With the 95th Academy Awards only two days away and our final predictions posted, the one category which is causing the NBP team the most headaches is Best Original Score.
Of the past twelve Oscar winners for Best Original Score, nine won for their work in a Best Picture-winning/nominated film. While score contender “Babylon” missed the Best Picture lineup this year, the film’s composer Justin Hurwitz was in a solid position to sweep in the significant precursors. He had a leading start with several critics group wins and the Golden Globe. But then the BAFTAs awarded Best Original Score to Volker Bertelmann for “All Quiet on the Western Front.” However, “Babylon” did not go home empty-handed, as it did win Best Production Design; many have now solidified that category as the film’s best Oscar chances over its critically acclaimed score.
Regarding Hurwitz’s current chances, the writing was on the wall when “Babylon” lost Best Original Score to “Tár” (Hildur Guðnadóttir) at the Critics Choice Awards. While the film lost to a non-competitor, as “Tár” is not nominated for an Oscar in this category by way of disqualification, the loss itself showed signs of susceptibility to fellow contenders. The BAFTAs only further fed into the Best Original Score race being trickier to predict. Considering the substantial crossover between the British Academy and AMPAS, could the BAFTA success of “All Quiet on the Western Front” translate to a larger-than-expected wave of support at the Oscars? Can first-time nominated composers Son Lux surprise with “Everything Everywhere All at Once?” Or is the “Babylon” score too catchy to resist? Let’s take a closer look at the nominees and see if we can make sense of all this…
“All Quiet on the Western Front”
Volker Bertelmann’s haunting score for Edward Berger’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” is selective in use and memorable in impact. The film frequently returns to a distinct three-note piece, which evokes an unnerving sense of dread in the World War I story. The unconventional, modern rhythms of Bertelmann’s work reflect the film’s industrial-like approach to how soldiers’ lives are portrayed. Parts of the score sound almost like parts of a machine that sets the tone for Berger’s vision in adapting Erich Maria Ramarque’s 1929 novel; it’s a story about the inhumanity of war and what people are capable of. Bertelmann, who received his first Oscar nomination (shared with Dustin O’Halloran) for the score of 2016’s “Lion,” is closer than he’s ever been to winning an Oscar. What a difference a BAFTA makes… a record-breaking seven, to be exact.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” was not at the forefront of precursors and critics groups for its score. Bertelmann’s win at BAFTA is not only telling of his Oscar chances but also that this race is more competitive than expected, especially considering the industry crossover from BAFTA and Netflix’s massive push for the film just as Oscar voting was taking place. Tied with “The Banshees of Inisherin” at nine nominations, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is the year’s second-most Oscar-nominated film. This film was riding a wave of support right when voting started, and voters had plenty of time to catch up with it on Netflix before Oscar voting began. Therefore, this could be the score that prevails.
Music plays an integral role in Damien Chazelle’s three-hour epic “Babylon,” which follows the rise and fall of stars from the silent era and the emergence of talkies in the 1920s. Chazelle takes you on a manic journey through the underground Hollywood scene and characters coming to terms with a changing industry. It’s a wrestling of the cruelty behind the cameras and the movie’s magic imagery that will live on forever, long after the names in the credits. “Babylon” was an excessive production to score, and Justin Hurwitz brilliantly stepped up to the challenge. Hurwitz has composed all of Chazelle’s feature films and won 2 Oscars (Best Score and Best Original Song for “City of Stars”) for 2016’s “La La Land.” He quickly became a branch favorite and, for a time, was the favorite to win his third Oscar this year.
The film’s losses at the Critics’ Choice Awards and BAFTA put Best Original Score in a more vulnerable position among industry voters. “Babylon” doesn’t have the glow of an undeniable winner, which is not helped by the film’s overall lack of momentum. Plus, there has been an uptick of support for the film in Best Production Design, where it won the Critics’ Choice award and BAFTA. While Hurwitz is still a strong contender, the likelihood of “Babylon” winning two (Best Original Score and Production Design) out of its three Oscar nominations (the third being Best Costume Design) is questionable, especially without a Best Picture nomination. Over the past twelve years, each film that won Best Original Score also won at least one other Oscar, except for 2015’s “The Hateful Eight” (which won score at BAFTA and had Ennio Morricone as the overdue, undeniable winner). In Hurwitz’s favor, the “Babylon” score has enthusiastic fans, received a strong head start in the precursors, and got a boost with the SCL’s prestigious Spirit of Collaboration award (presented to Hurwitz and Chazelle for their partnership). Hurwitz is a frontrunner among many predictions, but there is still some serious doubt.
“The Banshees of Inisherin”
Known for his many collaborations with filmmakers like Todd Haynes and the Coen Brothers, three-time Oscar nominee Carter Burwell is one of the most memorable composers of our time. Between “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Martin McDonaugh is one of Burwell’s most frequent collaborators, and for good reason. “The Banshees of Inisherin” is one of Burwell’s most evocative scores. Each track has the suggestive tune of a fairytale mixed with lost innocence. It has the childlike sweetness of Colin Farrell’s Pádraic, the eccentricity of Brendan Gleeson’s Colm, the fierceness of Kerry Condon’s Siobhan, the dashed dreams of Barry Keoghan’s Dominic. The score magically mirrors how the film plays out as a fable through the use of bells, flutes, and harps.
Burwell winning the Oscar would indeed be a fairy tale. If “The Banshees of Inisherin” performed better at the BAFTAs in the way “All Quiet on the Western Front” did, as was largely expected, the film would have a more competitive edge in some of its Oscar-nominated categories. Best Original Score is among the least likely to garner a win out of the film’s nine nominations. Burwell himself would be least likely to win in his category. The score is a case where the nomination is as far as it goes, which aligns with Burwell’s presence during this award season. He doesn’t have the precursor wins for “The Banshees of Inisherin,” but he’s been showing up consistently as a very welcome guest to the party.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once”
The Daniels’ mind-melting “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the most nominated film at the Oscars this year. With eleven nominations, the film over-performed in more below-the-line categories such as Best Original Score — particularly over strong contenders including Hildur Guðnadóttir (“Women Talking“) and Alexandre Desplat (“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio“). For the Daniels’ vision, experimental band Son Lux (Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia, and Ian Chang) created an impactful 49-track score full of maximalist energy. One of the most innovative parts of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is its blending of playful sounds and vocals. Its creativity is in full force, from the original score and songs to sound mixing and editing.
The ethereal score adds a new layer to the storytelling and captures its sensory overload. The musical range is genuinely everything, everywhere, all at once. Son Lux’s score nomination also indicates the Academy’s enthusiasm for the film across the board. Without a sweeper in the category this year, the race’s key factor could be down to which film is more well-liked. With “Everything Everywhere All at Once” widely projected to take home a handful of prizes, including Best Picture and Best Director, the wave of support could carry over to a surprise win in an unexpected category like Best Original Score. And a fun fact to note here is that if it wins Best Picture, no Best Picture winner that has ever been nominated for Best Original Score and Song has lost Best Original Score. Something to ponder heavily as either a coincidence or something more?
“The Fabelmans” marks John Williams’ 53rd Oscar nomination, notably his 17th nomination for composing a Steven Spielberg film. Their movie magic collaboration is one for the ages. Given Williams’ extraordinary accolades, it’s hard to believe that “The Fabelmans” would be only his sixth career win, notably his first since 1993’s “Schindler’s List.” After some premature chatter about the legendary composer retiring (a notion that Williams himself later dispelled), it may have crossed voters’ minds that it’s been a while since he last won. Even though there is no sweeping narrative around “The Fabelmans” becoming his overdue win, the milestone Williams achieved with this nomination recalls an iconic 50-year partnership that people might be in the mood to celebrate.
While “The Fabelmans” may not be Williams’ most memorable work when “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” (among countless others) are around, it stands out in being used subtly and selectively. The soft piano beautifully communicates the characters’ emotions; from the sound of it, you can feel Spielberg’s film bringing back intimate memories. Given how personal this film is, Williams’ score is rich in the experience of collaborating so closely with Spielberg over the years and knowing which moments call for a gentler sound. Whether his work stands out enough for voters this year is the question. Each of Williams’ Oscar wins — “Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” and “Star Wars” among them — have that undeniable, instantly recognizable factor, which “The Fabelmans” does not possess, and ever since Williams backed down on the retirement talk which circled his campaign narrative at the start of the season, voters may not have felt such an inclination to reward him again anymore.
The Element Of Surprise
Looking back on the last twelve years, there are two exceptions (2015’s “The Hateful Eight” and 2020’s “Soul“) to a film winning Best Original Score without being nominated for Best Picture. A key distinction to those exceptions is those scores swept the precursors, something “Babylon,” “Tár,” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” each failed to do. There is a path where Volker Bertelmann follows up his BAFTA with an Oscar, and the success of “All Quiet on the Western Front” isn’t just specific to the British Academy given industry crossover. There is also a path where “Everything Everywhere All at Once” over-performs on Oscar wins, and Best Original Score is along for the ride. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” are both in the position of winning the most Oscars this year, which could include a surprise win or two if people are feeling really enthusiastic.
Then there’s the nostalgia of “The Fabelmans.” Given how the Best Director category has shaped up to be, particularly after DGA, the film’s best chances of winning an Oscar might fall to John Williams. If voters want to show support for the film, and Spielberg himself is not the easy victory this year, it makes sense for Best Original Score to be the category that benefits. Otherwise, the film would likely go home empty-handed. Not only would an Oscar win celebrate Williams’ work, but also the 50-year collaboration between him and Spielberg, which puts the timeliness of the composer’s career into perspective. Here’s an opportunity to award someone for the first time in 29 years. Williams doesn’t have a widespread overdue narrative to the point of it being undeniable. However, this is an edge that could count for something.
Whether it’s Williams’ Oscar history, Bertelmann’s BAFTA victory, or enthusiastic votes for Son Lux, Hurwitz has the advantage of a very catchy score and maintaining a very strong position just based on sheer quality alone. It wouldn’t be surprising if he loses, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he won, either. Without an undeniable frontrunner in this category, many of the contenders have an edge that we might be underestimating right up until the envelope is opened.