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Best Original Score: What will win (and what *should* win)

By Kathryn Kalinak

This year’s Oscar Best Original Score nominations are as notable for who didn’t get nominated as for who did: no Carter Burwell for True Grit, no Clint Mansell for Black Swan, no Danny Elfman (and what a return to form) for Alice in Wonderland. There’s not much of a horse race this year.

The Social Network

This is a first nomination for Trent Reznor of the rock band Nine Inch Nails and Atticus Ross who collaborated with him. Reznor and Ross have created a soundscape that blurs the line between music and sound effects.  There is a wonderful use of piano here, as if someone were sitting down and hesitantly picking out a tune note by note, combined with mechanistic, noise-like accompaniment.  It’s as if the score exists in the interface between the human and the machine world, between music and noise.

Nine Inch Nails is usually described as industrial rock but the band as well as this score owe a huge debt to “noise music,” a movement which began in the 1920s in Dadaist and Futurist approaches to music and is characterized by extreme distortion, electronically produced music, the incorporation of sound effects, and scored “noise.” Edgar Varese and John Cage come out of this movement and The Social Network is certainly not the first film score to bear its traces.  George Antheil’s Entr-acte in 1927 is scored for piano and airplane propellers.

Ironically, this score qualified for Oscar nomination because of Hans Zimmer’s protest of the The Dark Knight’s disqualification score due to two composers being credited.  The Academy reversed its position on sole authorship in 2008 thus opening the way for Reznor and Ross.  They are the front-runners and it looks like their race to lose.


This is Hans Zimmer’s ninth nomination, having won only once before back in 1994 with The Lion King.  Gosh knows he’s due.  He’s composed some incredibly memorable film scores, Gladiator in 1999, The Dark Knight in 2008, Sherlock Holmes in 2009.   But he should have won last year.  Inception is vintage Zimmer—rock guitar with lush symphonic scoring, driving rhythms, and a reliance upon motivic writing.  This is not a score of extended melodies but of smaller germs of musical ideas worked and reworked throughout the score.  One of these is the distinctive rhythm derived from the Edith Piaf song which in the narrative functions to awaken the characters from an induced dream state, and in the score, in permuted form, functions as a cue for altered reality.  But for me, the score lacks the fresh approach, eclectic charm, instrumental whimsy, and outside-the-envelope charge of the Sherlock Holmes score.  Still there’s no one better at scoring cerebral action films than Zimmer and the way music colludes with the film in its representation of dream vs. reality is fascinating.   Zimmer, I’m afraid, is going to be an also-ran this year. 

How to Train Your Dragon

John Powell, who began his career with Hans Zimmer, has worked on several DreamWorks productions, and has scored a number of films across a variety of genres, finally has his moment.  Zimmer has said that Powell is the better composer of the two and here’s where Powell puts paid to that claim.  The most impressive score in terms of sheer mastery of the forces of the symphony orchestra.  The writing for brass here is thrilling and although I’m not quite sure what a Celtic undertone is doing in a film filled with Vikings, the use of warpipes, an Irish version of bagpipes, sure gives the score some zing.  Great use of percussion (and here you can almost feel Zimmer’s influence in the driving rhythms).  When the dragon flies, this score soars right along with it.  The dark horse in this race.

The King’s Speech

Alexandre Desplat has long been doing wonderful work including and especially last year’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.  He scored three films this year alone, has four Oscar nominations, and is certainly due.  Music’s job in The King’s Speech is to make us care about these people and their problems—a royal stutter after all, is not an earth-shattering dilemma—and Desplat succeeds on this score.  He affectingly juxtaposes the intimacy of the piano to evoke the family and home life that Bertie must give up to be king with the grandiosity and gravity of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony when King George steps into his new public role and delivers his wartime speech. If The King’s Speech wins, it would be an upset victory and if you’ve already marked your at-home ballot in the big award categories for The Social Network, consider changing it!

One quibble:  if you’re looking to add some gravitas to the scene, to alert and assure the audience that this is AN IMPORTANT SCENE, Beethoven works just fine.  But if you were looking to add gravitas to an English king’s wartime speech about the German enemy, would you pick a composer steeped in German Romanticism?  Were there no English composers that could fit the bill?

127 Hours

If A. R. Rahman was hoping to up the ante on the gruesomeness of this film’s key sequence (and you all know what it is), he certainly succeeded.  But by and large this is a score that recedes into the background, sometimes otherworldly and eerie (one cue features ethereal voices), sometimes sensual, and often infused with the hard-driving rhythms of rock.  The storm sequence, both visually and musically, is a highlight.

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What Will Win: Reznor and Ross’s The Social Network. I think Academy voters are going to be all over themselves to show how cool and hip and young they are by giving Reznor and Ross the edge.  Desplat could come from behind and nose them out at the finish line but I think Reznor and Ross are going home with the statuette.

What Should Win: Carter Burwell for True Grit

Kathryn Kalinak is Professor of English and Film Studies at Rhode Island College. Her extensive writing on film music includes numerous articles and several books, the most recent of which is Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. She is our correspondent for all things film + music, and is a recurring guest on WNYC’s Soundcheck.

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