Thursday, January 21, 2016

Theory Thursday: We Need to Revamp the Best Original Score Category

Scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: John Williams receives a Best Original Score nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Theory: We need to totally revamp the Best Original Score category.

Scene from The Godfather

What I am about to say is not an attack on John Williams, who remains one of the greatest movie composers in history. I wish not to defame his legacy, which is massive and worth of acclaim. However, when the nominations were announced last Thursday, I found myself offended by something that struck me with Thomas Newman two times before (though ironically, not this year). Basically, the history of the Best Original Score is one that is complicated, and one that has bothered me every time that I have had to find a dictionary to remind myself what the word "original" means. Basically, I think that most sequels should be forbidden from receiving a nomination in this category for the very obvious reason: they are using the same old song and dance.

It doesn't happen often, but it does become increasingly obnoxious the more that I am made aware of Academy Awards' rules and regulations. The moment that I have generally referenced comes from 2007 when major Oscars contender There Will Be Blood found Jonny Greenwood in a bit of trouble. Apparently his otherwise great score featured preexisting music that disqualified it. The piece in question wasn't even incorporated into the rest of the score. However, because Greenwood had used it in a previous project, it was somehow stripped of its "original" score potential. Fair enough, right? Well, then you look at the politics a little closer and find that it's been an ongoing problem.

Before There Will Be Blood, there was The Godfather, which becomes an even more interesting case when you consider everything else. Nina Rota's score for the first film was rejected because it featured music that Rota had used before. To make matters even more confusing, after The Godfather became the sensation that it is today, Rota somehow managed to get a nomination for The Godfather Part II, which he won the Oscar for. True, the film didn't recycle its soundtrack in full, but it reflected a particular irony that The Academy wouldn't learn from in the decades to follow. For as iconic as some of the scores to be nominated have been, there's one thing that has always bothered me. If Rota gets disqualified for using his own work, shouldn't everyone else?

For starters, this is an argument that I want to address as being unfair mostly because it isn't any major film that's being attacked. There Will Be Blood and The Godfather are relatively original films with largely original soundtracks. Now jump to some obvious contenders. For the sake of argument, I will use the James Bond franchise. Composer Marvin Hamlisch did great work in creating the soundscape of Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me and deserved some Oscar love right? Well, there's the "James Bond Theme" to deal with. Yes, the version we know and love today belongs to Hamlisch's work. However, the rhythm and melody goes back to 1962's Dr. No. There's no mistaking the surf-rock melody for any other theme. However, it previously existed before The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and the nomination goes after The Godfather by a few years. So what gives?

You could easily forgive if it happened once or twice, but the fact of the matter is that James Bond wasn't the only victim of copying previously existing music. John Williams has been known to borrow motifs in both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, both of which feature him being nominated multiple times for sequels. I am not denying that these films have solid original music, there's still the presence of the familiar. You cannot imagine Star Wars without the theme playing over the opening scrawl or Indiana Jones running from peril as those chords play. They're ingrained into our psyche, and they are cues that make movies so great. However, the fact that we can recognize them in comparison to whatever accusations that get lobbied at The Godfather are nonsense. Even in 2012, Thomas Newman received a Best Original Score nomination for Bond sequel Skyfall - a good film, yes. But an original score? Not entirely. It still featured "James Bond Theme" incorporated into its identity. To make matters worse, Newman was nominated the following year for Saving Mr. Banks: a film that borrowed melodies from Mary Poppins (and honestly wasn't very good).

I know that technically this is a moot point, as a great score is a great score. However, I do take offense to the very idea that popular motifs are allowed to be used where Rota and Greenwood get immediately shut out for works that nobody would know without asking. Are they original? No. They are definitely borrowed from other bodies of work and thus are disqualified. But what separates that from using the same melodies in your sequels? Think about it. Everyone knew that The Artist used a passage from Vertigo (just ask Kim Novak), yet it still won that year (deservedly so). In a more blatant way, what keeps The Artist from facing the same problems as The Godfather? It's a popular enough melody that film fans will recognize its use. Maybe it's because it wasn't by Ludovic Bource, but Bernard Herrmann. Even then, the argument makes no sense when trying to determine what justifies an "original" score, or basically a score that features no preexisting music (as it stands, Ennio Morricone deserves *some* shade, as he has stated that he intended to use some of his The Hateful Eight score in The Thing). 

I don't exactly know what part annoys me the most, but I know that Williams' score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a stretch from Junkie XL's score for Mad Max: Fury Road. Yes, both are sequels. The big difference? Junkie XL didn't rely on previously existing music. I think that sequels should be weighted on how little content they use from the original. After all, screenplays for sequels are nominated for Best "Adapted" Screenplay (as they are adapted from the first movie). Why must a score "adapted" from another film not receive the same treatment? It isn't like it's a complicated issue. If you recognize the melody from another film, then maybe you shouldn't nominate it because, guess what, it's not original. The very definition of original is brought into question because of nonsensical regulations that allow heavyweights like Williams or Newman to constantly compete with familiar tunes while Rota or Greenwood get shut out at the door. It does feel like a popularity game, and one that has irked me for years now.

What do I propose that we do? The answer is simple: revamp the category so that the word "original" actually means something, and not just favors melodies that The Oscars have loved for years. It will make things difficult for films that have obscure adaptations but, guess what, that's as ridiculous as disqualifying a film for using preexisting music that nobody's heard while also including the fourth Star Wars soundtrack nomination in the series' history. This segregation thing needs to end. Either every soundtrack counts as "original," or the rules need to acknowledge that using the same old melodies is a handicap and is unfair to soundtracks who made up their own melodies without consulting the prequel. What we need to do is understand that original means "not a copy or imitation" and not something else. If you want to make Best Adapted Score (please don't), feel free to. At least you're being honest there.

1 comment:

  1. "I know that Williams' score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a stretch from Junkie XL's score for Mad Max: Fury Road. Yes, both are sequels. The big difference? Junkie XL didn't rely on previously existing music."

    After watching Every Frame a Painting's video essay "The Marvel Symphonic Universe" (specifically during the discussion of temp tracks), you might want to consider pulling back on complimenting Junkie XL's score that way.