Every year about this time, the Oscar nominations are made. Music, of all the crafts, is possibly the most subjective category to judge, especially for an award of this magnitude. The daunting task of deciding what is worthy of contention goes to the composers, music editors and music supervisors who are Academy members.
“Movies are so different that sometimes the score is relied upon to make the transitions and fill all the emotional moments from scene to scene,” says Kenny Hall. Hall was nominated for a MPSE Golden Reel Award for his music editing on Disney’s animated feature film, Mulan. For over 20 years, he worked as composer Jerry Goldsmith’s music editor. He now holds “The Art of Music Editing” chair at USC.
“Other scores, such as Slumdog Millionaire, become an integral part of the sound design,” reveals Hall. “As a score, I never thought it was anything really terrific, but I thought as part of the sound design, the combination of that score and effects were magical.”
Hall continues, “Many times a score that resonates with me is a very simple melody that has developed throughout the whole picture, and I feel it made the film totally emotionally satisfying to the audience in the end.”
Rolfe Kent, Golden Globe nominee for his score for Sideways and composer of this year’s releases, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Up in the Air, talked about what constitutes an Oscar-worthy score, “The music has to make a significant impact on the film. If it does it in a particularly original way, that can be ‘ear catching.’ To me that’s creativity! Creativity is what I’m most interested in. If someone has come up with really surprising or emotionally effecting juxtapositions, and made a significant, dramatic impact in the process, then that’s what is going to attract my attention.”
Hall shared his belief that some pictures don’t offer great opportunities for a score. “If the scene plays well, and you’re looking for a place to play the music, then it doesn’t need it!” Sometimes scores in certain films, or music in other films is forced in, just to “move it along,” but then the picture never breathes. There are so many variables; it just depends on the film.
“I’ve noticed that some people make a point of getting stars to play on their scores, and while I applaud the involvement of great talent, that doesn’t mean much to me,” adds Kent. “It’s really about the filmmaking and the role of the composer as filmmaker—anything that is a genuine contribution to creative filmmaking. After all, the academy is about filmmaking. Filmmaking is our only interest and the focus of what we’re looking at. It doesn’t matter who played it. What matters is the ideas, and how they contribute to the film.”
“The music has to make a significant impact on the film. If it does it in a particularly original way, that can be ‘ear catching.’ To me that’s creativity! Creativity is what I’m most interested in.” – Rolfe Kent
The Best Song is of course another kettle of fish due to the commercialization factor. A popular song influences the decision-making process. Hall comments, “There have been some songs that won Academy Awards because of some popularity factor. I’m not going to name names, but many times a song won because the picture was popular, or the performance was popular. Songs are an odd animal. Not that many songs are nominated. Often the song has nothing to do with the picture. It tends to be a song in the middle of the picture. I think they have changed the rules this year. I believe that now the song has to be part of the last scene, which then plays into the end credits. That way they can be qualified. I hate the idea that you can now have a song that begins with the end credits.”
“For songs it would definitely be an involvement in the film,” says Kent. “I assume the existence of the song category comes from back in the day when there were a lot of musicals in the ’30s or ’40s. It strikes me that the song should be very relevant to the film, and ideally, should actually be in the film. I’ve always loved when the theme is used in the score as well. Admittedly, that doesn’t happen too often these days, but that’s something that makes a lot of sense to me. It clearly indicates that the song is integral to the whole filmmaking process.”
Hall adds, “The whole approach to music for film, is a subjective thing for many people, but I think the great scores, many of which have never won an Oscar because of the popularity factor of the Academy Awards, will hopefully be re-examined someday to really get their full credit for the picture. Many pictures come to my mind. One that I worked on was Patton. It was a three-hour movie. It had thirty minutes of music in it, but how important those few cues were, is unbelievable!”
According to Hall, “In the nomination process, I always go with the films where the score did not draw attention to itself, and yet was so wonderfully supportive to the story and to the emotion of the characters.”
Although Hall has an excellent home theater setup and receives all the screeners, he realizes the value of seeing a movie as it was intended to be seen—with an audience. That is the best way to judge whether or not a score is having the desired emotional effect. You can feel the emotion with an audience, but you might miss it if viewed alone. That, of course, is why they tried to outlaw screeners and CDs of the score a few years back, but unfortunately, not everyone has the time, or the dedication to view every contender with an audience. I applaud those who do, especially for this category.