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The Oscars, they’re all gold statues and tin ears

February 27, 2013

I didn’t watch the Oscars; I almost never do. Still, I’m glad Canadian composer Mychael Danna, who scored Life of Pi, upset the legendary John Williams in the original score category.

Confession: I don’t like Williams. I find him syrupy, obvious. Yeah, sure, I know he’s the most famous movie composer of all time who’s worked on blockbuster after blockbuster, but for me he represents a trend common in Hollywood movies of over-scoring. By this I mean the use of music throughout the film, almost without pause. It’s sort of the musical equivalent in movies of the laugh track in sit-coms. I find it irritating when TV and movie people don’t think I come up with some appropriate emotional response on my own. It’s one of the things I appreciate about movies made outside the Hollywood system. They’re just so much quieter.


None of Bernard Hermann’s scores for Hitchcock, not even for Psycho, was ever honoured by the Academy.

Still, music can sometimes tie everything in a film together. There is no shortage of composers and scores that I love, so I thought that as everyone still has movies on the brain, I’d put together a short list. These aren’t in any particular order:

Anatomy of a Murder – This Otto Preminger 1959 classic is part courtroom drama, part dark comedy. The edgy film was well ahead of its time, but having Duke Ellington compose the music didn’t hurt either.

Michael Nyman – The modern British composer has come up with some incredible movie music, most notably for the films of Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; A Zed and Two Noughts). He is probably best known for composing the score to Jane Campion’s The Piano. But wait – the envelope, please – the Oscar goes to John Williams for Schindler’s List. Williams’ score won over The Firm, The Age of Innocence, The Fugitive and The Remains of the Day. That’s right, The Piano wasn’t even nominated. I worked in a music warehouse at the time and remember pulling orders for the Nyman disk often. As for the others, including Schindler’s List, not so much. Bullshit isn’t a strong enough curse word to describe how I feel about this Oscar outcome.

Angelo Badalamenti – David Lynch’s musical interpreter always comes up with a surreal mix of weird pop and lounge lizard jazz that manages to capture what’s going on inside the director’s brain – whatever that may be. Maybe we don’t want to know.

Thomas Newman – He’s scored plenty, but I best know and love his work with Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay for American Beauty, probably my favourite film, and created Six Feet Under, probably my favourite TV show. Newman’s music plays a strong role in establishing a quirky yet emotional undercurrent in these works. He comes by scoring honestly, as the Newmans are a film score dynasty. Cousin Randy (yes, the one and only) is among the many Newmans and has been know to score a film or two himself. (Not that this matters, but American Beauty is the only film in recent years to win best picture that I would’ve picked as my favourite film of that year, though it had some stiff competition from Magnolia – see below.)

Hal Hartley – Hal was probably my favourite indie director in the late 80s and early 90s. He’s still out there, but outside of Henry Fool and Fay Grim, I’ve lost track of his more recent work. As well as writing and directing his films, he composes the original scores. I’ve downloaded a couple of collections of his film music via my eMusic account and love listening to them when I write.

Koyaanisqatsi – Philip Glass has scored numerous films. While his music sometimes grates my nerves, other times I’m moved as was the case with his work for this visual poem from Godfrey Reggio about the modern world and life out of balance.

Jon Brion – He’s produced albums by Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. His trademark quirky scores, noted for using old keyboard and analog sampling instruments, have left their mark on films such as Magnolia (another favourite film), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Heart Huckabees. By the way, if you’re ever in L.A. on Friday night and Brion is doing his stint at Largo, go, just go.

Mark Mothersbaugh – Another quirky composer in the Brion mould, he would still be a fixture in modern music for his work with Devo. These days, he’s Wes Anderson’s go-to guy but has also composed for countless TV shows and movies.

Bernard Hermann – The gold standard. Reason one: Citizen Kane. Welles even described him as an intimate member of the family. Then there’s many scores Hermann wrote for Hitchcock, including Psycho, whose screeching strings must be among the most famous few bars of music in cinematic history. He worked with many other directors such as Nicholas Ray, Robert Wise and Francois Truffault. His last work, Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, is in my view one of the greatest film scores ever. Hermann’s music captured the psychotic noir world of an America ready to be ripped apart in the 1970s, right at its New York underbelly. There’s an amazing montage of Travis Bickle driving the streets of the city, and all we hear is Robert Deniro’s monologue about the netherworld he’s taking us into and Hermann’s unsettling score. Clearly, Scorcese knew what he had here and didn’t want to wake us from this nightmare with any background noise.

Hermann was nominated for an Oscar and even had a second nod the same year for the film Obsession but lost out to The Omen, scored by Jerry Goldsmith (himself, a noted film composer). The only Oscar that Hermann ever won was back in 1941 for The Devil and Daniel Webster. It’s hard to believe. All those years working with Hitch and not even a nomination from the Academy. This fact alone should explain why I rarely watch awards shows.


From → Essays, Lists

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