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Music to Oscar's Ears

This image released by 20th Century Fox, April 9, 2013, shows Geoffrey Rush, left, and Sophie Nélisse in a scene from "The Book Thief," about a girl who loves books.
This image released by 20th Century Fox, April 9, 2013, shows Geoffrey Rush, left, and Sophie Nélisse in a scene from "The Book Thief," about a girl who loves books.
Adam Phillips
Sunday is Oscars Night in Hollywood.  And while the Oscar nominated actors and actresses have the larger fan base, insiders also will be paying attention to the five film composers whose work has garnered them nominations for Best Score.

The opening music for The Book Thief is just one small part of the varied and complex score John Williams composed for the film about a German family that hides a Jewish man in its home during World War II. The 82-year-old Williams has been nominated for an Academy Award 49 times, but his most recent win was 20 years ago for Schindler’s List.

Hollywood veteran Dan Carlin, who chairs the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program at the University of Southern California, thought a Best Score Oscar for The Book Thief would be well deserved. He pointed to one musical sequence called "Revealing the Secret," in which the main character, a young girl who has been saved from the death camps, told her best friend about the Jewish man her family was protecting.

"It just grabs your heart and rips it out.  It’s a very emotional cue.  And John can do that probably better than anyone else.  He’s amazing," he said.

Carlin added that the reason Williams remained "the most sought after film composer on this planet" was easily understood while listening to The Book Thief score.  "I've talked to some composers and they say, 'I can't listen to John's scores anymore because 'when I do, I just want to chop my fingers off.'  How does he do it?  And a range of stuff too - from jazz scores to action adventures to futuristic stuff to this. It's just extraordinary!'"

For the sixth time in eight years, the French film composer Alexandre Desplat has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Score - this time for Philomena.  It's a drama about an elderly Irish woman and a journalist searching for the son who was taken from her as an unwed teenage mother and put up for adoption.

Carlin called the score complex and sophisticated, yet accessible.  He was curious about a carousel-like melody that was very prominent near the beginning of the film. 

"And I wonder if he had in mind the fact that they go around in circles, these two lead characters, when they are trying to solve this mystery, when they are trying to track down her son.  You never know if composers think about this stuff consciously, but it winds up being very effective," said Carlin.

William Butler and Owen Pallet Warner, two composers better known for their work with the Canadian indie rock band "Arcade Fire," got an Oscar nod for Her.  The film is about a man in the near future who develops a romantic relationship with a computer program with a woman’s voice and personality.

Carlin said the mix of high-tech electronic music with romantic melody mirrored the relationship humans were developing with technology.

"You have the sweetness of the melody and the theme trying to tell a love story, but at the same time you’ve got technology coming in and trying to get in the way of it.  It’s a very interesting notion," he said.

Carlin is not a great fan of electronic music, but admires the way veteran film composer Tom Newman combined it with traditional orchestral writing in Saving Mr. Banks.  The drama recounts the two weeks that Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers spent in Los Angeles in 1961 being wooed by Walt Disney, who wanted the screen rights to her book.

"But the Academy has not embraced this film," he said.  "Walt Disney remains a controversial figure in Hollywood and is not generally beloved and that backlash may hurt Tom’s chances of finally receiving an Oscar," adding, "but the score is really superb."

The film Gravity, which takes place entirely in outer space, features perhaps the most unusual score among this year’s nominees.  Because there are no "earthly" sounds out there, composer Steven Price combined music with raw audio effects.

"It’s a scrubbing percussive type of sound that is not rhythmic," Carlin observed.  "He’s made that part of the soundtrack what he's created.  That’s not an easy thing to do.  So that may work in his favor and also that this was a huge box office film."

Dan Carlin wouldn't say which score he will be rooting for on Sunday night, but opined that Gravity may have the most weight going in.  Like these composers themselves, Oscar Night’s tens of millions of TV viewers will just have to wait for the name that follows the three words, "the envelope, please..."

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