Wednesday, February 16, 2011

OSCARS: Best Original Score – Song

Peter and The Wolf - 1946
Prime example of musical characterization
Music has as much of a presence in a film as any of the actors. In most cases the music usually takes on an ethereal persona, acting as another character driving the story. Filmmakers and musicians will often tie themes and specific instruments to the characters on the screen, like in Peter and the Wolf (1946). Depending on the arrangement of the composition, and the instrument playing the notes, a single piece of music can trigger a cornucopia of emotional responses, affecting the viewer much more deeply than any performance in the film. The combination of music and narration, whether through lyrics or action is a classic pairing that has evolved over many centuries. In that sense film scoring is almost operatic, using dramatic visuals and dialogue to further an aural composition, and vice versa. Before there was even audible dialogue in films there was musical accompaniment.

Carbone chills out to some
Derek and the Dominos 
As film technology progressed through the twentieth century, and the medium became more representative of culture, additional flavors were added based on the context of the piece. Original compositions were created to cater to and represent the subject matter of the film. Over time this aspect of filmmaking came to include many different forms of expression, based on what the filmmakers required for telling the story. The most common and celebrated is still an orchestral underscoring. Through this many amazing pieces of music have been created with the sole function of identifying their respective films, or characters. These unique themes give their characters extra dimension, which allows them to be present, even when they aren’t physically on the screen. Still, there are some filmmakers who like to use contemporary music or genres to evoke and convey characterization to their audiences. This is typically presented in one of two forms: diegetic, such as “Fight the Power” in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), or non-diegitic, like “Layla” in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). In between the two extremes of orchestral scoring and contemporary, genre recordings, are musicals. Films that use lyrics sung by the actors to tell the story over music underscoring the scene. It is here that another renowned element of entertainment evolved, original songs. When it comes to music in film the Academy Awards only honor the best instrumental underscore, or the best original song written specifically for the film in which it appears, not any song that may appear on the soundtrack.

The Academy Awards, for all the elitism and prestige they claim, are really quite fickle when it comes to establishing boundaries for the categories they choose to honor. Much like Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Editing, which jumped back and forth between being categories and Special Achievement Awards, the category of Best Original Score has gone under and consisted of several names and criteria during its existence.

When it was first introduced at the 7
th annual Awards ceremony in 1934 the head of the music department was nominated and presented with the award, not the composer who actually wrote the score. This only lasted until 1937, at which point the Academy split the category honoring both original dramatic (or comedic) scores and adapted musical scores. Also, between 1937 and 1945, any studio with an eligible film was nominated, with a record 21 nominations for original dramatic score in 1945, and 14 nominations for adapted musical score in 1944. From 1946 to present day the maximum number of nominations in the category has been regulated to no more than five, per classification. In 1957, 1980, and 1981 the category changed to a single competition category with no classification among the nominees other than best score. Between 1985 and 1994 it returned to a single category before splitting again for four years in the late 1990s, after which it took on its current form.

An original score, aka underscore, must be able to accommodate many different genres of film that require different styles of music. This depends on the skill and versatility of the composer. By changing the tempo, rhythm, timing, instruments, etc. they can change the mood and tone as well. For example, four-time Oscar nominee, Danny Elfman, began his career as a composer writing light-hearted comedy scores like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Back to School (1986) and then evolved into action scores like Batman (1989) and Spider-Man I & II (2002, 2004), which led to dramatic compositions like Good Will Hunting (1997), Big Fish (2003), and Milk (2008), all of which earned him an Oscar nomination. Music is used to enhance the plot and emotional, psychological, or physical challenges the characters are experiencing.

As stated above, it is also used to identify or represent a character. These themes can appear in other forms throughout the score and only exist as a small melody, or cue, from the main work. In terms of theme orchestration, John Williams is a veritable master. His compositions have garnered 45 nominations throughout his career, tying him with Alfred Newman for the most nominated in the category. His scores for films such as JAWS (1975), Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978) are as synonymous with audiences as the film themselves.




In regards to the Best Song category it more or less boils down to pop commercialism. As music continues to evolve the one true element is marketability. This category has evolved into a here today, gone tomorrow competition with the last memorable song being “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic (1997) – fourteen years ago. Surprisingly there have been many songs originally written for films that are timeless. A few that come to mind are “Unchained Melody” from Unchained (1955), “Love is a Many Splendid Thing,” from the movie of the same title, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and of course the themes from Shaft (1971) and Ghost Busters (1984).

As time goes by it becomes more obvious that the most interesting, or deserving score and songs are hardly ever recognized, and if they are they almost never win. A few cases are noted above where the material was so strong that it simply couldn’t be overlooked. Most of the time if a film is sweeping the Oscars (winning every award for which it was nominated) the score or song go in the mix. An exception is when a really well made, or popular musical at that time is released. Many of the nominees and winners are only relative to the time in which they were released. Considering many deserving films and scores/songs, that stand the test of time, are overlooked one could conclude that a film is only as memorable as its music.


This year's nominees for Best Original Score: 
127 Hours – A.R. Rahman
How to Train Your Dragon – John Powell
Inception – Hans Zimmer
The King’s Speech – Alexandre Desplat
The Social Network – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

This year's nominees for Best Original Song: 
Coming Home” – Country Song – Music & Lyrics: Tom Douglas, Hillary & Troy Verges 
I See the Light” – Tangled – Music: Alan Menken Lyrics: Glenn Slater 
If I Rise” – 127 Hours – Music: A.R. Rahman Lyrics: Dido & Rollo Armstrong 
We Belong Together” – Toy Story 3 – Music & Lyrics: Randy Newman



HIGH POINTS:
     -      Abolishing the single film, triple song gang-bang (EX: Dreamgirls (2006). – Best Original Song 


LOW POINTS:
     -      Daft Punk not getting nominated for their score of TRON: Legacy (2010). – Best Original Score
     -      “Ben” from Ben (1972) losing to “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure (1972). – Best Original Song
     -      “That’s What Friends Are For” from Night Shift (1982) not even getting nominated, AND “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III (1982) losing that same year. – Best Original Song

Apocalypse Now - 1979
Ride of the Valkyrie Scene

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