A movie’s score has become an essential component of its narrative, and what the screen conveys through visuals and dialogue, its score must do sonically. When done well, these remarkable compositions trigger memories, thoughts and feelings, provide context and confirm suspicions, resulting in an immersive experience.
Five films released last year were deemed to have pulled this off the best, leaving lasting impressions on the judging panel. And now this year's Oscar winners have been announced, we take a closer listen to all the nominations and the worthy winner.
If Beale Street Could Talk (Nicholas Britell)
Set in 1970s Harlem, Barry Jenkin’s If Beale Street Could Talk explores human endurance, the racially biased world in which it’s set, and, above all, the many expressions of love. Nicholas Britell’s score manages to perfectly mirror the narrative, alternating between euphoric bliss and mournful sorrow. In happier times, Tish and Fonny plan for a beautiful future together in scenes accompanied by delicate strings and sweet, cresting notes. But when their plans are derailed, Britell introduces subtle but jarring rumbles, which create the feeling that all is not well.
Isle Of Dogs (Alexandre Desplat)
On the back of last year’s Best Score Academy Award, Alexandre Desplat collaborated with Wes Anderson for the 4th time on Isle of Dogs. Although visually and thematically the movie draws from Japanese influences, Desplat wanted to create a score that reflected this micro-world of its own. The heart of the score features beating taiko drums, echoing the tribal nature of the exiled dogs. Around this drum melody, Desplat incorporates saxophones and double bass to create a 50s jazz sound that matches the spy elements of the script. And as the film develops and becomes more dangerous, the score follows suit, adding recorders to create a strange, surreal atmosphere.
Mary Poppins Returns (Marc Shaiman and Scott Witman)
Disney’s Mary Poppins spawned songs such “A spoonful of Sugar” and “Super-cali-fragil-istic-expi-ali-docious” that are now lauded as all-time classics – so creating a score for a sequel 54 years in the making was no small ask. Fortunately, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were more than up to the challenge. They wrote new songs that fitted perfectly within Disney’s hallmark – grand, orchestral pieces that recall the golden age of Hollywood musicals, while accentuating the magic taking place on screen. But they weren’t afraid to incorporate the modern musical landscape either. “A Cover is Not the Book” features Hamilton star Lin-Manuel Miranda treading a fine line between rapping and a Victorian patter – perfectly marrying the old with the new.
BlacKkKlansman (Terence Blanchard)
On BlackKkKlansman, Spike Lee teamed up with composer Terence Blanchard for the 19th time. Focussing on the dangerous notion of a black detective infiltrating the KKK in the 70s, Blanchard has the electric guitar lead the movie’s score, with orchestral strings added to soundtrack quiet moments of reflection and more emotionally-charged scenes. Its cornerstone, “Ron’s Theme” is a funky, of-its-time piece with a recurring seven-note motif that shifts to mirror his progress through the film, all while keeping that sense of familiarity. However, Blanchard’s score really comes to life when he’s highlighting racism in its many forms. In “Hatred at its Best”, we hear piano notes and harps to show hidden, masked discrimination. And in “White Power Theme” we’re confronted with huge, almost violent orchestral chords to show the true face of the Klan’s hatred.
Black Panther (Ludwig Göransson)
Marvel’s Black Panther follows a battle between two closely-tied but distinct entities. This warring of tradition and ancestral heritage forms the basis from which Ludwig Göransson creates his score and builds memorable themes for the narrative’s major characters. T’Challa, King of Wakanda, is followed by musical motifs including horns to represent royalty, the talking drum to show his African upbringing and 808 kicks that mirror the technological advancement of his nation. While his nemesis, the tragic villain Erik Killmonger, has more complex motifs. There are clearly shades of his African ancestry as his theme’s melody uses a tambin. But it’s distorted and delayed, with trap-inspired hi-hats to show the disconnect he battles against both literally and figuratively.
Although each nominated film is very different and tackles varied subject matters, every score contains similar features. Importantly, they share a common purpose with their narrative. But they also include well-chosen melodies that linger in the ear long after watching. In short, we can put part of their success down to their use of leitmotifs – short melodic phrases that recur to signify a character, foreshadow an event, or evoke a certain emotion. Just like a sonic logo does for a brand, they instantly capture identity in just a few notes – resulting in maximum impact on the viewer.