Why La La Land Shouldn't Win Best Original Score at This Year's Academy Awards

And why you should care about the oft-forgotten Oscars category.

So by now it's pretty well-predicted that La La Land is going to dominate this year's Oscars, which, depending on who you ask, is either The Greatest Thing and totally deserved or The Worst Thing and proof of the Academy's irredeemable age/taste/whiteness.

But there is one award it shouldn't win, and that's Best Original Score — if you ask us, it shouldn't even be nominated for it. That's because La La Land is a musical, and doesn't have a score in the usual cinematic definition of the word. Generally, a score is the music underpinning the action, not occurring within the scene as it does in La La Land. Ryan Gosling might look adorable while he's noodling on a piano for 'City of Stars', but the fact that he's most certainly in the scene means that the song is not part of the score in the usual sense. This distinction has been emphasised by the Academy itself in the past — from 1949 to 1969, Best Original Score was split into two separate categories: one for Original Score, and one for Musical Score. 

The score of a film is as important as any other aspect of it; it occupies more of a film's screentime than any actor, conveys more emotion than any speech, sets the mood more evocatively than any costume or lighting or scenery. The great film critic Roger Ebert liked to say that "movies are like a machine that generates empathy". If he's correct, the score is the engine driving that machine.

Film is an inherently visual medium, yet a great score is as memorable as any image. Two drags of a cello's bow and you're going to need a bigger boat; I only have to hint at the famous 'dum dum dum dum DAdum dum DAdum' and you're reaching for your inhaler. Show me one big-budget action film since Inception that hasn't used Hans Zimmer's patented PWAAAAAAAARP at some moment of high drama. Think of The Pink Panther, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Psycho, Chariots of Fire or basically any Spielberg film, and it's the score that leaps into your mind instantly.

You only have to look at the list of winners of Best Score to see how seriously film scores are taken. Significant classical composers like Erich Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Aaron Copland (Of Mice and Men, The Heiress), Leonard Bernstein (On the Waterfront), André Previn (Gigi), Miklós Rózsa (Ben-Hur), Ennio Morricone (The Mission, The Hateful Eight) and Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and even Shostakovich and Prokofiev have all written scores. Other composers like Elmer Bernstein, Malcolm Arnold, Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota — whose careers were mostly spent writing for films — are now spoken of in the same breath as other more traditionally classical composers, while today the music of James Horner, John Williams, Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer is often performed by symphony orchestras in the world's most prestigious concert halls. Even Trent Reznor has an Oscar for The Social Network.

With all this blurring of boundaries and genres, the sound palette of films is broader and more experimental than it has ever been. Philip Glass, a modern classical composer long derided as difficult and unlistenable, has achieved popular recognition thanks to his score for The Hours; similarly, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's work has spanned film, theatre and contemporary classical throughout his career (and would have been nominated for an Oscar for his score for Arrival but for a technicality). This year's nominees for Best Original Score cover a number of styles, from musical (La La Land) to minimalist (Lion), from shimmery strings and piano chords (Passengers) to tense, darting violins (Moonlight) and unsettling, lush-yet-uneasy chamber pieces (Jackie) – proving that the emotion you make an audience feel is far more important than the method by which you make them feel.

Film scores, in all their diverse sounds and styles, are inseparable from the cinema experience. They can complement characterisation, drive plot, confirm suspicions for an audience or confound their expectations. One thing they absolutely should not do is break into song on a highway off-ramp. 

Published on February 27, 2017 by Hugh Robertson

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