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‘La La Land,’ ‘BFG,’ ‘Hidden Figures’ and More Tune Up Original Score Oscar Race

Variety logo Variety 12/29/2016 Kristopher Tapley
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It wouldn’t be an Oscar season without a scandal of sorts from the Academy’s music branch. We got one this year: Johann Johannsson’s “Arrival” score was disqualified after it was decided the use of pre-existing music (namely Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight”) diluted the impact of his original compositions, which are quite progressive in the realm of film music.

Bummer. But…typical.

At present, the presumed frontrunner in the field is Justin Hurwitz, whose lively “La La Land” music only really had one hurdle to clear: the mercurial nature of the branch. It might have easily been decided that the abundance of songs overwhelmed the interstitial scoring, but happily, that didn’t happen. Left to the Academy to decide, Hurwitz may well be primed for a pair of Oscars, both here and in the original song category.

A solid bet in any year is Oscar recognition for John Williams, who picked up his 50th nomination last year, for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” It’s rare that he misses at all, let alone for a Steven Spielberg film. So even though Disney doesn’t appear to have much invested in “The BFG,” which was a box office disappointment, you can safely assume Williams’ colleagues will continue to find a place for him in the line-up — that is, until they don’t.

One of the most emotional scores of the year — “Lion” — comes courtesy of pianists Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann (better known as Hauschka). It’s sort of an undeniable, but you can never be sure how this group will respond to fresh talent. They tend to be a bit insular, though often when they do allow for a first-timer — Steven Price, Ludovic Bource, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek — it can lead to a win.

Similar to “Lion,” Nicholas Britell’s evocative “Moonlight” score does a fine job of putting you in the headspace of the film’s increasingly withdrawn protagonist. A minimalist work of strings and piano, it’s an exceptional work even divorced from the imagery.

Another outsider that could break in is Mica Levi, who already pushed boundaries with her debut film work, “Under the Skin.” In “Jackie,” while Levi may be leaning more toward traditional sounds, it’s what she does with them that counts. None of it is so radical when you think about it, particularly at a moment when the film score status quo is being challenged. But how long before the branch really catches up to that?

With three composers, “Hidden Figures” would have been ineligible here, but Hans Zimmer removed himself from the ticket. Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch remain, and with a female-heavy orchestra and flourishes like using vocals for melody, their score could stand out. But voters have two stabs at recognizing the film, both here and in original song for Williams’ contenders there. Might they want to spread the wealth?

One contender flying under the radar is Dario Marianelli with Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings.” There are a number of strong animated hopefuls in contention, from Michael Giacchino’s “Zootopia” to Mark Mancina’s “Moana,” but Marianelli’s work actually drives much of his film’s narrative. That could count for a lot.

Speaking earlier of the branch’s insular nature, one of their favorites is Thomas Newman. As the son of revered nine-time Oscar-winning composer Alfred Newman, he has been faced with a daunting shadow his whole career. But he’s carved his own definitive track, earning 13 nominations for films like “The Shawshank Redemption,” “American Beauty” and “Skyfall.” However, he’s yet to win. This year Newman has box office megahit “Finding Dory” (the follow-up to “Finding Nemo,” which also netted him a nomination), but don’t sleep on “Passengers.” In Morten Tyldum’s film, he conjured just the kind of unexpected sonic signature this branch delights in recognizing (particularly when it’s from someone in the clubhouse).

Speaking of branch favorites, James Newton Howard (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) and Alexandre Desplat (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) seem like contenders to keep an eye on. In addition to “Zootopia,” Michael Giacchino filled some mighty big shoes with “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” whipping up his own sweeping addition to a mythos. And “Hacksaw Ridge” might be beloved enough across the board to generate excitement throughout the branches, including for Rupert Gregson-Williams’ unique contribution to a genre that has seen (er, heard) it all.

But it seems like Disney’s “The Jungle Book” could be underestimated overall. An agreed-upon visual effects marvel, it excels in aural arenas, too. Perhaps John Debney’s percussive work can find purchase.

Unlike other categories, there is no true guild-like industry precursor to help point the way with original scores. We’ll just have to see what voters decide on Jan. 24. But like many categories this year, one can’t help but wonder how the Academy’s big influx of new membership — which, remember, included interesting additions like Mary J. Blige, RZA and Will.i.am in this branch — will affect long-held presumptions.

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