A Call for the Academy to Reconceptualize the Best Original Score Category

by Brice Ezell

17 February 2015

So long as the Academy clings to a myopic definition of what an "original" score is, too many deserving composers will be left out come Oscar night.
Whiplash (2014, dir. Damien Chazelle) 

Not long after the announcement of the nominations for the 2015 Academy Awards—their 87th iteration—an online petition was launched. This petition, which is still gathering signatures on the web, was organized by people in solidarity with Antonio Sanchez, the composer whose innovative percussive score for the awards season favorite, Birdman, did not receive a nomination for Best Original Score. Citing the nominations of the scores to The King’s Speech in 2011 and The Artist in 2012, both of which involve the use of unoriginal music in key moments of the film, the petition argues that the Academy is inconsistent in applying its standards for what constitutes an “original score”.

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Antonio Sanchez

Birdman OST

(Milan)
US: 14 Oct 2014
UK: 5 Jan 2015

The petiton’s claim is hard to deny, because it is correct. However, there’s one issue with the argument made by the petition: it doesn’t go far enough. The issue is not primarily that the Academy is inconsistent in applying its rules for Best Original Score, although that’s problematic. Rather, the main fault in this award is that the rules for being nominated are far too restrictive to begin with. Even if the Academy did consistently apply its standards for this award, countless top-notch scores would be excluded from consideration. Sanchez’s work for Birdman is just the tip of the iceberg.

Let’s rewind to the 2011 Oscar ceremony, the same year that Alexandre Desplat’s King’s Speech score was nominated, even though, as the aforementioned petition points out, “classical music not written by the film composer played a huge role in the film.” (It’s also worth noting that the score that did [deservedly] win in 2011, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ The Social Network, features a memorable reinterpretation of Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” theme during a major scene.) Amongst that year’s many nominees, one omission in particular rises to the fore: Clint Mansell’s contribution to Darren Aronofsky’s psychosexual drama, Black Swan, which was otherwise an awards season darling, with Natalie Portman taking home the Best Actress trophy in nearly every major awards ceremony. Mansell’s work was highly acclaimed and recognized as a sterling complement to Aronofsky’s chiaroscuro vision. The score would go on to win the top prize for the Chicago Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Online. What happened, then, at the 2011 Oscars?

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Clint Mansell

Black Swan OST

(Sony Masterworks)
US: 30 Nov 2010
UK: 29 Nov 2010

Three words: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Because Black Swan tells the story of a ballerina looking to star as both the Black and White Swans in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, Mansell chose to take the music from the ballet and transform it—and transform it, he did. However, even though it’s clear, while listening to Black Swan‘s soundtrack, that Mansell is doing more than just tipping his cap to Tchaikovsky, at the same time what he did with Swan Lake‘s music truly did make it wholly new, particularly in the context of Aronofsky’s film. Just as Nina’s (Portman) mental state becomes fragmented as she vies for artistic perfection, so too does Mansell take Tchaikovsky’s music and tear it into pieces, maintaining the original’s identity while forging a vision all his own. Black Swan remains one of 2010’s best achievements in music for film—and yet, the Oscars had no problem in excluding it.

As those responsible for the Birdman petition note, this is all about the rules. The official stipulations for what kinds of scores can be nominated are broken down by the Academy in its “Academy Awards of Merit” document. (This can be found at this link.) Rule Fifteen, “Special Rules for the Music Awards”, states:

A. The work must be created specifically for the eligible feature-length motion picture.

B. The work must be the result of a creative interaction between the filmmaker(s) and the composer(s) and/or songwriter(s) who have been engaged to work directly on the motion picture.

C. The work must be recorded for use in the motion picture prior to any other usage, including public performance or exploitation through any media whatsoever.

These rules come with a host of problems. More on this in a moment. In the case of Black Swan and Birdman, one rule that proves damning to their being nominated, a rule that’s undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of this category, is:

E. Scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music, diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs, or assembled from the music of more than one composer shall not be eligible.

This lone rule is responsible for nixing Black Swan and Birdman, in addition to numerous scores in recent and past memory, from Oscar consideration. (Quite often, this is referred to as a “50 percent” standard, meaning that more than 50 percent of the score must be original, but nowhere in the rules document is that exact number specified.) The former was deemed “not sufficiently ‘original’” for its use of Swan Lake. The latter was rejected for a similar reason, although an additional criterion, one not expressly laid out in the rules document, was applied. “Another thing [the Academy] said was the biggest dramatic moments of [Birdman] were underscored by classical music”, Sanchez told The Guardian. Similarly, Damien Chazelle’s indie favorite Whiplash, a film first and foremost about music, was excluded from nomination along with Birdman for its reliance on Hank Levy’s “Whiplash” and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”.

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Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec

Whiplash OST

(Varèse Sarabande)
US: 7 Oct 2014
UK: 29 Sep 2014

Birdman and Whiplash‘s exclusion is problematic because of the rules and the bending of those rules by the Academy. First and foremost, what are the grounds for determining “the biggest dramatic moments?” In a case like Whiplash, there are good grounds for such a claim to be made: that film’s climactic scene is indisputable, and it very clearly relies on “Caravan”.

With Birdman, however, the Academy’s determination of the film’s “biggest dramatic moments” is not uncontroversial. Sanchez himself argued to The Guardian that “the most memorable moments are scored by drums.” The petition to reconsider Sanchez’ exclusion cites a scene of attempted suicide and a destruction of a dressing room as key moments in the film that are underscored by the original percussive music, not the classical music the Academy claimed made the score ineligible. Of course, artistic arguments can be made one way or another on this issue, but the point remains that not only are the standards for what makes a “big dramatic moment” not made explicit in the rules document, but it’s also contestable. For those reasons, the Academy’s rationale for not nominating Sanchez is dubious at best.

Both the vagueness of the Academy’s standards for Best Original Score and its inconsistent application are clearly troubling. While recognizing that those do constitute legitimate grounds for the supporters of the Sanchez petition to critique the Academy, the truth is the petition’s concern is still stuck within the myopic rules composers are forced to deal with. The problem of the Oscar for Best Original Score boils down to one simple word, and it’s right in the title: “Original”.

On the one hand, it’s understandable that the Academy wishes to recognize original film music. For instance, if a composer was commissioned to only compose half of a movie’s music, it would indeed be an unfair comparison for an award-giving body to attempt to weigh that score’s merits against an entirely original one, no matter how strong the former might be. In many cases, a composer is only called upon to write some original scored music, with the remainder of the soundtrack taken up by pre-recorded songs. Look to Rachel Portman’s excellent turn on 2011’s One Day; though only four tunes are originals of hers, she still outshines the otherwise well curated mixtape that precedes her songs. Judging Portman’s contributions, however excellent they are, against a much more robust recording would no doubt put her at an inherent disadvantage.

Wanting to commend those who create an entire film’s musical world is a noble enterprise. Nevertheless, that goal, as envisioned by the Academy, is carried out in a manner that’s far too exclusionary and, as previously established, arbitrary. Sure, the only outside piece of music in The Social Network was a two-minute remix of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, but the boat race scene that it’s used for is possibly the most sharply shot scene in the film. At one point would Reznor and Ross have gone “too far” for the Academy’s liking had “In the Hall of the Mountain King” not been the only external piece of recorded music that was included?

The paradox of the Academy’s rules for this category can be perfectly illustrated in the form of Whiplash‘s lack of a nomination. Few, if any films in 2014 are as utterly musical as Chazelle’s tale of an aspiring drummer seeking to become the next Buddy Rich. In the end, the heart-racing battle of wills between drummer Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) and his tyrannical conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) becomes an overarching metaphor for jazz performance. The original music composed by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec, which I included in this column’s Top 10 Scores of 2014, are sharp contributions to the jazz standards included on the soundtrack, particularly Hurwitz’s snazzy “Overture”.

Yes, the inclusion of “Whiplash” and “Caravan” does mean that Chazelle is “relying” on pre-written music to make his point, but here the Academy’s usage of the word “original” overly narrow. While the music itself is not original, the way it’s being used in the context of Whiplash is. Just as Mansell did with Black Swan, Chazelle and his composers take existing music and transform it into something that stands on its own. One need only listen to the jaw-dropping drum solo in “Caravan” to see the uniqueness of the score. Despite being arguably the most musical film of 2014, Whiplash isn’t getting recognized in the music category.

Here we come to a word that’s used quite disingenuously in the Academy’s rules: “diluted”. If one is to take the Best Original Score heuristic as legitimate, what he tacitly accepts is that any incorporation of music not composed specifically for a film results in a “dilution” of whatever original material a composer writes. As films such as Whiplash and Black Swan attest, this notion is spurious.

“Whiplash” and “Caravan” may be reputable jazz standards, but the vivacious new performances they are given in Whiplash remind us that they’re as essential today as they were when they were first written. Mansell owes a debt of gratitude for Tchaikovsky for his score to Aronofsky’s movie, but surely the inverse is true as well. With Black Swan‘s soundtrack, Mansell gives a dazzling 21st century spin on one of the 19th century’s most significant composers. If that achievement isn’t deserving of recognition by an institution like the Academy, it’s hard to imagine what is.

In summary, the Best Original Score category is mired by three problematic standards and ideas: 1. The (unspecified) quantification of what percentage of the score must be original; 2. previously recorded/unoriginal music must not be used during the “biggest dramatic moments”, whatever those might be; and 3. the notion that previously existing music constitutes a “dilution” of whatever original material a composer will come up with.

However, while the flaws with the Academy’s rules on this matter are easy to identify upon light scrutiny, figuring out how the Best Original Score award might be reconceptualized is trickier. As mentioned previously, there’s reason to have the word “Original” in a score; for instance, a compilation soundtrack, even one with new material in it, should not be expected to be compared to a through-composed score. With that being said, given how shortsighted the standards are at the moment, it’s clear that some reformulation of the rules is in order.

One suggestion rises to the top: much like the Screenplay category is divided into two sections, Adapted and Original, scores could be divided into “Original” and “Compilation”. While it’s reasonable to posit that the Academy should just reorient its definition of “Original”, it’s unlikely that it would do better by creating a less concrete standard, given that it tends to enforce its rules, parochial as they are, in an inconsistent manner. Just as easily as it might include, say, Black Swan for recognition of how it makes Swan Lake feel new, it could still exclude Sanchez’s Birdman based on the notion that previously recorded material was used during the “biggest dramatic scenes”. Such a move would also be consistent with the Academy’s tastes generally. While the former is somewhat in line with the kind of orchestral scores the Academy tends to reward, the latter’s percussive nature is of an avant-garde variety that’s usually overlooked by conservative bodies like the Academy.

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The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Eric Roberts, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

(Warner Brothers)
US theatrical: 18 Jul 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 21 Jul 2008 (General release)
2008

Review [17.Jul.2008]

Keep in mind that although the Oscars have proven somewhat sensitive to public outcry, its responses are usually faux capitulations rather than meaningful changes. Take, for example, The Dark Knight: Christopher Nolan’s epic crime saga was highly acclaimed by critics and adored by fans, who came to the box office in droves. In a reasonable world, anyone would have predicted that it would get a Best Picture nomination. But while most called “snub” when the movie wasn’t present on the Best Picture list for the 2009 Oscar ceremony, plenty weren’t actually surprised—and with good reason. Even though The Dark Knight is a high-caliber crime drama, Oscar voters found it hard to look past the protagonist in the cape with all the cool gadgets, a predictable move given the Academy’s disdain for superhero films. (See also: science fiction and comedy.)

In response to the wave of criticisms following the exclusion of The Dark Knight, the Academy responded and changed its ways… sort of. At the 2010 ceremonies, a whopping ten films were nominated for Best Picture, a number double the amount of an average year’s nominees up until that point. So rather than actually take things like superhero films seriously on their own merits such that one could be recognized within a limited amount of nominees, the Academy merely broadened the category such that a film like The Dark Knight could be included. By expanding the category from five to ten nominees, the Academy reiterated its original position in the guise of changing the game up.

For that reason, the idea that the Academy could simply broaden the definition of “Original Score” in an efficacious way is an improbable one at best. As the creators of the Sanchez petition are correct to observe, the rules that exist are poorly enforced; as such, it’d be foolish to hope that a modification to the status quo standards would be met with respectable enforcement. Given that it would be unfair to judge an entirely original score to one either partially or substantially “unoriginal”, the two-category solution, however it could be conceived, is the best option at the broadest level.

Of course, while the Best Original Score award is one of the Academy’s problems, it’s far from the biggest. As the 2015 ceremony’s nominees reveal, the bias against women and artists of color remains egregious, a fact due in no small part to the makeup of the Academy voting bloc, which is 94 percent white with a median age of 62. In the history of the Oscars, only four women have ever been nominated for the Best Director category, all of whom are white; furthermore, it took until the 2010 ceremony for the Academy to actually give the award to a woman (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker). There’s an argument to be made that Best Original Score was conceptualized with the best intentions, but the racial makeup of the Oscar nominees is still decades behind. This inexcusable bias needs to be remediated first and foremost.

But for the bevy of composers making music that brings the cinema even more to life—composers that are regularly overlooked by most music and film publications— the Best Original Score category remains an arbitrary and frustrating recognition that fails to capture the essence of their craft. To suggest that Mansell and Sanchez’s work isn’t worth recognizing as “Original” is to both misunderstand the word and to do short service to the myriad ways composers enhance the film they’re provided with. For every one “Original” score the Oscars have recognized, they have left countless genuinely original ideas by the wayside. As with the seemingly countless other problems with the Academy Awards, there’s no better time for the rules to be shaken up than right now.

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