From ‘Ammonite’ to ‘Shirley,’ These Five Scores Are Flying Under the Radar for Awards Consideration
An employed silence. A scratchy phonograph playing a theme inspired by Yiddish music. An exercise in minimalism. Those are some of the components in scores belonging to films flying under the radar as awards season begins — but might not be when all is said and done.
Variety looks at some of those works and the composers behind them.
The Invisible Man
In this classic-movie update, Elisabeth Moss plays the abused, on-the-run wife of a brilliant scientist. Composer Benjamin Wallfisch (“It”) took his initial inspiration from Bernard Herrmann’s famous “Psycho” score, writing solely for string orchestra (including a cello theme for Moss’ character), then added angry, aggressive electronics to depict the husband with the invisibility suit. Yet he also strategically employed silence. “We made bold musical gestures, so that the absence of music is something you feel,” Wallfisch says. “We used unusual mixing techniques, sometimes surrounding the audience with a wall of sound, sometimes only using one microphone on one violin.”
For the live-action remake of the 1998 animated film based on an ancient Chinese legend about a strong-willed girl who disguises herself as a man to replace her father in battle, composer Harry Gregson-Williams employed Chinese soloists (recorded in Bangkok) while working with a 90-piece L.A. orchestra and 48-voice choir. “Mulan’s theme came quite quickly,” he remembers. “It had to have a certain innocence, but it also had to have the ability to be bold, to accompany her riding into battle.” To this he added grim sounds, including Tuvan throat singing for the villain, Böri Khan, and a two-string erhu-based signature for the mysterious and powerful witch Xianniang.
The Life Ahead
After 40 years of scoring films, Oscar winner Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”) finally got to compose for screen legend Sophia Loren. “The music needed to be very gentle and delicate,” he says, “at the same time addressing the painful past of Madame Rosa and the troubled presence of Momo, the young orphan. It was tricky portraying the special relationship between these two contrasting characters.” Rosa’s theme, played on a scratchy phonograph record in her basement hideaway, was inspired by Yiddish music and depicts both “the horrors of her past but also the nostalgia from before the war.”
In this fictionalized story, pioneering British paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) embarks on a romantic relationship with a well-to-do young woman (Saoirse Ronan), and it changes both their lives. Director Francis Lee asked composers Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann (“Lion”) for a minimalist score — just 20 minutes of music, judiciously placed, for piano and small string ensemble. “Most of the music was not written to picture,” O’Halloran explains. “We were writing music and finding the heart of the film.” Adds Bertelmann: “It’s the in-between moments, the reflective moments, the moments of realization, that are scored.”
“Mudbound” composer Tamar-kali says when she saw Josephine Decker’s film about author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), “it hit me like a fever dream. I wanted to come up with a sonic palette that represented the veil between the seen and the unseen, the conscious and the unconscious.” She decided on a chamber-music sound of piano and string quartet, then augmented it with her own vocal sounds in which each key character was represented: an alto voice for Shirley, mezzo-soprano for Rose and soprano for the missing girl, Paula, subject of Jackson’s new book.
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