Oscars 2021: Examining the Academy's bias towards popular musicals over richer soundtracks in Best Original Score category

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri
·5 min read

The Best Original Score category in the upcoming Oscars is an interesting one. It sees Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross nominated for two films which could not have sounded more different from each other: Soul and Mank. Previous winners for The Social Network in the same category, Reznor-Ross are up against Terence Blanchard's score for Da 5 Bloods, Emile Mosseri's for Minari and James Newton Howard's for News of the World.

Among the first nominations shortlist were: The Trial of the Chicago 7, whose '60s-fuelled score was part nostalgia/part revolution, and the tepid Mulan which €" going by the Academy's predisposition for Disney films in this category €" would have been a sure-shot inclusion. Even as Mulan did not find its space in the final nomination list, animated films have tended to work rather well with the Academy in this category.

While I have my fingers crossed for Mank, I was left distinctly unimpressed by the score of Soul, especially since the movie has a strong music element in its narrative. Perhaps I expected more€¦ soul?

(Also read: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross' soundtrack for David Fincher's Mank beautifully captures a bygone era 0f Hollywood)

The score is the soul of a film, carrying it forward through songs and sounds, amplifying emotions and underplaying dramatic elements depending entirely on the script to hear it through. While musicals are often expected to have spectacular scores, it is often just a string of popular songs that one remembers than the sensory experience of watching the film. The success of a score, I feel, is the recall value one has when one hears just a few chords. Think Star Wars, Jaws, Schindler's List.

Celine Dion's smash-hit Titanic song 'My Heart Will Go On' was so overplayed in 1997-98 that by the time the Oscars were held, it was a no-brainer that the film would decisively dominate the Best Original Score category as well. Not taking any credit away from James Horner's ethereal score for a doomed love story on a doomed ship, but Titanic was competing with some fantastic other films like Good Will Hunting and LA Confidential. Back then €" for a brief time between 1995-1999 €" the original score section was split into Drama and Musical/Comedy sub-categories as well. So just as Titanic bagged it in the drama category, a film I was rooting for (despite my partiality to My Best Friend's Wedding) claimed the top prize in the Musical/Comedy category: The Full Monty.

This bifurcation gave space for diverse soundscapes to shine in the winners' podium given that the score category has often times been dominated by popular films instead of truly melodic masterpieces.

Just a couple of years prior to The Full Monty win, the Academy decided to create sub-categories, hugely benefiting smaller films with fantastic scores that do not have the mass appeal of some other heavyweights. While Miramax extensively lobbied with the Academy for a not-so-commercially successful film like Il Postino despite it not securing a nomination even in the Best Foreign Language Film category, its own deliciously unique score by Luis Bacalov had a high chance of losing to Disney's Pocahontas, had the bifurcation not existed. Disney was riding an award-winning high that started with The Little Mermaid in 1989-90 and Beauty and the Beast in 1991-92 and was followed by Aladdin and The Lion King. This, therefore, puts the win of The Full Monty in perspective, stacked that it was against the mighty Titanic.

Slumdog Millionaire, a film that bagged much gold at the Oscars, was touted to win in the music category as well. The Best Original Song that AR Rahman won for 'Jai Ho' was expected. It was unique for the Academy's voting audience, though most Rahman fans would agree it was not his best. Even the score of the film that won was largely owing to the lack of stronger competition than on the sheer merit of the score itself. Competing in the Best Original Score category along with Slumdog Millionaire were WALL-E, Milk, Defiance, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. For a composer whose collaboration with the likes of director Mani Ratnam has generated timeless scores like those of Bombay and Roja, Slumdog Millionaire felt largely hollow despite having its moments.

Part of the problem is also the assumption that a film with songs or with one famous song should have a winning score. The 'Jai Ho' part of Slumdog Millionaire was so heavily popularised that a film like The Dark Knight, with its most haunting score, ended up losing. Which is why the bifurcation of the category in 1997 gave both Titanic and The Full Monty their due. Had this existed in 2008, there is no doubt both Slumdog and The Dark Knight would have rightfully won in their respective categories of Musical and Drama. Similarly, La La Land definitely had some popular songs ('City of Lights') but that does not necessarily mean it had a great score, especially since it was pitted against the likes of Bridge of Spies and The Revenant. This assumption that a musical must have a great score works against non-musicals who sometimes have richer scores.

Institutions like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars) and the Recording Academy (Grammys) have been making small moves to widen their "old, white man" point of view and bring in more inclusion. In this regard, they have been creating new categories, renaming some, allowing more nominees etc. Perhaps it is time for them to revisit this bifurcation model, or some version of it, to ensure that more worthy winners are not drowned out in the mêlée of popularity.

Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.

(Also read €" Oscars 2021: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross' Original Score nominations for Mank, Soul are testament to their versatility)

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