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Oscar bait round-up

It’s that time of year again when everyone gives awards to each other (except the Grammys, whose very clear eligibility window runs from the third Sunday following Passover plus 75 days except in years where there’s a general election in Belgium in which case you have to add on the fourth largest prime number less than the age of the second man in the ticket office at the theatre on Broadway which is showing the third longest-running musical featuring at least 15 different songs, divided by the square root of the length in centimetres of the heir to the throne of Tonga; don’t get me started on what happens in leap years). These days most of the film music awards nominations are very similar to each other, so in this piece I’ll look over some of the runners and riders which are in most of the lists.

I should say that none of my own favourites are getting nominated particularly often for anything. My favourite score of the year is Bear McCreary’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power; but that’s not a film score, so I understand why it doesn’t get nominated for film awards. My favourite film score is Simon Franglen’s Avatar: The Way of Water; then we have Michael Giacchino’s The Batman, Daniel Pemberton’s Amsterdam and John Williams’s The Fabelmans. The latter will undoubtedly pick up an Oscar nomination; I doubt any of the others will (only Avatar is on the 15-strong shortlist). That’s not the main reason I won’t be mentioning them here though: I’ve already written about all of them.

We will start with Babylon. Damien Chazelle’s film is set in 1920s Hollywood at a time when many were struggling with the transition from silent movies to talkies; I remember the most recent Downton Abbey film had a similar plot, but I think it was executed in a somewhat different way (it did have Maggie Smith in it which is always a bonus – and a very fine John Lunn score – but I digress). It is Chazelle’s fifth movie and it is also Justin Hurwitz’s fifth movie as composer; there is a 100% correlation between these two sets of movies. It does seem a little odd that Hurwitz – who also has a successful career as a writer, most recently on Curb Your Enthusiasm – doesn’t score anyone else’s movies, but there we go.

Being set in the 1920s, obviously the music is based on big band jazz of the 1940s. The whole score essentially sounds like source music – it isn’t, but that’s what it sounds like. We open with a great big version of the main theme and you think you’re in for a treat; then over the 98 minutes (!) of the album we essentially hear variants on it over and over again. The tunes do vary at times, but it’s all in such an idiosyncratic style with vocals over percussive big band and swing music that I’m exhausted after 9 minutes, let alone 98. I don’t really know who would want an album of this type of music that’s as long as this one, but there’s no doubt that if you can tolerate such a large volume of this music – and tolerate how repetitive it is – then you will love it, because Hurwitz pulls everything off with considerable aplomb. I never want to hear it again though.

Way back – way, way back – at the end of October, a German film appeared on Netflix which has gone on to attract considerable acclaim. All Quiet on the Western Front – the latest adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s timeless anti-war novel – has attracted rave reviews for pretty much every element, including Volker Bertelmann’s score. I think a film score which is bad enough to actively harm the film it is in is a very rare thing – a lot of them perhaps don’t do as much as they could do to enhance the film, but making them worse is something else entirely. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film whose music misses the mark as badly as this one – it makes Dunkirk sound like 633 Squadron.

I’m here to write about the album though – which is barely more successful. There’s certainly a lot of noise in it and if you are a fan of listening to someone sit in a dentist’s chair scratching their finger nails across a chalkboard while the dentist drills into one of their teeth then you should seek it out straight away.

Carter Burwell is no stranger to acclaim and perhaps The Banshees of Inisherin will be the film for which he finally wins the big one. His subtly comic score sees him stay firmly within his Coen Bros. wheelhouse – the two main themes (“Walking Home Alone” and “Night Falls on Inisherin” introduce them straight away on the album) are both delightful, little chimes and plucked strings and winds giving a fantastical feeling, and the composer manages to make everything feel like it’s got a real forward momentum – time and tide waiting for no man.

It’s perhaps not quite as successful on album as it is in the film, but that’s more a feature of just how good it is in the film. Burwell certainly deserves the plaudits he’s getting. He’s so fully entrenched in what the film is doing – like the best film music, it seems to come from within the film rather than being something that’s placed on top of it. The brief album does have some gloomier moments, but even in them the little bits of flair that the composer injects means there’s something for the listener to latch onto that leaves them wondering just how gloomy things actually are (Thomas Newman at his best used to do a similar thing). Great score.

I’ve been a big cheerleader for Alexandre Desplat since the day I first heard some of his music. I think he’s probably the finest film composer to have emerged in the last 25 years and most of what he does, I like, including (to some degree or other) his other scores of 2022. Pinocchio is the one that will get the vast bulk of the attention though, and it’s to my great surprise that I struggle to really get invested in it. “Carlo’s Theme” is a treat, a vintage Desplat melody which is playful and touching and full of the right amount of childish innocence – I love that, and given it’s the first score piece on the album I assumed I was in for another masterpiece when I first heard it.

It’s strange though because while the rest of the score seems to tick all the boxes it needs to – elements of fantasy, comedy, action – it all feels a bit too sterile to me. Where’s the emotion? It’s there in Carlo’s Theme, but not so evident otherwise, except (again – surprisingly!) when the composer goes into fully comedic mode, such as in the delightful “The Pine Cone”. The film is a musical and there’s a bunch of songs here, written by Desplat – I’m not sure songwriting is a natural place for him (they’re just too twee for me) and a chunk of the score is based on the song melodies – perhaps that’s why I can’t connect. It’s not bad at all (this composer has set the highest of standards and so I judge him against them), but with 41 tracks over 88 minutes the album is just too bitty and too flitty.

Finally, there’s the most famous thing to come out of Iceland since they started doing frozen versions of TGI Friday’s loaded potato skins (apologies, that joke’s probably too esoteric even for here) – I refer, of course, to Hildur Guðnadóttir. Everything she does is met with huge acclaim – she’s even winning awards for Tár, a score that doesn’t exist. More likely to get nominated for everything is Women Talking – and while hardcore film music fans seem to foam at the mouth at the very mention of her name, you’d do well to argue against it because it’s very fine music. While the early “Speak Up” may lead to a slightly false impression of what’s to come – the guitar-based music might almost be described as sprightly, whereas the bulk of the score is anything but – there’s something ingeniously moving about the sparse melodies that dominate, the deliberately chilled strings which often play short phrases separated by clear space, leading to an awkward atmosphere but one which seems to highlight longing, anxiety, separation all at the same time. I thought (to the bewilderment of some) that Joker deserved much of the acclaim it got; Women Talking is possibly even better, simple music for sure but music that very clearly has a story to tell and is a product of real feeling and emotion.

Now watch – the Oscar nominations will come out and will be a different list of scores entirely. We shall see. For the record, the other ones which made the shortlist but I haven’t already mentioned are Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (which is fine, the same way all Marvel scores are fine; how the first one got an Oscar and this one is on the shortlist, I have no idea), Devotion (which I thought was fairly unremarkable straightforward orchestral drama music), Everything Everywhere All At Once (and the music very much lives up to the film’s title), Glass Onion (really nice main theme, but on the Oscars shortlist!?), Nope (nope), She Said (solid if unmemorable) and The Woman King (which I like a lot, but the album’s too long). There we go – I have spoken.

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  1. Luke Hollingshead (Reply) on Saturday 21 January, 2023 at 18:41

    Thanks so much, very enjoyable read. I was very disappointed and absolutely shocked that the Batman score did not make the Oscars shortlist whilst the Black Panther 2 one did. That’s just crazy – the black panther 2 soundtrack gave me multiple headaches in the theater, and not good headaches.
    I think you’re right about Hildur – people say it’s not really music or themes or stuff but that isn’t the point, it’s the atmosphere. It is uncomfortable and not enjoyable to listen to sometimes because she perfectly captures the feeling of the moments.

    Loved the Iceland joke. Will be using that, thanks.

    • Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Saturday 21 January, 2023 at 22:11

      Except in the case of Tar it quite literally is not music – at least, not music that anyone watching the film can hear.

  2. Duncan (Reply) on Saturday 21 January, 2023 at 18:44

    What about reviewing something somebody’s interested in you idiot? This website has sucked since 2007.

    • Olivia D. (Reply) on Saturday 21 January, 2023 at 18:48

      Why don’t you stop coming here then and get a real life and leave James alone you bully?

  3. dominique (Reply) on Sunday 22 January, 2023 at 01:32

    as i was listening to all the oscar contenders…desplat will get his third award, even if it´s not the best score of the year!

  4. dominique (Reply) on Sunday 22 January, 2023 at 01:36

    and to duncan, stf´up and just continue playing with your silly toys!!!

  5. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Sunday 22 January, 2023 at 19:01

    Glass Onion is the only soundtrack of the bunch I’ve bought so far. Not quite as good as Knives Out, but a ton of fun. Kinda hope it’ll get a full review at some point, maybe as part of a Whodunnit series?

  6. jjstarA113 (Reply) on Monday 23 January, 2023 at 10:39

    It doesn’t help that the Pinocchio album is wildly out of film order and doesn’t have the music from the movie’s final scene.