The dust has settled following the 91st Academy Awards, and as always, the ceremony has provoked heated debate amongst critics and movie fans alike. In this first installment of ‘You Know the Score,’ I look at the nominees for Best Original Score and discuss whether the Academy made the right choice in awarding the Oscar to Ludwig Göransson for Black Panther.
Whoever got the job of composing the music for Mary Poppins Returns was going to have a considerable task on their hands. How do you follow up one of the most iconic film soundtracks of all time, in the Sherman Brothers’ 1964 original? Well, the answer seems to have been to get as close as possible to the original without directly plagiarising it. With his extensive Broadway experience and having had considerable success with Hairspray, Mark Shaiman seemed a solid choice, and with Mary Poppins Returns, he does an excellent job. The songs are catchy, and the score is always engaging, with some dramatic moments and an appropriate level of reverence for the original.
Perhaps the only criticism would be that both the film and soundtrack are too similar to the original. The film’s pacing is almost identical, and the songs are essentially updated versions of the old ones: ‘The Place Where the Lost Things Go’ is ‘Feed the Birds,’ ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ is ‘Step in Time,’ ‘Nowhere to Go But Up’ is ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite.’ With every one of the new songs you can trace back to the equivalent version in the 1964 film, and it is usually not too dissimilar, either musically or thematically. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is up to personal preference; I enjoyed the nostalgia trip!
Terence Blanchard has composed the music for every Spike Lee film since 1991’s Jungle Fever, and he received his first Oscar nomination this year for their 19th collaboration, BlackkKlansman. The soundtrack perfectly complements the movie’s 1970s aesthetic with its authentic recreation of the Blaxploitation sound, featuring prominent wah-wah guitar, drum kit, and horns. It is much more than a one-trick pony, however. Blanchard blends the jazz and funk sounds with richly harmonic orchestral themes that carry emotional heft. There is also more than a sprinkling of irony, with several references to popular songs of the Confederate States, and the pipe, drum and bugle instrumentation that has become a Hollywood byword for American patriotism. The many light-hearted moments in the soundtrack (and indeed the film itself) serve as a foil to the movie’s final gut-punch: shocking footage of the Charlottesville riots. Overall it is an extremely intelligent score for a significant film and is well-deserving of its nomination.
Nicholas Britell received his second Oscar nomination in as many years for If Beale Street Could Talk: his second collaboration with director Barry Jenkins, following on from last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight. As with BlackkKlansman, Britell’s score evokes the period of the film’s setting, but it does not do this through pastiche; it is a jazz-inflected soundtrack, but not jazz per se, neither is it classical. Britell employs subtle musical nuances that call back the film’s ‘needle drops.’ For example, the meandering, melancholic string harmonies recall the modal jazz of Miles Davis’ ‘Blue in Green,’ and the bittersweet tension of Nina Simone’s ‘That’s All I Ask’ continues to permeate the rest of the soundtrack with no cathartic resolution (mirroring the film’s narrative). Britell perfectly reflects the emotions of the characters on-screen without being overtly manipulative. The harmonic and melodic content of the cues does not change significantly between the tragic moments and the joyful ones; instead, it is the inspired instrumentation choices that provide the contrast. The whole soundtrack is drenched in a long reverb that almost elicits a dream-like state. It is a truly beautiful work and a masterful example of how to write music for pictures.
Also nominated this year was Alexandre Desplat, for Wes Anderson’s stop motion feature Isle of Dogs. The French composer has received an astonishing 10 Oscar nominations in the last 12 years (winning two) and is becoming the new John Williams in the sense that you can always bank on him to pop up in the nominations. However, this score is not one of his best.
One of the criticisms leveled at Isle of Dogs when it came out last year was its stereotypical treatment of Japanese culture. The film’s many references to taiko drummers, sumo, kabuki, cherry blossoms, etc., were perceived by some as offensive. This cultural appropriation can also be seen in Alexandre Desplat’s score, which uses taiko as its main thematic material as well as taking inspiration from classic Japanese films such as Seven Samurai. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this approach, and there is a fine line between appropriation and homage; however, set within the context of a film which already veers dangerously close to racial stereotyping, the score starts to feel insincere.
Where Isle of Dogs may have got it wrong then, Black Panther got it very right. Rather than presenting a generic, Western-imagined African aesthetic, Black Panther is a pure celebration of African culture, both traditional and contemporary. This is evident in all facets of the film, from the costumes and production design to the Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack that accompanies Ludwig Göransson’s score.
The score itself is a seamless fusion of traditional African music and the classical orchestration that is typically associated with the superhero genre. As part of his research, Göransson spent a month in Senegal, first touring with musician Baaba Maal then spending several weeks working with local musicians, recording extracts that would become the basis of his score. The composer was particularly drawn to the talking drum and the tambin, which are used in the film to represent the characters of Black Panther and Killmonger respectively. Baba Maal’s powerful vocals are utilised on two of the most memorable cues in the score: ‘Wakanda’ and ‘A King’s Sunset.’ Göransson stated that through his score he aimed to recreate the feeling he had when first listening to Maal’s music in Senegal, which he described as a mesmerising “out of body experience.”
The result is a score that is far more authentic than most of Hollywood’s forays into Africa, and far more distinctive than any other in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When you consider how culturally significant the success of Black Panther has been, and the key part music has played in that success, it is hard to argue against Ludwig Göransson being a very worthy winner.
I still preferred If Beale Street Could Talk though!