Musings About Music In Film

Op-Ed: Embrace The New, Academy!


Watch out - it's an Oscar hot take! By Charlie Brigden

Okay, so controversy has yet again reared its ugly head now that the list of film scores eligible for a 2017 Academy Award have been revealed. Of a reel of 145 scores there are some eye-opening omissions, including Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge's score to Martin Scorsese's Silence, Lesley Barber's Manchester By The Sea, and probably the biggest shock, Jóhann Jóhannsson's Arrival. The latter was hotly tipped for a possible win and had just been nominated for a Golden Globe.

The standard line that the Academy offers is that it's about pre-existing music diluting the original score; in Manchester's case it's music by Handel, Massenet, Ella Fitzerald, and more; for Arrival it's a piece by Max Richter used twice. This is not a new thing, both Birdman by Antonio Sanchez and The Revenant by Ryuichi Sakamoto were disqualified in recent years, as well as Cliff Martinez's Drive. Initially, Howard Shore was told that his score for the second Lord of the Rings film - The Two Towers - would be ineligible due to its use of themes from its predecessor, but this was pulled back as being a "late change" that would be implemented the following year. While Towers was not nominated, the following year its successor The Return of the King was, and won the Oscar.

So what is suggested here is a combination of inconsistency and inflexibility. Another example of this is another recent score, 2011's The Artist, which primarily featured a score by Ludovic Bource. I say "primarily" because its final scene used music from another movie, specifically the 'Scene D'Amour' piece from Bernard Herrmann's score to Vertigo. The score took home the Oscar in 2012 to some controversy, not least from Vertigo star Kim Novak who clumsily accused director Michael Hazanavicius of "rape" for using it (a very poor choice of words). Even Ennio Morricone's The Hateful Eight, which won the 2015 award was partially created out of music unused for another film, the 1982 John Carpenter shocker The Thing, although admittedly that is a much greyer area.

So why is the Academy so haphazardly inconsistent? Why do these controversies keep rearing their heads again and again? I can't answer that specifically, I have no access to the Academy and their dealings, although I know there is a strict no appeals rule for this. Some have even said it's a mathematical issue, that some look at music sheets submitted and rule by a percentage. Would it not be easier if someone - a panel perhaps - actually looked at these films and examined in context the way the music affects the film, and whether it truly dilutes it or enriches?

Another possible solution is to create a category for music supervision. We know that the credit of "music supervisor" is an important achievement, especially recently where there's been a breakout of people like George Drakoulias who has worked on everything from Zoolander to Zodiac, or Brian Reitzell on Sofia Coppola's pictures. With the kind of soundtracks that are getting produced a lot more today, maybe it's time for the Academy to open the field a bit more and show some appreciation for the different ways film music is created, which in turn might allow more of a celebration of the diversity of the ways music is used in film, instead of alienating artists, particularly someone like Jóhann Jóhannsson, now one of the top composers working in the medium today.

The music hasn't changed but the technology and techniques have. Let's embrace that, not reject it.