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Nominated Movie Scores Feature Sophistication, Cultural Diversity

  • Adam Phillips

A worker stands next to the Oscar statues during a preparation work for the upcoming OSCARS, the 85th Academy Awards, at Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California, February 19, 2013.
First-rate film composers may lack the celebrity of A-list actors and directors, but their work is crucial to a film’s success. It’s a fact recognized by the Academy Awards in its Best Original Score category. This year’s contenders for that Oscar - Lincoln, Argo, Skyfall, Anna Karenina, and Life of Pi.

Movie music has come a long way since the early days of film, when all it did was set a mood for the story.

Daniel Carlin chairs the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television department at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. He says this year’s nominees for Best Original Score are notable for their sophistication and their cultural diversity.

“The cultural influences range from contemporary India [to] Turkey [to] Iran and then the Far East and then you are back in 19th century Russia. All of those scores are extremely successful and worthy of consideration," explained Carlin.

Consider the score for Life of Pi, about an Indian boy and a tiger adrift on the ocean, directed by Ang Lee.

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Carlin admires the South Asian instrumentation that veteran composer Mychael Danna brought to the project.

“But I also appreciated the way he incorporates Indian lead instruments into a more traditional film score model," said Carlin. "So we get the feeling of India, but we don’t have to leave our comfort zone in terms of how we usually feel U.S. film music in a movie."

Carlin says Eastern and Western motifs were also combined in Alexandre Desplat's score for Argo. The film is based on a true story and takes place in Iran during the hostage crisis in 1979.

A blend of musical genres was also featured in Skyfall, scored by Thomas Newman. Carlin says Newman combined the feel of James Bond’s high tech world with the Bond character, who is more melancholy than in previous Bond films. “I think he gives us some additional humanity rather just this macho comic book figure [typical of Bond],” he noted.

Newman has been nominated for an Oscar 11 times, although he has yet to win. Some say that’s a reason he might win this time.

Dario Marianelli’s score for Anna Karenina, based on Leo Tolstoy’s Russian masterpiece, was also nominated.

In Carlin’s view, Marianelli managed to seemlessly weave together different kinds of music according to the changing action in a scene. "It’s almost choreographed. And you can tell the thought that has gone on behind it," he said. "Marianelli is very good at doing this, and I really appreciate that professionalism and care."

Composer John Williams received his 48th Oscar nomination for Lincoln. Williams’s score features melodies in the style of 19th century American hymns and folk ballads.

A film’s score must never compete with the dialogue. Carlin notes that this posed a challenge for Williams because Lincoln is heavy on conversation. “So the adept composer -- and John certainly is that -- support the drama and the emotion but how to use the correct instruments and sonority ranges so you don’t compete in the same frequency range as the dialogue. It’s very tricky stuff," Carlin added. "And he is just great at it. Given his stature and the score is magnificent, John is probably the odds on favorite.”

The Academy Awards are on Sunday February 24. To find out who will win the Oscar for Best Original Score, just wait for “the envelope please.”