Awards Watch: Song & Score III

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If you're Michael Giacchino going into the stretch of the 82nd Academy Awards season, you have to be feeling good about your chances of winning an Oscar.

So far the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics and the BAFTAs have all given nods to Giacchino's score to the Pixar animated film "Up," and it seems Giacchino may not be facing any serious competition in this category. The two other potential juggernauts are James Horner's "Avatar" and Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders' "The Hurt Locker," scores and films that couldn't be more different. That leaves another blockbuster score, Hans Zimmer's "Sherlock Holmes," as well as a fifth score with a feisty critics' fave, Alexandre Desplat's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," to round out the race.

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Released far earlier in the year than any of the other nominees, "Up's" opening montage of a romantic relationship seen across the years is a master class in how to wed music (Giacchino's simple, nostalgic melody) to imagery, to the point that Giacchino probably could have left the rest of the film unscored and still nabbed a nomination. The question is whether the score's recognition factor has peaked after such a long period since its release. Giacchino's recent win at the BAFTAs seems to indicate he still has plenty of momentum.

Until recently, the score dogging "Up's" heels was James Horner's for "Avatar." No other movie boasts such a high profile going into the final stretch of the Oscar race. But "Avatar" has been on a rollercoaster of acceptance and rejection since footage was first unveiled at the San Diego Comic-Con International in July. Awards fever for the film may have peaked at the Golden Globes, but the science fiction eye-popper has maintained an undeniably impressive boxoffice run. If there's a drawback, it's that Horner's score at times seemed calculated to recapture the romantic "Titanic" vibe that won the composer two Oscars, one for his score and one for best song at the 1998 Academy Awards ceremony.

One nomination that raised some eyebrows is the Beltrami-Sanders score for Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker," an effort so seamlessly woven into the film's sound design that some might not have noticed the movie had music at all. But the score is pivotal in cementing the emotional bond between the film's three leads, who are really at war with one another until a lengthy and suspenseful sniper sequence midway through the movie.


"Fantastic Mr. Fox"
 
The Beltrami-Sanders score is a stealth effort that's meatier than it first appears to be. The rueful, dusty folk melody at the center of the work has the shadings of a classic Western theme, while a traditional military score -- with spare battleground percussion and some dissonant strings -- rattles at the low end of the sound spectrum. Those elements are so artfully fused into the sound design that they often seem more felt than heard, yet there's almost an hour of underscore in the film. With "The Hurt Locker" wrapping up the lion's share of major film awards late in the season, there's a chance this work will get swept up in the same wave that earned it a nomination.

That leaves two scores that may not seem to have great chances to win, but could still benefit from votes split between "Up," "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker." Desplat's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" might seem too slight at first blush, but that situation would have sounded familiar to another Frenchman, Georges Delerue, whose delicate score for the 1979 comedy "A Little Romance" beat Jerry Goldsmith's epic "Star Trek the Motion Picture" at the 1980 awards ceremony. Desplat's percussive action music matches the rambunctious energy level of the film's stop-motion animation and its delicate chimes and children's choir action climax fit Wes Anderson's miniaturist sensibility perfectly.

The big achievement of Zimmer's "Sherlock Holmes" music is that it's every bit as quirky and idiosyncratic as Desplat's score. Zimmer's first nominated score since "Gladiator" is an audacious, tuneful work that gets inside Robert Downey Jr.'s offbeat portrayal of Holmes and is also a refreshing change of pace from the shapeless, sound-design approach of a lot of recent scores for films of this type. That said, action scores rarely win score Oscars, so it will take a mighty confluence of votes canceling one another out to get Zimmer to the podium.


"Sherlock Holmes"
 
Some of the bigger surprises this year came from the scores that weren't nominated. Rolfe Kent's music was a driving force in "Up in the Air," but the film's use of songs (including one for the opening titles) may have drowned out Kent's work in voters' minds.

Marvin Hamlisch, a perennial Academy favorite, also seemed a lock to get a nomination for his wildly eclectic retro score to Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!" The film's relatively slight boxoffice and lack of any other nominations couldn't have helped, though that didn't affect Thomas Newman when he earned a nomination for Soderbergh's far lower-earning "The Good German." "The Informant!" was a comedy, however, a genre that is notoriously divisive, and Hamlisch's approach was designed to goose the laughs by playing against the surface of the film's scenes. For voters who didn't get the joke, the score may have come off as wildly inappropriate; what's unfortunate is that Hamlisch was demonstrating the kind of contribution and impact that film composers used to be allowed to make and only rarely do today.

Finally, Giacchino seemed to suffer from the apparent snub of the J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" reboot, which had to settle for visual effects, sound and makeup nominations while competing science fiction blockbusters, "Avatar" and "District 9," walked away with the major nominations. Voters still seem to prefer to reward original visions over franchise fare, but Giacchino might just be crying all the way to the podium when the awards are given out on March 7.
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