Thursday, February 4, 2010

Soundtracks and Golden Statuettes

It's been a big week in the Musical Family household.  Oscar nominations were announced on Tuesday.  The sixth and final season of the Lost TV series had its two-hour premiere.  And the groundhog saw its shadow, which means we have four and a half weeks to try to catch a few more nominated movies before the 82nd annual Academy Awards airs on March 7.

My husband, my three kids and I are such movie geeks that we are as excited to watch the Academy Awards as some people are to watch the Super Bowl.  It also helps that our friends Laurie and Bryan host a better-than-Hollywood Oscar party every year, complete with Oscar-shaped sugar cookies, a mind-bending movie trivia quiz, and the coveted chocolate Oscar.

Because my kids love to watch movie special features almost as much as the movies themselves, they have learned to recognize the names of directors, special effects geniuses and the often unsung, behind-the-scenes professionals, the music composers.

Music isn't the first thing most people think of when it comes to movies, or movie awards.  But it's difficult to imagine fully enjoying a movie without that integral element.  Some movie themes are so ingrained in our culture, you only need to hear a few notes, and you're propelled back into the adventure – think of Star Wars or Indiana Jones (both composed by the prolific and wonderful John Williams, who's been nominated for an Academy Award 45 times).  Some transport us to other cultures (like last year's big winner, Slumdog Millionaire) or to fantasy worlds (the Lord of the Rings trilogy).  Others are so subtle, you don't realize how well they complement the story until you listen to the soundtrack by itself, and are able to visualize the scene that goes with the music.

The nominees this year in the best original score category are:
Up by Michael Giacchino, who also composed the scores for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and who composes the music for Lost.
Avatar by James Horner, who's best known for Titanic.  His other movies include Glory, Aliens, and Braveheart.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Alexandre Desplat, who also composed music for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Queen, and Syriana.
The Hurt Locker, by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, who also collaborated on 3:10 to Yuma, I Robot and Hellboy.
Sherlock Holmes by Hans Zimmer, known for scoring the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator and The Lion King.

It probably isn't fair, since I've only seen the first three movies, but I'm pulling for Giacchino to win this one.  I love his movie work, and I became an even bigger fan after watching a Lost special feature about how he composes the music for that show.  Seeing footage of the Honolulu Symphony performing an outdoor concert of the Lost score made me want to jump on a plane to Hawaii.

(So does knowing we have at least six more weeks of winter.)

The Academy didn't begin giving Oscars for music scoring until 1935, several years after "talking pictures" replaced silent movies.  During the heyday of silent movies in the 1920s, pianists or organists provided live music and sound effects to accompany the movies.  My great-grandmother, Islea, wife of bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs, was one of those musicians.

Islea began working at the Paramount Theatre in downtown St. Cloud sometime after 1923, when she and G. Oliver moved to St. Cloud from Bemidji.  Former boys' band member Leonard Jung told me that Islea "could play background music for the movie and read a magazine at the same time." 

The St. Cloud Municipal Boys' Band sometimes played concerts at the theater between movie showings.  The program below is from a concert in April 1937. 

The movie playing that day was "On the Avenue," starring Dick Powell, Madeleine Carroll and Alice Kaye.  The music score by Irving Berlin didn't receive an Oscar nomination, but it did include the hit, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," which is a good song to sing on a snowy February day.

It would be fun if bands still played between movie showings.  I'd much rather hear a mini concert than watch an insipid, looping slide show of local ads for nail salons, restaurants and car washes.  But if having a live band is too impractical, I'd prefer to skip the ads and just listen to famous movie music, like they play through speakers at Walt Disney World.

Do you have an all-time favorite movie score or song?  Who do you think should win the Oscar this year?


  1. We are huge fans of John Williams at our house. Rose and Ryan (ages 10 & 7) listen to soundtracks from Harry Potter, Star Wars and Indiana Jones all the time. His music is magical - especially in that it makes Rose want to practice his music on the piano and violin!

    We also really like the music in the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice (by Melvyn Tan) and the music in Emma by Rachel Portman. "The Dance" from Emma was our "dance party" song when the kids were younger. The kids can feel the emotions in Portman's music so well that when "The Dance" track was done Rose insisted we turn the CD off because the next track, "Gypsies," was too scary.

    As for the Oscar...I have only seen Up and Avatar so really can't pick one to win. But, of the two I would probably pick Up. There were moments during Avatar when I thought the music was too similar to the music in Titanic. Up was more original.

  2. Bruno Coulais, composer for Coraline, had last year's most interesting, best integrated score, and it is a true shame he wasn't nominated. That said, I'd be thrilled with Giacchio or Desplat winning this category.

  3. Judge for yourself.

    Bruno Coulais, Coraline

    Michael Giacchino, Up
    (is there anyone who doesn't tear up during this?)

    James Horner, Avatar

    Alexandre Desplat, Fantastic Mr. Fox

    Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, Hurt Locker

    Hans Zimmer, Sherlock Holmes