When it comes to music, the Oscars often get it wrong. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tends to wobble in the Best Score category, nominating old hands with familiar names but frequently rewarding strangers who emerge out of left field and then disappear from the scene. The merits of these left-field choices are debatable, but scrolling through the Academy's choices over the years prompts a fair amount of head-scratching.
What makes a film score "great" is as hard to define, let alone find consensus on, as great acting or great editing — but it's fair to ask that those deemed Oscar-worthy be both skillfully composed and essential to the storytelling. For every obvious masterpiece (like E.T., whose emotional contours and iconic moments are inextricable from John Williams' music) and subversive surprise (see The Social Network, Trent Reznor's pulsating, electronic heartbeat for the internet generation), there is a long list of Oscar winners that beat out clearly superior scores for inexplicable reasons, or that shouldn't have qualified in the first place. 'Round Midnight, a collage of mostly classic jazz pieces, won in 1986 over Ennio Morricone's The Mission, one of the greatest film scores ever written. John Williams has 50 nominations but only five Oscars; his score for The Empire Strikes Back, widely considered the apex of his Star Wars work, lost in 1980 to Michael Gore's synth-pop musical, Fame. Babel and The Artist likely owe their wins in 2005 and 2011 to music that isn't original score at all: The former uses a preexisting piece by Ryuichi Sakamoto in its climax; the latter, Bernard Herrmann's seminal score from Vertigo.
Somehow, despite their spotted history, the Academy's 2017 picks for Best Score are a surprisingly spotless batch. They are largely the work of newcomers: Five of the six composers have never been nominated for an Oscar before. Three are younger than 40. Two are being recognized for what is only their second feature film. Most of the scores take a clean, minimal approach, avoiding the big, creamy Hollywood orchestra in favor of smaller ensembles and soloists. Each one feels integral to its story, and each one stands out — whether in its bold and startling prominence, or because it bears the burden of nuanced, emotional storytelling where the film lacks it, or because it lives in a genre where music is the star.
In Moonlight, composer Nicholas Britell ties together three chapters of the protagonist's life with a gossamer theme that gradually slows and deepens as the character ages. Violinist Tim Fain gives voice to "Little's Theme," the melody in its childhood phase, with such lightness and intimate mic placement that you can hear the scratch of fibers between bow and string. Inspired by director Barry Jenkins' love of "chopped and screwed" music — a remix style from Southern hip-hop that digitally slows down a track to reveal, in the composer's words, "hidden sonic worlds" — Britell decelerates the theme for each progressive chapter, to the point where the adult character, "Black," is accompanied by celli and basses, moving with a masculine, glacial weight.
Elsewhere, digital effects turn the ordinary into poetry. In the "baptism" scene where Mahershala Ali's character teaches Little to swim in the ocean, the tails of Fain's lightning arpeggios are manipulated by the composer to create a sense of tidal overlapping. With his spare but virtuosic score, Britell helps elevate this quiet story of a very interior (and nearly speechless) gay black youth in Miami to near-religious heights.
Lion's music shares a narrative function with that of Moonlight — binding chaptered portions of a character's life — as well as an aesthetic, built around fragile, tactile, solo instrument sounds. Composers Dustin O'Halloran, who writes the neoclassical piano music for the Amazon series Transparent, and Hauschka (a.k.a. Volker Bertelmann, the German artist best known for his use of prepared piano) set up melodies of melancholy and loneliness in the film's first half, which traces hero Saroo's childhood in India and separation from his home and family. These themes, arranged for vibrato violin and gentle, arpeggiating piano, resurface in Saroo's adult life in Australia, hovering like ghosts and calling him back to a location he can't identify. For a story that could have easily invited sentimental mush and overbearing orchestration, O'Halloran and Hauschka's score succeeds by being emotionally direct: lyrically, delicately and unoppressively capturing Saroo's internal state.
Mica Levi, the English composer alternately known as experimental pop artist Micachu, surprised audiences with her itching, quivering score for the 2013 sci-fi drama Under the Skin. Although Jackie tells a more grounded story — about the grieving process of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her husband's assassination — its score is almost equally unnerving. Written mostly for strings and a few solo instruments (flute, piano, snare drum), the music throbs and invades the story in unexpected ways, beginning with a queasy, melting chord that cascades before the first image flickers onscreen.
Levi largely stayed away from the film while composing, guided instead by her own impression of the kind of music Jackie Kennedy would have liked. As Indiewire critic Ben Croll has noted, the score moves the way grief does — arriving in waves out of nowhere, then retreating just as suddenly. A timid, unsteady waltz for flute and strings follows Jackie around a sepulchral White House. Violins shake violently on a sudden recall of the gunshot that upended her life in Dallas. The music softens and sweetens in a tender moment Jackie shares with her friend Nancy Tuckerman — a flute darting birdlike over simple string chords trudging toward light. And in the film's long, dreamy denouement, non-diatonic notes complicate an otherwise hopeful adagio. Levi's music avoids biopic clichés and gives new insight into the broken, disoriented but still elegant first lady, as imagined by star Natalie Portman and director Pablo Larraín. For my money, it's the best, most daringly and essentially used score of the lot.
The one familiar name on the ballot is Thomas Newman, a perennial bridesmaid with 14 Oscar nominations over the past 22 years — including The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty and last year's Bridge of Spies — and zero wins. In some ways, the sci-fi adventure Passengers has the most traditional score on this list, but only because the composer has become a cinematic tradition. His scores all bear an unmistakable DNA, a deft blend of quirky instrumentation and rhythmic play with nostalgic, emotive melody.
Truthfully, the film asks too much of its score — the eye-rolling dialogue and undercooked effects leave much to compensate for — but by doing the heavy lifting, Newman shines in his own right. As he did in WALL-E, Newman paints a mysterious cosmic soundscape for the lonely occupants of a futuristic world, combining his usual bag of wispy woodwinds and clustered brass with cool electronics and a high synthetic voice (something he's jokingly called "a bit of a star child thing"). There's even a spiritual cousin to WALL-E's "Define Dancing" sequence for Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence's own starry-eyed spacewalk, a romantic serenade for piano and blossoming strings. The score is one of two nominations for a film derided by critics and rejected by audiences, and the confluence of circumstances almost undoubtedly spells another empty-handed year for Newman. Still, even where the film itself fumbles, his music lends subtlety to its spectrum of moods — desperation, moral quandary, sensuality and, finally, clock-ticking action — and the score is one of the composer's most mature and sophisticated from his 21st-century period.
For obvious reasons, music matters more than usual in La La Land, the clear frontrunner in this category and many others this year. In the tradition of his childhood hero, Disney legend Alan Menken, 31-year-old Justin Hurwitz crafted a score that mines every inch of possibility from the film's showtunes, which he also wrote. The result is a patchwork of variations on these melodies, operating like afterimages or foreshadows to keep the musical pot boiling and the stars' feet nimble between numbers.
Despite the interstitial nature of the score cues, these aren't lazy, muzak interpretations of Hurwitz's songs: The composer dresses up his tunes in a boundless wardrobe that includes jazz combos, Latin ensembles and romantic classical orchestras. The orchestration is clean and transparent, showcasing trilling woodwinds, classical guitar and a whole cast of idiophones — and there's a sparkling, nostalgically fizzy quality that's hard to find outside of a Disney movie these days. There's no overture in this musical, but Hurwitz effectively works one in with his fireworks spectacular "Epilogue," in which the main tunes are reprised and decked out in their evening best, including a Menken-esque chorus. The one major melody in the score not taken from the songs is a wistful waltz, which first lures Emma Stone's Mia into the restaurant where Ryan Gosling's Sebastian is gigging like a siren song. Hurwitz evolves that theme in a parade of developments, until it quite literally takes flight in a romantic fantasia inside the Griffith Observatory planetarium.
La La Land will no doubt get swept up in the film's suction of gold, minting Hurwitz (like his school pal, director Damien Chazelle) as one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. Newman will likely have to wait another go-round for his first statue. As for the other composers, they all have full, exciting careers ahead of them.