feel the score from head to toe, your chest vibrating from the low bass. All the elements of a classic hero's tale can be found in this music: departure, transfiguration, catharsis. While the other nominated scores really are terrific, most of them could, in theory, also work with different movies. Zimmer’s music, however, is inextricably linked to the ancient futurism of Dune. It is synesthetic, it is one and the same. Which is why we think it’s the Best Original Score of the year.
Best Original Song
“DOWN TO JOY” FROM BELFAST (VAN MORRISON)
Belfast is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama by director Kenneth Branagh set in late 1960s Belfast, when things started to get sour in the Northern Ireland conflict. How fitting, then, that legendary Northern-Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison wrote the title song of the film.
Morrison's nomination, however, has been accompanied by doubts as to whether the song was even eligible, with an unreleased demo tape from 1970 showing stark similarities. And even if recycled to some extent, “Down to Joy” does sound, we regret to say, fairly unremarkable. It’s a tune that you may have heard on the radio and then quickly forgotten. Perhaps Van Morrison could have better focused on writing a real banger from scratch rather than spending last year sharing what Rolling Stone called “anti-lockdown and Covid-19 conspiracy bait under the guise of protest music”.
“SOMEHOW YOU DO” FROM FOUR GOOD DAYS (DIANE WARREN)
Diane Warren's thirteenth Oscar nomination (all for Original Song) has us scratching our heads. It’s a decent country ballad, and singer Reba McEntire certainly puts all her heart into it – but it sounds like we’ve heard it a million times. First things first though: Four Good Days, starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, is the heart-wrenching story of a mother supporting her daughter through four tough days of drug withdrawal.
For Warren, the song is all about hope in dire straits, about “how even through the times that are so hard and moments in your life that are so devastating, that somehow you will get through them and get to the other side”. Unfortunately, her song is also something you rather have to 'get through'. Lyrically, it consists of one “you-can-make-it” trope following the next. Powerful country songs with powerfully vague messages may mean well, but they just don't sweep us off our feet.
“BE ALIVE” FROM KING RICHARD (DIXSON & BEYONCÉ)
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard follows the journey of Venus and Serena Williams under the tutelage of their ambitious father Richard (Will Smith renewing, in essence, his Pursuit of Happyness role). “Be Alive”, the over-the-credits track embodying the hard work of the sisters as they make their way into the annals of world tennis, is a lot of fun.
Written and produced by DIXSON with Beyoncé, it has all his trademark soul and all her trademark vocal power. Lyrically, it’s nothing extraordinary. Musically though, the song is made special and groovy by the songwriting genius of eleven instrument playing DIXSON. He manages to do a lot with very little and still feel fresh. Signed by the Roc Nation label and having already collaborated with industry greats like Chance the Rapper and Pharrell, we’re looking forward to seeing him rise.
RUNNER-UP: “DOS ORUGUITAS” FROM ENCANTO (LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA)
Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote and composed eight songs for Disney's Encanto, including a magical little song called “Dos Oruguitas” (two little caterpillars). He wanted the song to sound as if it were a natural part of the body of Colombian folk songs, coming out of the mountains of Barichara and being sung on street corners all over. Miranda, who stands to get his EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) with this Academy Award nomination, went out of his comfort zone to compose the song entirely in Spanish.
Performed by Colombian singer-songwriter Sebastián Yatra, it accompanies a tragic flashback that sets up Abuela's backstory and encapsulates the beginning of the movie's journey: the release of magical powers at a terrible price. Capturing the painful separation portrayed in the film, the song tells the story of two little caterpillars in love, who have to part ways to become stronger and better versions of themselves.
“Dos Oruguitas” is simple but catchy. Folksy, and oh so emotional. Miranda might just have succeeded in creating a piece of music that sounds like it “always existed inside of us”.
OUR PICK: “NO TIME TO DIE” FROM NO TIME TO DIE (BILLIE EILISH & FINNEAS O’CONNELL)
After it was clear the pandemic and a replacement of directors would cause No Time To Die to be delayed for nearly two years, those involved in the project decided to premiere the eponymous theme song early at the 2020 BRIT Awards. Rather than people growing tired of the franchise, the song only added to the buzz and anticipation, climbing to the top of the UK Singles Chart and winning a Grammy award.
What makes “No Time To Die” so great is that it has all the hallmarks of both a Bond and a Billie Eilish song: the minimalism that makes her music stand out is also characteristic of this one. The tone and theme of the song very closely mirror narrative elements of the film, especially the motif of betrayal which Eilish and O´Connell surmised from the opening script and based their writing on.
With legendary Johnny Marr on the guitar (of The Smiths fame), Hans Zimmer behind the scenes (he wrote the score for the film and also collaborated on the theme song), a 70-person orchestra, and the slow build-up to Eilish hitting that big note at the end, this enchanting and suspenseful pop ballad in E-minor is both enormous and straight to the chase. Just like a great Bond movie. Which is why we think it’s the Best Original Song of the year.
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Cover Credit: Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels
Writer | Jan-David Franke
Jan-David is a journalist from the motherland of fun: Germany. He loves merging with good music and being in the moment. Oh, and he is still trying to find out where the wild things really are. If you have seen them, please let him know.