I’ll confess: I don’t know what makes an original score worthy of winning an Oscar.
Should one only consider the score in the context of a film itself? That is, should you only judge its merits whilst watching the attached movie? That certainly makes some sense; after all, we’re being asked to think of the ways in which the music makes the movie. Does the music overwhelm the action? Or does it blend into the background? Does it heighten the tension without calling attention to itself?
In that case, the best score of the year (at least among those nominated for an Oscar) is probably Johann Johannsson’s contribution to Sicario. There’s a relentlessness to Johannsson’s compositions that perfectly reflects the intensity of Denis Villeneuve’s drug war drama. The synth percussion that opens the track "Tunnel Music," for instance, is evocative of the ratcheting horror experienced by viewers and audience surrogate Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) alike as we realize that she and the military squad she’s with are partaking in less of an interdiction than a kill mission.
I’d have a hard time voting for Johansson’s score, though, because the questions above don’t really determine what makes a score great to me. His contribution is not one I’d listen to again and again on its own. This is an important qualification since I have, over the last couple of years, begun listening to movie scores, almost exclusively. My phone is loaded not with the latest pop hits—Who can keep up? Did Kanye Lamar’s "Life of Taylor" drop yet?—but soundtracks, both classic and new. It was with no small amount of pleasure that I discovered the other day that my Amazon Prime membership entitled me to free downloads of John Williams’ scores for Episodes One through Six of the Star Wars trilogies. I’ve been listening to them nonstop since.
Williams has received yet another Oscar nomination for his Episode VII score, the 50th for the most-nominated man in Academy Award history. It seems unlikely he’ll win this time out, and for good reason: the score for The Force Awakens is even more forgettable than the film itself, a fact even more apparent when one picks it up after listening to his first six scores for the series.
"Rey’s Theme," for instance, is light and jaunty and lacking anything resembling the memorable hooks from past Star Wars classics like "The Imperial March" (Episode V). There’s nothing jazzy on the Episode VII score like "The Cantina Band" (Episode IV), nothing rich with pathos like "Duel of the Fates" (Episode I) or the theme from Anakin and Obi-Wan’s final battle in Revenge of the Sith. It almost feels incomplete from the start: lacking Fox’s fanfare, the soundtrack just gets off on the wrong foot for longtime fans of the series. This isn’t Williams’ mistake—it’s not his fault Disney bought the series, after all—and it’s probably unfair to hold it against him. Still.
Carter Burwell’s score for Carol suffers from the fact that it reminds me a bit too much of the film itself: despite a promising start, it quickly grows repetitive, hitting similar notes over and over again to drive home the sense of impotent sadness that permeates Todd Haynes’ film.
Though broken up by soulful tunes from the likes of Billie Holiday and Georgia Gibbs, we return repeatedly to a theme that goes something like—and please, you must excuse the technical mastery I’m about to demonstrate—doo doo [then, a note higher] doo doo [and then a bit lower again] doo doo. It didn’t help that Burwell’s score also calls to mind Miller’s Crossing. Or maybe it was Fargo. One of the two. He reportedly worked on both, and both are superior movies in literally every way; it'd be tough for Carol to hold up to either. My annoyance is not universally shared, of course, and the odds makers suggest Burwell has the second-best shot at taking home a statue this weekend.
Another score that reminded me of its cinematic home, and not in a good way, was Thomas Newman’s Bridge of Spies: bland, forgettable, and wholly lacking in originality, it was the perfect accompaniment for Steven Spielberg’s Cold War "thriller." That this received a nod while Tom Holkenberg’s amazing score for Mad Max: Fury Road was snubbed is easily the biggest mystery of this entire Oscar season, as far as I’m concerned.
Then again, the biggest strike against Holkenberg was probably the fact that I liked it, as none of the scores that have entered heavy rotation on my iPhone—not Hans Zimmer’s score for Man of Steel; not Daft Punk’s for Tron: Legacy; not M83’s for Oblivion—even earned a nomination. I guess I should just be grateful that the Academy deigned to give Zimmer’s score for Interstellar (the best score in years, to my mind) a nod.
If Holkenberg can’t win for Fury Road, Ennio Morricone taking home the gold for his work on The Hateful Eight will be consolation. This is Morricone’s sixth nomination—he won an honorary award in 2007—and he is the heavy favorite according to the bookies and the experts at Gold Derby. Morricone’s score is just about perfect, especially considering the film it was made for: brassy horns and tautly plucked strings teasing and hinting at something just behind the surface of the main theme, much like Quentin Tarantino’s Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery.
Plus, it’s one I imagine I’ll be listening to time and again, long after this awards season has drawn to a conclusion. And for me, that alone makes it worth its weight in Oscar gold.