A truly enduring, classic film score that is well known and loved by all is a rare thing, so it’s not surprising that the five scores nominated for Academy Awards this year don’t reach that level.
By PATRICK NEAS
Special to The Star
Even John Williams’ score for “The Book Thief,” as good as it is, lacks the memorable themes of his finest scores like those for “The Cowboys,” “Star Wars,” “Superman” or “E.T.”
But a score doesn’t have to enter the pantheon of immortal classics to offer delights and help a movie tell its story. Each of this year’s nominees has much to recommend it, even if the movie for which it was written doesn’t.
‘Saving Mr. Banks’
I thought “Saving Mr. Banks” was surprisingly unpleasant. Emma Thompson’s portrayal of P. L. Travers, the author of “Mary Poppins,” as relentlessly belligerent, rude and uncooperative becomes extremely grating after two hours. Especially since scenes of the adult, bitter Travers alternate with flashbacks of Travers’ depressing childhood. Thank goodness for Tom Hanks’ amiable Walt Disney. It’s blessed relief whenever the avuncular, long-suffering Walt has some screen time. His attempts to soften up the truculent Travers to get her to sign over the rights to “Mary Poppins” are charming and sweet.
The score by Thomas Newman also helps lighten the mood, especially when it quotes the beloved songs Robert and Richard Sherman wrote for the 1964 “Mary Poppins.” As of this year, Newman has received 12 Academy Award nominations, but has yet to win. That makes him the most nominated living film composer to have never won an Oscar. Unfortunately, I don’t think he will break his unhappy streak with “Saving Mr. Banks.” Newman wrote some affecting music for the scenes of Travers’ tragic childhood, but the only music you’ll remember from “Saving Mr. Banks” are the Sherman brothers’ “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and other ditties from the 1964 Disney classic.
“Gravity” is a load of hokum. Critics and audiences have been wowed by this tale of untethered astronauts, but a friend and I couldn’t stop chortling. The special effects are certainly awesome (when are they not, anymore?), but the preposterous plot, corny dialogue and hammy acting all reek of bloated Hollywood at its worst. I have to agree with J. Bryan Lowder, a critic for Slate.com, who predicts that “Gravity” will eventually be considered a camp classic.
The score by British composer Steven Price is the least cheesy thing about the movie. It’s not very memorable (unlike the hilariously ridiculous outer space flirting of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock), but it does what it’s supposed to do. It builds suspense when needed and quickly gets out of the way. Price, a protege of film composer Howard Shore, obviously knows what he’s doing. Let’s hope his next project will be worthy of his talent.
Based on a true story, “Philomena” is about an older Irish woman (Judi Dench) who as a teenager got pregnant out of wedlock and was abandoned at a convent. The cruel nuns sold her baby to rich Americans and basically used Philomena as slave labor, scrubbing laundry. Now in her golden years, the saintly Philomena harbors no ill will toward the nuns, but desperately wants to find out what happened to her son. She and her adult daughter are able to convince a cynical journalist, played by Steve Coogan, to help her in her quest.
To the film’s credit, it takes what could be a maudlin story appropriate for the Lifetime channel and leavens it with humor and sly acting, so at times it’s more a comedy of manners than a heart-wrenching tragedy. Alexander Desplat’s score also avoids over-sentimentality. In general the music is unobtrusive and keeps a low profile but is effective. After the movie was over, however, did I want to go home, get on my computer and order the soundtrack? No.
Arcade Fire, the popular hipster rock band from Montreal, provides the score for “Her,” a film directed by Spike Jonze. Beloved by many and disparaged by others who find them precious, full of themselves and the farthest thing from hip, Arcade Fire seems a perfect match for Jonze, who often faces the same criticisms.
“Her” is very much the sort of high-concept film in which Jonze specializes. Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, a sensitive, emotional misfit, who falls in love with a computer operating system. (Oh, that Jonze is so out there.) Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha, as the system is named, has more insight into human emotions than the stunted, flesh-and-blood characters in the film.
“Her” has a cool, minimalist feel that is nicely supported by Arcade Fire’s understated meanderings. The score is reminiscent of the shoegazing genre of rock that emerged in Britain in the 1990s. Distorted guitars and simple, almost Satie-like melodies underscore Theodore’s alienated psychology. I have to admit I went into this film with a bias against both Arcade Fire and Jonze, but the film grew on me. I thought Arcade Fire’s score was intriguing, compelling and unique. It fits the movie perfectly. This was definitely one of the better scores nominated this year.
‘The Book Thief’
The score for “The Book Thief” demonstrates why John Williams is head and shoulders above most film composers. Although it doesn’t have any particularly memorable themes, its lush orchestration and emotional impact are the work of a composer who understands cinema like few others.
Set in Germany during the Nazi era, “The Book Thief” is the story of young girl left by her mother, a communist wanted by the Nazis, in the care of an older German couple. The couple also eventually take in a Jewish refugee. The atmosphere is permeated with fear, paranoia and danger, all of which Williams masterfully conveys. But there’s also heartbreaking tenderness and love, and in Williams’ score the sun often peaks out behind the dark clouds. This is a wintry movie, almost entirely snow covered, but Williams’ music adds a comforting warmth. In my opinion, “The Book Thief” deserves to win best score of the year.