The Familiar Strains In the Music Category
Sunday, February 17, 2008; Page M04
Of all the divisions of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the music branch has been the most changeable over the years, adding, subtracting and renaming categories with a refreshing flexibility. So now, in a new century when music is undergoing seismic changes in everything from how it is made to how it is heard, should the music branch change with the times?
It wouldn't be the Oscars without the requisite dust-ups and kerfuffles; this year's disqualification of composer Jonny Greenwood, for his masterly score for "There Will Be Blood," serves as a wake-up call that the music category could stand some tinkering.
Greenwood, the guitarist for Radiohead whose string and electronic score for "There Will Be Blood" was easily the most effective and innovative music created for the cinema last year, now joins a pantheon of composers who have had their work disqualified for an Oscar.
Nino Rota wasn't nominated for his signature score for "The Godfather" (an oversight rectified when he won for the second). Bernard Herrmann didn't get a nod for his groundbreaking score for "Psycho." Ditto Ennio Morricone, who was snubbed not just for "Once Upon a Time in America" but also for "The Mission." Several scores for films where music played an especially crucial role -- "Saturday Night Fever," "The Piano," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Graduate," "The Third Man" -- were snubbed, even though they went on to have iconic status in their own right.
In many cases, as in Greenwood's, the problem lies in the tetchy notion of what's original. Academy rules explicitly forbid "scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other pre-existing music." Greenwood, the Academy's music branch announced last month, used 46 minutes of music he composed for the BBC in 2005, as well as compositions by Arvo Part and Johannes Brahms, compared to 35 minutes of music he'd composed specifically for the film. (The Academy also disqualified the score for "Into the Wild" and "Enchanted" because of their "predominant use of songs.")
Adding umbrage to the Greenwood snub is how choosy the Academy has been in enforcing its own rules. Last year, composer Gustavo Santaolalla won the Oscar for his instrumental guitar score for "Babel," even though it made heavy use of his composition "Iguazu," which can be heard on soundtracks for "The Insider," "Yes" and the HBO series "Deadwood."
In fact, the Academy's hard-nosed attitude toward the Greenwood score might be a reaction to the "Babel" gaffe, suggests Jon Burlingame, who writes about film music for Variety and teaches film music history at the University of Southern California. " 'Babel' was a mistake," Burlingame says. "The 'Babel' score is littered with non-original music."
But Burlingame does not take issue with the Academy's rules. Rather, he says that the Greenwood outcry points to a larger issue within the movie business, wherein directors routinely use "temp tracks," or temporary scores of recorded music, while they edit. Too often, he says, directors "get married to their temps" and opt to use recorded snippets or "needle drops" rather than commission original material. (Think of such overused classical pieces as Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.) "So the question becomes, should Paul Thomas Anderson have asked Jonny Greenwood to write more original music and use less pre-existing music?"
Not necessarily, says film composer Carter Burwell. "As a composer, the worst thing is for a director who has a temp track that's great to say, 'Can you do something like this?' You would rather they license the music's that's great." (Yet another scandal of the music branch is geographical: Burwell, who has composed some of Hollywood's most memorable scores for such movies as "Miller's Crossing," "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo," has never been nominated for an Oscar -- most likely, say observers, because he's based in New York rather than Los Angeles.)
Is it time for the Academy to get hip to the mash-up? In an era when artistic boundaries and false divisions are being broken down, when pop cultural magpies are creating their own postmodern art forms in sampling, appropriation and random acts of mongrelization, shouldn't the Academy plug into the 21st century and download a clue?
No way, says Charles Bernstein, an Academy governor who chairs the music branch's executive committee (he also chairs the Academy's rules committee). "The achievement that the music branch nominates for Best Original Score is that magical thing that happens when a composer sits down and looks at a movie and writes an hour or two of original music."
He continues: "It wouldn't be fair to guys like Dario Marianelli, who sits down and writes this absolutely breathtaking score for 'Atonement,' to be competing for scores that weren't written for a film but were written for other purposes."
The Academy should be commended for fighting the good fight for original music. And yet, maybe there's a place for a category that the music branch has introduced in past years, for Best Adapted Musical Score. Historically, this was a category that was used to accommodate musicals adapted for the screen, but maybe it could be put to new use, to acknowledge stellar achievements in creating expressive, densely textured musical landscapes that make particularly ingenious use of existing music.
It's hard to argue with the admirably purist instincts of the music branch. But the why-not-have-both solution might be the best way to reward originality and preserve the sanctity of a venerable art form, while reflecting the increasingly common experience of watching a movie and sensing something magical happening, even when every note of the music isn't brand new.