The Oscars are always going to be frustrating for film music addicts like myself, as they are with all film lovers. Sometimes the best scores of any given year truly do win (or at least get nominated), but even when that happens—which is kind of rare—many extremely qualified scores are inevitably left out in the rain.
I’m a big fan of all five composers nominated this year—John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Carter Burwell, Jonny Greenwood, and Hans Zimmer—even if I don’t think the respective scores find them at their highest level or that these were necessarily the best five film scores of the year. So, in the same vein as a recent video I made for the L.A. Times on some of the all-time great scores that weren’t even nominated for an Oscar, I present to you (some of) the best unrecognized film scores of 2017, with comments from each of the composers.
Michael Abels is a veteran concert composer, but Jordan Peele’s directorial debut was, incredibly, his very first film score. With no cinematic experience, a tiny budget, and a mostly sampled orchestra, Abels managed to write one of the creepiest, most original suspense/horror scores of the 21st century. The African-American, mixed-race composer brought authenticity to what is arguably the first “horror gospel” score, letting the singing voices of black ancestors provide terror as they beg the protagonist, Chris, literally to “get out.” The score has tightly-wound harp writing, weighed-down strings for the Sunken Place, and it opens with the terrific “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga”—a horror hymn in Swahili that sets the unsettling tone for the whole movie.
My favorite piece in the score, though, is the “love theme” for Chris and Rose. A gorgeous cello melody implies romance, but the undercurrent of sadness and shimmering atmospherics betrays the dream of a happy ending.
Abels: I did a couple tries [on the love theme], and Jordan didn’t like either one. He finally said: “Don’t write to picture. Just write something.” So I did that, and it was out of that that I came up with the theme that we used. [The sadness] was the most important part of it, because it’s a love theme, and it’s not going to work out [laughs]. You just have to know that from the beginning, because that’s the kind of film it is—but you don’t know how it’s not going to work out. At the same time, there are certain lines of it that have hopefulness, and I guess that’s how it is when you’re in a relationship that’s headed for the skids. If you saw all the signs, you would know. It’s that hopefulness that keeps you in that sad place.
The cello is a lower-pitched instrument, and in the background there are some cello harmonics filling out the pads. Even though they’re higher, they’re still darker-higher. I wanted something in there that was just right, a bright timbre. But of course, at the same time, it can’t be happy, so I’m looking for something that shimmers, but shimmers like a nighttime. It sounds like stars twinkling. That’s a patch in the virtual instrument called Omnisphere. With any virtual instrument, there’s the patch itself, and there’s any modifications you might make. So it’s a patch that might suggest playing slowly, because many Omnisphere patches have just an incredible world in one note. But I’m not doing that. I’m playing lots of little tiny notes, because I was looking for the twinkles. If I remember correctly, it’s kind of an augmented IX chord, which in music theory has both a happiness and a sadness to it. It’s neither major or minor, and it actually has a little bit of a bite. That’s me trying to stir the brightness and the darkness or the bitterness into it at the same time.
Peele: The music and the sound in the film is 50 percent of what you’re experiencing. I think that Michael’s score let’s us to know to be terrified when there’s something coming and we don’t know what it is. I think his score let’s us be horrified when we’re in the throes of the belly of the beast, and Chris is strapped down in the rec room. Basically, the way I looked at it was, we were scoring the audience’s mind watching the film. So often what we would find is, you can’t score the moment something happens on film—you have to score two beats afterward, as the audience’s brain is working. You can’t really lead the audience with the story, you can only support where they’re taking it. So it really is, in so many ways, the soul of the movie.
Read my L.A. Times story on the score here.
The Meyerowitz Stories
I was ecstatic to learn that Randy Newman was scoring a new, non-Pixar movie (for grown-ups!) last year, and extra happy it was for the delightfully cynical, whip-smart Noah Baumbach. It turned out to be a solo piano score performed completely by Newman himself… which turned out to be absolutely perfect for the film. The short, spare score is full of the composer’s wry wit, but also his tender side, and his “voice” becomes another character in the film—almost like he’s sitting at the piano in the next room.
Baumbach: I love The Natural. It makes me cry. I don’t need the movie—I just need the score, and it makes me cry. And Ragtime, and what he did for Avalon. But I was thinking more of his records. When we met and we talked about the movie, and we talked about the themes and musical ideas, I would go to his songs often as reference points. I’d ask him, like, “Could you play the beginning of ‘Memo to My Son’?” Or “Could you play the beginning of ‘Living Without You’?”
I’d given him a script, and he said that he was thinking about piano, partly because Danny (Adam Sandler) plays piano in the movie, and it felt like it would have a relationship to his character in that way. The solo piano had so much personality, but the movie just absorbed it. It never felt put on the movie. Whenever we laid it in, when it worked, it always just felt like it was another sound in the movie. There’s something Dustin [Hoffman] said about it, actually, that there’s a loneliness about it that I think just always felt right. Loneliness, but also a sense of humor in a way, because you kind of feel the player there, too. I think of Randy, in a way, as another performer—it’s almost like the scenes have Dustin and Adam and Ben and Emma, and that Randy is one of them.
Newman: He was very careful about not wanting it to be sentimental. Most directors worry about that too much, you know what I mean? They worry about, “Oh, don’t want to be sentimental—we don’t want to tell the audience how to feel.” I think young directors, and really good ones sometimes too, worry about it a little too much. He didn’t really. But in the cases he did worry himself about it, I think he was right not to do it.
I hate to say “melancholy” [as a description for the tone Newman was going for], ’cause that’s not quite it. Grumpily nostalgic, we could say. Often I don’t write a song down, necessarily. It’s just more chasing it down. It’s more feeling it out, and improvisatory is what it is. I’ll think about it, but it isn’t that kind of a process. It isn’t like thinking “what can the oboe do for me here?” This was sort of that way. I was conscious of not wanting each cue be the same form. I found myself falling prey to that a bit, of writing eight bars, having another eight do the same thing, and then go into a bridge. I did it a few times, but I didn’t want to do it every time. By now, I think the way I use the orchestra is pretty much a personal expression for me, also—but, yes, it’s directly personal, this is.
Baumbach: I’d love to work with him again. It was really one of the best times I’ve had working with a musician. And I’d love to do something with him, also, with an orchestra, because he’s such a great orchestrator and arranger too, and I think that would be really fun to do and to explore something bigger with more players.
Only the Brave
Joseph Kosinski’s drama about a group of front-line firefighters, based on a true (recent) story, got short-shrifted at the box office when it came out in October… partly because California was on fire at the time. But it’s a powerful, well-acted film—if a little bit rah-rah—with stunning vistas, photography, and a vivid portrait of how beautiful and horrific wildfires can be. Kosinki’s right-hand composer, Joseph Trapanese, wrote a simple but emotionally potent score that uses guitars in all kinds of traditional and textural ways. It’s a rustic meditation that pays honor to the story’s ill-fated band of brothers.
Trapanese: What was most inspiring to me, musically, was the thought: what if the score represented Brendan (Miles Teller)? An early conversation Joe Kosinski and I had was that the guitar was going to be really important, but what if that guitar was Brendan telling you a story? What if he were just in his bedroom, and you were sitting there next to him, and he was saying: “Let me tell you about my brothers.”
The guitar palette was so interesting, because I had everything from some of the world’s most incredible guitarists—to me, who can’t even play guitar [laughs]. I think that’s what made it kind of interesting, is because there are moments of this idiomatic, beautiful guitar solo stuff, but then there are moments of textural guitars, moments of guitars played wrongly, to create some of the more dissonant textures. There’s my friend Judson Crane, who did these incredible guitar landscapes that provided this incredible backdrop for the music. I think part of the reason why I think this score came out so richly is, there is this tapestry of guitars that is the way it is because I’m not a guitarist.
Clint Mansell’s music is frequently sad, hypnotic, and rippling with interesting sonic colors. That served him well in Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Noah—and it was perfect for a film about the last days of Vincent Van Gogh, the brilliant but depressed painter, which was completely rendered by hand with oil paint in Van Gogh’s style. Mansell wrote a dreamy, liquidly “swirling” score that seems to drip off the famous canvasses and pour out of Vincent’s beautiful, troubled, obsessive, love-seeking soul.
Mansell: It’s similar to when I did Black Swan. You immerse yourself in the world of these geniuses. And it’s very heartening, I suppose, to understand and to see and feel the struggle of people whose work is undoubtedly great but, you know, perhaps didn’t give them the feelings that they’re even giving to somebody else—the dissatisfaction, trying to do what they need to do, and actually be able to do what they do… I found very heartening, because as artists, we all know that struggle. When nobody’s interested, or you can’t quite get what you’re aiming at.
It’s an immersive experience. I think music can help keep you in there, as opposed to lifting and propelling you and stuff. I’d like to think that it’s more of an atmosphere, and an emotional blanket, if you like. I know that sounds a little heavy-handed. But I like working on films that allow you to sort of get lost in them. So the music is helping you with what’s on screen, and the subject or the subtext of the scene or whatever, but also it creates an atmosphere to experience these things, maybe even have your own feelings of Van Gogh’s work. The music is really playing Vincent, bringing Vincent into those peoples’ worlds, into the viewer’s emotional realm, if you like. It’s like trying to ghost him in there, rather than what’s actually happening on the screen.
I can’t believe this film got completely overlooked by the Academy. It’s a very smart, engaging crime thriller from Hell or High Water and Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (making his directing debut), set in the gorgeous but haunting wintry landscape of a Native American reservation in Wyoming. The mood was enhanced by the ghostly score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who have developed a real knack for the western and its subgenres.
Cave: [Taylor] was clear about the atmospherics—the wind and the snow, the brittleness and the grandeur, the relentlessness of the weather—and both Warren and I intuited very quickly what he wanted. I felt that Corey’s expeditions into the frozen landscape were not just a hunter doing his job, but excursions into his own despairing psyche, and the ghost-choir, the wailing women’s voice, and the muttered poetry all added up to a kind of haunting.
Ellis: There was space in the film for music. And this is often not the case with films. It’s either wallpaper, or the music is just stuck in there to glue something together because there’s no confidence that the audience can deal with silence. When you read the script, you could feel that there was so much room for the score to have a voice, and that’s always really thrilling, as a musician and as a composer, to have that opportunity. And the script read so fantastically—he writes such great dialogue, and it was this beautiful meditation on loss. Because we’re missing two people, two characters. So in a way, the music gives them a voice as well.
Cave: Perhaps it’s because we work in rock ’n’ roll but Warren and I see our scores as complete pieces, with their own narratives, in the same way that we make an album. Wind River feels like a complete work and is a gorgeous thing to listen to in its own right.
Another composer making her film scoring debut last year was Tamar-kali, a punk rocker from Brooklyn who often charges and complicates her music with string and choral writing—mashing classical influences with the wild, electric music of rebellion. The Netflix drama directed by Dee Rees, Mudbound, about a white family and a black family in the post-WWII south, didn’t call for the actual sound of punk… but in its simple, tactile chamber string writing and sorrowful voices (all performed by the composer), there is a shared connection to the streets and the ground—the rough stuff we’re all born out of and trudging through every day.
Tamar-kali: Dee had a very clear aesthetic. She wanted strings specifically, and she wanted them to be dark. Sometimes ominous. And she wanted it to be intimate. I was like, okay, that’s my wheelhouse, I can do that. She gave me a private screening, and so I started writing what was the main theme, and I had some piano in there. I just felt like this arpeggiated piano was a nice bedding. And she was like, “No.”
There’s definitely a tone that represented the farm itself, because I believe that the farm in the film is definitely a character. Dee gives a lot of impressionistic directives, so we were talking about mud, and sometimes I would give her a first draft version of something, and she’d be like, “Can we get some more sludge in there?” So, what do colors sound like? What does being stuck sound like?
Listen to my NPR story on Tamar-kali here.
Battle of the Sexes
I don’t want to pick favorites… but Nicholas Britell’s score for the story of this famous 1973 tennis match, starring Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Briggs, might have been the one I had the most fun listening to in 2017. So different from his intimate, soulful score for Moonlight, Britell basically wrote a ’70s rock symphony built around imminently hummable, minimalist themes that he develops and braids in playful, sensual, interior, and—in the end—explosively triumphant ways. I love this score.
Britell: When you hear Billie Jean’s personal theme for the first time, you actually hear it very subtly in the haircut sequence with her and Marilyn. It’s almost like an ambient soundscape. It’s these sort of warm synths, and there are some bells and things—it’s like an atmosphere.
And then the next time you hear it, there’s actually a very warm, quiet piano with the texture. And then the next time you hear it, there’s a very quiet, muted string section and some pizzicati, and then the same piano comes in, but it’s more stated. As we’re getting closer to the match, the orchestra’s coming in, and so by the time you’re at the match it’s a 79-piece symphony orchestra.
I love minimalist technique. I don’t always get to utilize that—not every film feels like that’s right. But there are times when there is something hypnotic about cycling through certain progressions or cycling through these sort of ideas. One thing that I love, if I’m using a technique like that, is there’s something about maintaining one idea and then having other ideas change around it, so that you’re getting a sense of tension and release that’s happening around this sort of constant. When certain chords shift and there’s one element that’s the same, you really feel that change. But also because of the cycle, sometimes there’s almost this feeling of inevitability, where you’re enjoying where you are but you know where you’re going, too, a little bit. I love that feeling.
Read my L.A. Times stories on the scores for The Meyerowitz Stories, Only the Brave, Loving Vincent, and Battle of the Sexes here.