Could two potentially great film scores get the AMPAS shaft this year?

Posted by · 1:34 pm · May 26th, 2008

It’s a debate that never gets old regarding the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. When is it going to clean house regarding shady rules that seem to fly in the face of what the organization sets out to do each and every year: honor the best in cinematic achievement?

The foreign film committee had a major shakeup last year, and promises of attention were made, but it’s high time the same happened with the musicians. One of the rules seems poised to become a serious talking point later this season, however.

Within Rule 16B of the Academy’s eligibility guidelines — launched into infamy last year when the caca hit the fan regarding Jonny Greenwood’s “There Will Be Blood” score — you’ll find the key language:

Only the principal composer(s) or songwriter(s) responsible for the conception and execution of the work as a whole shall be eligible for an award. This expressly excludes from eligibility…scores assembled from the music of more than one composer.

Specifically, it’s Rule 16B-5f. And it will likely affect two promising works of film music composition this year.

I was happy to see recently that Ronni Chasen’s publicity firm Chasen & Co. — always a friendly haven for, and diligent promoter of, film composers (I look forward to the array of CDs in my mail box each Oscar season) — have announced a press day coming up on Friday for Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. The duo is working together once again this year on the score for Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”

But despite the pomp and circumstance, they don’t have a fair play at Oscar.

The occasion of Zimmer and Howard’s “Batman Begins” collaboration in 2005 marked “only the second time since 1954 when Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman collaborated on ‘The Egyptian’ that two major composers have worked together on one film,” reads the Chasen press release. I raised my fair share of hell about the duo’s Oscar exclusion three years ago, as I felt the droning, thematically hair-raising work on “Begins” was among the very best of the season. But it wasn’t to be the first time brilliant and award-worthy work would be ignored in the category due to this particular AMPAS rule.

Just last year, Warren Ellis and Nick Cave turned up on many a “best of” list when it came to film scoring. They created a delicate sonic elegy to go along with Andrew Dominik’s Victorian western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” but due to the fine print, they couldn’t even get out of the gate.

Which brings me to the second point — that Ellis and Cave will be collaborating yet again this year on the John Hillcoat adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” I only recently stumbled onto this information, while corralling some information on the June Oscar chart update, and it stuck out as a disaster of Academy exclusion waiting to happen…again.

Without even seeing the film, I feel in my gut that this will be a match made in post-apocalyptic heaven. I can already hear the sure-to-be stirring soundscape the duo will likely create for a story tailor-made for the cinema. And even if they crank out the very best work of film music composition this year, the AMPAS will not be able to recognize the effort.

No one has seen “The Dark Knight” or “The Road,” of course, or heard the respective scores. All I’m saying is, based on track record, it’s fair to assume these will be scores that might deserve a play at Oscar notice.

Of course last year’s fiasco had everything to do with subjectivity. The Academy decided, in a meeting of which it failed to inform campaign strategists, that Greenwood’s original work in “Blood” was diluted by public domain material he wove throughout the soundtrack. Says them. But this one composer per film malarkey makes no sense whatsoever.

The rule is all the more mysterious when one figures in that the teams of George Fenton & Jonas Gwangwa (“Cry Freedom”) and David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto & Cong Su (“The Last Emperor”) were nominated for the award in 1987. Meanwhile, the vast assemblage spearheaded by Quincy Jones for Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” received a notice the year before.

Prior to that, song/musical scores and adaptation scores seemed to allow for multiple nominees. But these three films in the 1980s are the only examples I can find where straight-forward music scores made it into contention despite having more than one credited composer until one goes back to the pairing of Morris Stoloff and George Duning on 1953’s “From Here to Eternity.” And in the pre-1946 days of 10-plus nominated films, it seems to have been a free-for-all. So who knows what was permitted back then?

I would obviously welcome an explanation as to why, currently, multiple producers, writers, film editors, set decorators, makeup artists, sound mixers, sound editors, visual effects artists and even directors can be recognized within their categories while composers cannot. But there is none to be found and, one can only assume, none on the way. Just the nuts and bolts literature found within a branch’s highly questionable rule book.

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22 responses so far

  • 1 5-26-2008 at 5:35 pm

    The Z said...

    I agree totally with “Assassination of Jesse James” and “There Will Be Blood.” Those two scores alone were the very best of 2007 and it’s a terrible shame that the respective composers were overlooked for such innovative and moving work.

  • 2 5-26-2008 at 8:14 pm

    Proman said...


    Some of the scores you’ve mentioned are indeed great. However, “The Dark Knight” probably had no chance to be nominated for best score to begin with.

    Let’s face it, the score for Batman Begins was neither particularly special nor anywhere near as great as Danny Elfman’s unnominated “Batman” score.

    Second, while I deeply admire James Newton Howard’s composing abilities, Zimmer is one of the most mediocre composers currently working. His latest works, in particular have been nothing special.

    Besides, there’s nothing special about him working with other composers either, see Klaus Badelt.

    To compare Zimmer/Howard “collaboration” with Herrmann/Newman is a blashpemy that is borderline offensive.

    Still to complain about AMPAS’ strange and incosistent nomination choices (when it comes ot both best original song and score categories) seems futile. For years, they have been the branch with one of the worst track records (second only to Best Foreign Film). How else do you explain the fact that someone as untalented as Gustavo Santaolalla won for though years in a row (I’m still waiting for an explanation how “his” score for Babel was nominated in the first place, seriously did they think they were nominating Ryuichi Sakamoto?) while greats like Philip Glass, Clint Mansell!, Thomas Newman, the aforementioned James Newton Howard, (and even) Howard Shore etc… get the shaft. And when they do nominated them, they often nominate them for weaker works.

    And how did Alan Menken ended up with (three!) nomination for what was arguably the weakest work of his mature career. I’m great admirer of his older songs and scores but one nomination would have been too much for that particular film. Not that I liked “Falling Slowly”…

    I could spend the entire day writing about this stuff.

  • 3 5-26-2008 at 10:18 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    A taste of The Dark Knight score?

  • 4 5-27-2008 at 12:28 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’ve had Ellis and Cave’s “The Road” score on my prediction radar for a while – sheer wishful thinking, if nothing else.

    There was an instance of a co-written score getting nominated this decade – but the Academy, in its wisdom, decided to nominate just one of the composers. I give you “Gladiator,” by Hans Zimmer and the (unnominated) Lisa Gerrard. What was going on there?

  • 5 5-27-2008 at 12:36 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Very true.

  • 6 5-27-2008 at 2:37 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    You know, I actually wanted to respond to Proman, argumentative as always, because he brings up a solid point regarding Mr. Zimmer.

    First off, I don’t think there is any denying the man has some considerable skill that has spun its fair share of pretenders, however derivative he can sometimes be within his own (generally action) work. No disagreement on that, but his efforts on a number of comedy films and especially the wonderful scoring of Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” stand as reason enough, for me, not to be so disrespectful.

    But specifically as it pertains to “Batman Begins,” I gave it a listen again this morning on the tube on my way to work, just to get into the feel of a real response, and I have to say, it remains a superlative piece of scoring, in my view.

    Zimmer and Howard’s work here has been met with criticism before, so these points are anything but new, but typically, the accusation is that the music isn’t theme-heavy or, I don’t know, bombastic enough. Typically comparisons are drawn to Danny Elfman’s original score (as Proman does here), and I’d say such comparisons are both unfair and irrelevant, since the new franchise is nothing if not entirely removed from the Burton run.

    I think the “Begins” score is wonderfully subtle, quite beautiful at times, and properly exciting at others. There is a single two-note theme woven within the piece, but it never really overshadows things and serves as a sensible bridge from moment to moment throughout.

    If I ventured a guess, I’d say that most who criticize the score are speaking to their view of the film first, but that’s certainly conjecture on my part.

    Just to make sure declaratory statements like, “Let’s face it, the score for Batman Begins was neither particularly special nor anywhere near as great as Danny Elfman’s unnominated “Batman” score,” aren’t considered the end of discourse around these parts.

    We’re all about discussion, no?

  • 7 5-27-2008 at 3:20 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    First of all I’d like to say Hans Zimmer is my favourite composer. Having said that, there’s a couple of issues with him. He NEVER composes alone. It’s that simple. He does most of the stuff but there’s always ghost composers. Fine, no problem.
    The Gladiator thing is certainly strange, but I don’t know how big Gerrard’s take was on that beside the vocals and perhaps the “Earth” theme.

    I LOVE the score of Batman Begins. It’s a stunner. I also love the Elfman score. But comparing them is indeed ludicrous. Just like comparing the films beyond liking them or not. They’re world’s apart. Elfman’s Batman is like a circus, like the films. JNH and Zimmer’s is the dark and lurking threat of the underworld.

    The score category is one of insanity anyway. Indeed Santaolalla winning 2 oscars in a row is preposterous. What’s up with that rule that using music or themes from a previous film (Two Towers!!!!) and winning for the same trilogy again one year later (RotK)??? Or has that rule been abolished already?

    I love both JNH and Zimmer. JNH finally gets recognition enough, but Zimmer’s snubbed too often. Da Vinci code, Black Hawk Down etc. I understand Zimmer isn’always original but I simply love his action scoring, it is unique and very entertaining.

    I loved the score from Jesse James too and those guys deserve more credit too.

  • 8 5-27-2008 at 5:31 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    All this talk of scores has me wondering: was there anything original about the new Indy score in the slightest? I ask because, well, Williams is generally the easy pick in an Oscar season — if he breathes, it gets a nod — but I’m not so sure about this one.

  • 9 5-27-2008 at 5:36 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Santaolalla’s winning two years in a row is far from preposterous, in my opinion. “Brokeback Mountain” is a landmark score, all the more indelible for being so spare. And his work on “Babel,” marrying three completely disparate story worlds through both traditional themes and striking pop interludes, was no less extraordinary. I was thrilled to see the Academy reward something so unconventional.

    And if it takes giving the man two statuettes to make up for the fact that they didn’t even nominate his beautiful “Motorcycle Diaries” score, so be it.

  • 10 5-27-2008 at 5:38 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Well, Kris, they nominated Williams for the third or fourth Harry Potter installment, so I wouldn’t bet against it. But really.

  • 11 5-27-2008 at 6:04 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It was just the third, actually, and I thought a case could be made there. There was a lot of new, jazz-ish music infused with the score there and some more original work on the whole.

    But Indy 4 — I don’t know. I t was like they were pressing play from time to time on old scores at key moments. The other three films have distinct tracks within.

    Especially “Temple.” “Parade of the Slave Children” is my favorite Williams composition.

  • 12 5-27-2008 at 6:19 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I think he will just for the sake of it. When I heard it for the first time (Skull that is) I just realized how much I missed him. His style is unsurpassed, but I agree a littel repetetive.

    Plenty of new tunes in this film though, but what is the official rule for sequel scores and such?

  • 13 5-27-2008 at 11:03 am

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    Last Oscar ceremony, Atonement’s original score has nothing of competition, maybe Ratatouille… Where’s “The assassination of Jesse James”, “There Will be Blood” or even “Lust caution” and “into the Wild” both also disqualitifies.

    It’s not the first time that the AMPAS has a bad decisions to choose the Best Score, Two other considerable mistakes:
    -“Amelie”: Yann Tiersen created one of the most iconic scores in the history of cinema… And the original score was snubbed!!!
    -“Babel”: I like Gustavo Santaolalla and I agree with his first Oscar, but the second for Babel?, Excuse me AMPAS, but the score was a recopilation of songs by “The motorcycle diaries” and other films that Santaolalla worked.

  • 14 5-27-2008 at 4:01 pm

    Bryan said...

    As regards Williams, for every year since 1993 that he’s written a score, he’s received at least one academy award nomination. And since he hasn’t written anything these last two years I think AMPAS may be desperate to see the maestro back, unless it’s a stellar year for film scores. Indy 4 has its moments and its themes (I think better serviced on album than in the film), but its not particularly groundbreaking or particularly great Williams music.

    As to The Dark Knight, I don’t think it has a chance, even though I thought Batman Begins a decent though not stellar work. Zimmer’s quality is unreliable, sometimes good, sometimes bad. But Howard is long overdue for an award (second in line only to Thomas Newman (could it be his year?)).

    As to Santaolalla, well, his score was serviceable but not groundbreaking and really not interesting. The most interesting moment seems lifted from The Motorcycle Diaries. The rest of the soundtrack includes Hispanic and Japanese pop songs and then, in my opinion, the best part of the score, that final piano-cello piece at the end of the film written by Riuchi Sakamoto. Santaolalla should not have gotten fifty miles within that nomination.

    This year I hoping for Newman, though.

  • 15 5-28-2008 at 2:04 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    The best moment from the Babel score is when the heli lands and Cate is being flown out. It was already used in Deadwood years ago. It was called Iguazu or something like that.

  • 16 5-28-2008 at 2:39 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    The first time I heard it used was in “The Insider,” actually, as Wigand is driving to the deposition. And yep, that’s the title. Great track, but it actually — I think — first popped up on one of Santaolalla’s original albums.

  • 17 5-28-2008 at 3:35 pm

    Joel said...

    I absolutely hated the Elfman score for Batman; loved Zimmer’s.

    I also loved “Assassination”‘s; it gave even more beauty to a beautiful film.

  • 18 8-01-2008 at 5:12 am

    joseph yeo said...

    I kinda agree with the harsh comments on Babel. Gustavo got the credit but the memorable and heartfelt songs from the movie came from the Japanese composer, Ruchi Sakamoto. Maybe they are tring to make up to Santaolalla for missing Motorcycle diaries. But c’mon, not twice.