2016 Oscars Orchestration Roundup

Over the past week, I’ve reviewed the orchestration of each contender for the Academy Award for Music (Original Score). Now it’s time to compare the nominees, and judge which score might be awarded.

Of course, film scores are rarely awarded solely on the quality of their orchestration. But the texture of a score is as important as its function. Added to this are things that don’t have anything to do with music: industry context, reputation, and even gestures of sympathy. No one can really know for sure in the end why some Academy members voted one way or another – but we can hazard a guess at why we have the selection we do, and which score has the best shot. I’ll go through them one by one, and give them my personal rating. I’ve linked each review in the title below, so you can have another listen and think about each entry, and add your own vote to the survey I’ll pin at the top of this weekend’s Orchestration Online Facebook feed.

A quick word about those ratings. All of them exclusively deal with the music, and not the picture itself (nor the industry buzz). Originality: how uniquely individual the voice of the composer. Effectiveness: how well the film captured the spirit and action of the footage. Musical Interest: the ability of the music to stand on its own without the film. Variety: what extent the composer developed their material in different ways. Orchestration: the quality of scoring. Each category is rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with a maximum total score of 50 points.

CAROL – A stunning exercise in style, with two virtuoso lead actresses. The film was so perfect in so many ways, and so superior to many other films honoured this year, that its Oscars snub for Best Picture and Best Director are fuel to the ongoing fire of debate over the continued relevance of the Academy Awards. Nevertheless its many other nominations are well-deserved. I felt, however, that this wasn’t composer Carter Burwell’s best work by any means, and the score was hugely derivative of other music, particularly Philip Glass. Nor did the music really fit the period in which it was set, which was all the more puzzling since otherwise not a single detail was out of place. Finally, its orchestration was more of a chamber ensemble, plus a few added strings here and there. I wish I could give this excellent film’s score more of a boost than below.
Ratings: Originality – 4; Effectiveness – 6; Musical Interest – 8; Variety – 7; Orchestration – 7.
Overall score: 32

SICARIO – This semi-hallucinatory bit of filmmaking had some star power combined with a cult vibe. In a way, it was a tasteful distillation of distasteful trends in film: over-the-top violence, alienation, and chauvinistic empathy. It was like a cross between Black Hawk Down, Miami Vice, and The X-Files, with a huge injection of horror-film aesthetics. Having seen it, I think it’s a very original combination of those styles and trends in film – but I’m not sure that makes it a great film. There’s no question it deserves the cinematography nomination. As to music and orchestration – it’s not necessarily original, but it does what it does virtuosically. There are some great moments, but this doesn’t feel like an Oscar-winning score to me.
Ratings: Originality – 7; Effectiveness – 10; Musical Interest – 6; Variety – 5; Orchestration – 8.
Overall score: 38

BRIDGE OF SPIES – The presence of this film in the category of Best Score is in direct relation to its nomination for Best Picture, I feel. This same score placed in any other film by a director of less reputation wouldn’t have been nominated. As with Carter Burwell, this is far from Thomas Newman’s best work. It has some chance of winning all the same, if a sufficient number of Academy voters feel that it’s time for the lightning to strike Newman after 12 nominations. But when compared to the strength of the two nominees below, and in light of the very sparse use of music in the film as a whole, it’s hard to say that this was the best score of 2016. I liked a lot of the cures, but many of them were firmly based on models by other composers, or extensions of Newman’s previous work in other films.
Ratings: Originality – 7; Effectiveness – 9; Musical Interest – 8; Variety – 7; Orchestration – 8.
Overall score: 39

THE HATEFUL EIGHT – As mainstream as the violence and depravity of Quentin Tarantino’s pictures have become, they’re still an extension of cult and independent filmmaking. His films get nominations only when it would be an embarrassment to the Academy not to do so. Proof of this: his only two wins so far have both been for Best Screenplay. But this year he upped the stakes by adding Ennio Morricone to his production roster, resulting in one of his most watchable films, for all the trademark splatter. It would have been a crime not to nominate Morricone’s brilliant score. Every button it presses connects with sophistication, beauty, and a supremely confident individuality. If any limitations were present, they were in the context of the film’s limited sets and locations; and yet Morricone showed what a professional should do in that situation. Best of all, his orchestration showed a strong sense of development from earlier models that he himself had laid down in the 1960’s-70’s.
Ratings: Originality – 10; Effectiveness – 10; Musical Interest – 9; Variety – 9; Orchestration – 10.
Overall score: 48

STAR WARS EPISODE 7: THE FORCE AWAKENS – In my view, John Williams knocked this film out of the park with his best Star Wars score since The Empire Strikes Back – and certainly his most original since The Adventures of Tintin. Hitchcock used to say that everything he did: scripting, directing, production, etc. was only half of the film. The other half belonged to the composer. That was certainly true for this film. What I found most compelling was the comparison between my own reactions of viewing the original Star Wars release in 1977 and viewing The Force Awakens last year. At the former, I was laughing with amazed delight at the huge number of quotes and homages that Williams built into his own voice. At the latter, I was compelled by the open window through which Williams’s score invited me to look with all my subsequent training and artistic experience. I was grateful for that in a way I could never be for the other nominees, with all respect to their excellent efforts.
Ratings: Originality – 10; Effectiveness – 10; Musical Interest – 10; Variety – 10; Orchestration – 10.
Overall score: 50

Though I’ve rated The Force Awakens ahead of The Hateful Eight, that doesn’t mean I think it will win. As many have observed recently, the competition really seems to be between these two scores. Does Williams really need another Oscar? Of all the nominees, he is probably the least worried about winning or losing – if he even cares one iota. In fact, he’s the kind of person who might well feel a bit embarrassed at winning over Morricone, who I’m sure Williams respects enormously. On the other hand, Morricone has always been a bit of an outsider to the Academy and to Hollywood. It took a special Lifetime Award for them to honour his undeniable importance to the industry. He is hugely respected by many. Of course, will Academy members vote for him simply to vote against Disney? Or vote for Williams simply to vote against Tarantino?

My final prediction is an almost even tie, with a slight advantage to Morricone. I’d say “May the best composer win” – but we know that “best” is a very subjective judgement. In that light, may the Oscar go to the composer who will use it in the best way for all other composers.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

One thought on “2016 Oscars Orchestration Roundup

  1. I can only comment on two of those films. Carol – I completely agree with every word you said, especially how disappointingly out of era that score was. Hateful 8 however disappointed me only in that there wasn’t enough of its beautiful score. I sat through that film bored silly, with dead silence behind 90% of its one-set story.
    Thank you for your brilliant score reviews!

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