I recently had a chance to catch up on this past year’s films, so naturally I watched the five films that were nominated for best original score. It has indeed been my experience that Oscars and Emmys don’t always necessarily go to those who deserve it. Was this year one of those times? Well, it was so close that I can’t really fault the decision one way or the other. All of these scores deserved each others’ company, so I can imagine how difficult it must have been to choose.
So, I’ll do a little analysis and review for each of them!
I enjoyed this score a great deal more than most of Desplat’s previous endeavors. This is mainly because the score’s catchy main theme is brilliantly just an arrangement of fair ground music during that pivotal moment in the protagonist’s life when she decides to go against the church’s wishes and explore her sexuality with a handsome young man.
As the movie is about her as an old woman trying to find the child that resulted from that night, it is a perfect thematic and emotional microcosm. She ends up being separated from him early in his life because the group of nuns she was staying with sold the child off to American parents both because they needed money and because they believed it was proper penance for Philomena succumbing to pleasures of the flesh. They then did their best to hide parent from child. So catholic guilt, thoughts of her son (the search for him, memories of him being taken away)…all buried within this deceptively simple little waltz:
Let me start by saying that while I thought all of these scores were pretty equal, this was actually my favorite of these movies. Yes, I know, take away my man card. It is basically a love story. But there are so many things going for this movie that most “chick flicks” don’t have (if you even want to call it a “chick flick”). One of them is truly real characters that shatter those incessant gender stereotypes. The male protagonist has just as many feminine characteristics as he does masculine ones, and so does Samantha, the OS. In fact, the writer/director poked fun at the stereotypes he deliberately avoided in the form of video games and media the characters are exposed to. He was completely unashamed to present his male lead as someone with substance and nuance.
Similarly, the character arc of Samantha is not only profound…it’s also very much what gives this movie a philosophical and sci-fi element to compliment the drama. And what surprised me most of all was that I didn’t have to work hard at suspending my disbelief. I found myself instead caught up in such questions as “wow, are we really heading in that direction collectively as humans? Or is that just AI? Would a sentient AI really be that different from a sufficiently advanced human? Would we be able to love 628 people simultaneously in a few thousand years?” The core romance of the film had no issues reaching me emotionally…but these questions on top of the core elements made this easily one of the best movies last year had to offer.
So…enough babbling about the movie itself. The score was of course perfect for the tone and scope of the movie. It was on the minimalist side and indeed pretty simple, but nowhere near as vacuous or irritatingly repetitive as scores that like can sometimes become. Two of the pieces were actually composed by Samantha within the story, which perfectly capture the moments that she was writing them for.
In addition to the many solo piano works in here, I’d say the rest of the material was reserved for particularly intense or poignant scenes, such as when Theodore and Samantha make love for the first time. Note how this cue not only captures the erotic nature of the scene, but also how ethereal and transcendent the experience is for the two characters:
As you can see, there’s a little bit of synth thrown in here, but not much. In contrast, when Theodore starts to realize that Samantha and her definition of love is evolving too quickly for him to handle, we get a much more distorted cue:
In spite of how this may seem depressing, the movie actually ends on a very “zen” note. It is of course obvious that Samantha has the hugest arc, but Theodore comes a long way, too. He goes from completely broken by his divorce to deeply in love, and then finally healed and even evolved by these events. Some of Samantha’s insanely rapid growth rubbed off on him. His final action is to write a letter to his ex wife, basically trying to make amends for all of the anger and bitterness there has been between them and to assure her that she is still a part of him. It goes hand-in-hand with the movie’s themes of evolution and universal love.
Dammit, there I go again talking about the movie and not the score. I guess it was just something that affected me very deeply, and it’s the last thing I expected. And certainly the score was a part of that. Props to Arcade Fire.
This is the one that took home the Oscar. And while I can see why the decision was made (as well as the quality of the score), I also don’t believe that it said anything as unique or new as people are claiming. A lot of these techniques were pioneered by the Industrial Music scene decades ago. Perhaps within a film medium it is novel, but I don’t have quite the obscure film knowledge to make that claim. And indeed, there are a couple of things in the OST (not necessarily in the score) that really started to get old (the sudden silence was super effective and awesome the first time…by the fourth time, I got actively annoyed with the composer).
However I must say that the use of distortion, synth and other artificial sound techniques serviced the film quite well. For example, in this particular cue, the protagonist is sent hurdling through space due to high-speed debris ripping her ship apart and severing her connection with it. It does indeed capture the terror one might feel of being caught in a perpetual tumble away from Earth.
And of course, I give it kudos for not sounding too cheesy or fake (as synth-heavy scores are prone to do), but it just didn’t give me quite the emotional connection that either Philomena or Her did. Part of that might simply have been that after a certain point, my suspension of disbelief took more of a pounding than the numerous satellites and space stations in the movie (a bit harsh, but everything works out a little too conveniently for the plot). Though to be fair, it’s an exceptionally difficult balance to find in a movie like this: realism vs drama.
Ahhhh, and I can’t forget the shot in the beginning where the characters are admiring the view. What a gorgeous musical moment.
Saving Mr. Banks
As someone who grew up with Marry Poppins, I was very much looking forward to this movie. It did not disappoint and ended up exceeding my expectations. The score, while it was basically just more Thomas Newman, did hit all of the right beats. And of course, fittingly, there was plenty of material taken from Marry Poppins. However, I would have liked to see the relationship between Marry Poppins material and original score material mesh a little more. The thing I really noticed was that old and new music were almost entirely kept separate. It was either piano source music or an arrangement of a Poppins song,
or totally new and original thematic/melodic material by Newman.
I mean, this movie would not have been made if it weren’t for Marry Poppins…so why not develop and do interesting things with the building blocks of that music – you know, akin to Brahms’ Variation on a Theme by Hayden? Though perhaps he tried this and it ended up not servicing the film properly. And don’t get me wrong: the contrast works pretty well as there is some darkness and more nuance to this film than there is in Marry Poppins numbers. But a little bit of thematic blending would have been so cool, because it would have allowed music nerds like myself to catch those building blocks within the context of the drama and score. This is hardly a major fault of the score, though. Just something on my personal wish list.
In any case, it’s another good score Newman can add to his list (let’s be honest: Skyfall should have won last year. Poor Newman).
The Book Thief
This was a very surprising entry for John Williams. All of his scores have been intensely lyrical, thickly orchestrated and pretty unabashedly romantic or at least majestic. And this story certainly had the makings for another one of those scores: a WWII story about a family of Germans who take in a Jewish boy and attempt to hide him. But what do we end up with? A more restrained, minimalist approach akin to all of these other entries. And what surprised me the most was that it was great! He may be used to writing grand, sweeping scores, but he has a natural talent for the gentler touch as well. True, some projects were leaning in that direction (Memoirs of a Geisha, for example), but this is the only one of his scores I would consider truly minimalist.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to catch up on these, and I look forward to more amazing movie scores this year!