Oscars 2012: From 'Hugo' to 'The Artist,' Todd McCarthy Critiques The Year in Movie Music

Jaap Buitendijk

Whether building tension or paying homage to Hollywood's golden age, the scores contending for Oscar are key players in their films.

This article originally appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 17 issue. 

While there are innumerable movie soundtracks composed from the 1940s through the late 1960s worth listening to entirely on their own for their value as music, there have been precious few fully original, non-song-based scores during the past four decades for which I’ve been inspired to buy the albums. John Barry, Georges Delerue and Ennio Morricone were the last film composers whose scores I bought regularly. The golden age of orchestral film music inarguably died long ago. The traditional view is that a score should not stand out on its own as a separate entity from the film — that it should be, to mix the senses, invisible. For me, the greatest scores do support the film but also are memorable in their own right. I thought it might be interesting to evaluate this year’s five Academy Award-nominated scores both as cohesive parts of their films and as independent listenable works — John Williams twice, for The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, Ludovic Bource for The Artist, Howard Shore for Hugo and Alberto Iglesias for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

PHOTOS: Oscar Nominees Luncheon: The Official Class of 2012

Music arguably played a very central role in four of these five films.

The fifth was Tinker Tailor, a quiet, low-key drama for which Iglesias wrote music that exactly fits that description. The composer provided the period spy thriller with ideal underscoring, subtle currents of turmoil and tension that encouraged those sensations in the viewer without calling attention to itself. Listened to on its own, the score is unexceptional — quiet, repetitive, unmelodic. Iglesias’ other major score in 2011, for Pedro Almodovar’s bizarre thriller The Skin I Live In, is rather more exciting to listen to.

One of the musical highlights of 2011 for me was attending Williams’ concert in August at the Hollywood Bowl. Like many others, I suppose, I had grown a bit weary of the endless repetition of Williams’ music in so many blockbuster series from the 1970s to the current day — Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc. — so it was great to see the affable gent use a long action sequence from one of the Indy installments to illustrate instructively how the music made the scene come alive. (It was also mind-boggling to witness, upon the Star Wars cue, the sudden apparition of at least 10,000 light sabers wielded by geeks ages 7 to 70 throughout the Bowl). To experience this music live, and to hear it from the source, was to appreciate how electrifying a film composer Williams can be.

PHOTOS: Academy Awards 2012: The Nominees

It takes nothing away from him and his legacy to suggest that his work on his twin Oscar-nominated scores for 2011 is something less than his best. The almost-continuous score for Steven Spielberg’s Tintin serves the movie well but is conventional; its rolling, mounting momentum precisely parallels the frantic action and captures the adventurous spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark more consistently than do any of the subsequent Indy films.

Williams’ nomination for War Horse came as something of surprise. Again, the music exactly reflects the nature of the scenes Spielberg put on film; the four themes, swelling moments and ethnic flavors hark back to another time. Still, it’s hugely overdone, seeking to overwhelm but instead pandering and milking the already obvious emotions of the drama. Having admired War Horse onstage, such a score was exactly what I was afraid of from Williams; I strongly believe starkness and reserve would have better served this material.

PHOTOS: 7 Music to Movie Directors

As for Shore’s score for Hugo, listening to selections from it apart from the movie was quite instructive. When I saw Martin Scorsese’s film, I felt the score lent momentum and appropriate Gallic spicing but sensed there might have been too much music, to the point of being a tad overbearing. On its own, I appreciated its subtleties, how sophisticated, supple and multifaceted the compositions are; it also has weight and seriousness. Expressive of the clocklike rhythms dictated by the film’s many timepieces, the music is also alive to childlike joy and adventure. Best of all, however, is the way it teases out the elements of threat and mystery in the story.

On Artist, Bource faced a rare challenge in this day and age — scoring a silent film. First, this requires composing music for nearly every second of screen time. More dauntingly, it means creating themes and motifs that will speak eloquently for several characters. Even more, it lays much of the burden of the film’s emotional power squarely upon the composer. And to top it off, all this must be done without being corny, cloying, cute or condescending.

Unfailingly energetic and charming, Bource’s score follows the movement of the story from buoyant fun to despairing drama, thickening and darkening as it progresses, even as it expresses the end of the silent film star’s career with a poignant piano solo. Its anachronistic debt to such 1930s musical giants as Korngold, Steiner and Waxman has been noted; the egregious appropriation of a long stretch of Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from Vertigo (presumably the decision of director Michel Hazanavicius, not Bource) has been criticized by none other than that film’s co-star, Kim Novak. I have also attacked it, before and since, as using such a famous composition yanks you entirely out of the film you’re in by evoking memories of another, much greater work (perhaps the filmmakers were hoping for some of its emotional resonance to pollinate their own). This misstep aside, Bource imitated, conjured and invented superbly.