Friday, February 23, 2018

Composing Greatness: #5. Oscars 2018 Edition - "Dunkirk"

Scene from Dunkirk
Welcome to a very special edition of Composing Greatness. In this limited series, I will be looking at the five scores nominated for this year's Best Original Score category. To avoid favoritism, the list will be done in alphabetical order of composers and feature the same guidelines as the original series. This is meant to explore the music behind the great films of 2017, and provide insight into what makes each of them special and whether or not they deserved to be nominated at all. Join me all week as I listen to the  music, leave some thoughts, and hopefully sway you to check out these wonderful, wonderful scores.

Series Composer: Hans Zimmer
Entry: Dunkirk (2017)
Collaborators (If Available): N/A
Nomination: Best Original Score

Other Nominees:
-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Carter Burwell)
-The Shape of Water (Alexandre Desplat)
-Phantom Thread (Jonny Greenwood)
-Star Wars: The Last Jedi (John Williams)

Note: Listen to the score here.

Exploring the Music
The area of the column where I will explore the music in as much detail as I see fit for each entry.

What's So Great About It?

Even if Hans Zimmer got penned as the "BRAM!" man back in 2010, he has continued to prove why he's one of the most recognized composers of the modern era. He is a visceral force, and brings an intensity to his scores that can be aggressive or sensitive, depending on the mood. While this isn't his best collaboration with Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, for which he deserved to win this category), he has created something powerful. This is a score that plays like its own opera, managing to incorporate the fear of attack in every note in between a percussive ticking clock, strings that sound like rushing planes, and drums that sound like claustrophobic ships. Even the production of the score has the sense that it's set at sea and feels like you can understand the full story, even without visual accompaniment. It's story telling through song, and it achieves it in a way that none of the other four nominees could. It's impossible to enjoy a piece of this. It needs to be consumed whole to appreciate the journey Zimmer takes the listener on.

What's So Bad About It?

While the melodies towards the end of the score are some of Hans Zimmer's most effective work, there's an issue with this being more operatic. There's not a lot of great melodies that recur throughout the composition. It's also very repetitive and aggressive, which could be an issue for those who don't love atmospheric scores. For long stretches, it's very repetitive in ways that keep it from having the memorable familiarity of something like Inception or The Dark Knight. It may get points for being different, but its lack of accessible motifs and themes do create an issue with this being seen as a great traditional score. Even by Zimmer standards, this is lacking that extra touch.

Did This Deserve an Oscar Nomination?

Before this column, I hadn't actually listened to Dunkirk's score out of context. Within the film, it's easily the most effective piece of music. It elevates the action on screen and makes it into the contemporary equivalent of Jaws. It's scary and atmospheric in all the right ways. However, I do think that my lack of appreciation for atmospheric scores is an issue here, as sometimes the intensity or the music left me cold and disinterested with the action. I was able to appreciate the layers that the music brought, and in fact on headphones elevated the perception of distance for different sounds. Still, it's undeniable that it may be the most accomplished piece of music. However, it's not my favorite work of Zimmer's when isolated from film. I still think Interstellar should've won in its respective year (ironically, losing to Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is likely to be the case with The Shape of Water.

Rank the Nominees

1. Alexandre Desplat - The Shape of Water
2. Jonny Greenwood - Phantom Thread
3. John Williams - Star Wars: The Last Jedi
4. Hans Zimmer - Dunkirk
5. Carter Burwell - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Who Deserves to Win?
Alexandre Desplat - The Shape of Water

While this year's scores weren't necessarily as obscure as some years, this is the first time that I've given the scores a serious listen and judged them on their own merits. It's definitely an incredible year, and I would consider The Shape of Water and Phantom Thread to be two of the best scores of the year (possibly decade). Otherwise, it's a very interesting year for the remaining nominees, who I think all contribute something different to the movie score game, and I think deserve some credit. My one exception is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, which doesn't have a memorability. Still, The Shape of Water is one of the most assured, technically crafted scores that I've heard from 2017 and I am glad to see it on this list. While it could be my love of Universal Horror shining, it's also evidence that Alexandre Desplat may as well be the rightful heir to John Williams at this point. With his second win close to sealed, I think it's a good sign that Desplat deserves all possible credit.

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