A Very Oscars Edition of Classical Music Hour With Fran

With special guest bobby finger!

Image: Chris Devers

Hello! The Oscars are three days away. All of your podcasts are talking about them, even the murder ones, I’m sure of it. Well, it felt like a good opportunity to briefly shift gears in this column and talk about some more contemporary classical music. Film scores are often most accessible classical music we hear from year to year, and this past year in film in particular felt altogether more strange and interesting than prior years. Joining me this week is the very wonderful and extremely funny Jezebel writer and Who? Weekly co-host Bobby Finger, one of my favorite people to talk movie scores with.

Okay, so this year’s actual nominees are:

Jackie — Mica Levi

FH: This score, of these five, at least, is the best one, if not just the most distinctive score, because Jackie could have been an entirely different movie depending on what the score sounded like. It would have been easy to have this lofty classical score, or even sub in some kind of era-appropriate soundtrack, but that’s really not the case here.

BF: Of these five, yes, absolutely, no question, 100%. There’s a learning curve when it comes to watching Jackie, and getting absorbed into such an oddly structured and paced (and designed) biopic would have been considerably more difficult without Levi’s score. I mean, from the opening seconds — those first few wailing notes — you’re like, Oh. Okay. This is the kind of movie I’m watching. No other score on this list is as important to the movie it was written for.

FH: Mica Levi will almost certainly not win, which sucks.

BF: Oh, I mean. She’s definitely not winning. WHICH BRINGS US TO OUR NEXT TOPIC.

La La Land — Justin Hurwitz

FH: I’m sorry we have to talk about this one.

BF: If this were a “Shit On the Songs From La La Land” column, or even something as simple as a “Shit On La La Land” blog, we could be here for days. There’s nothing remotely special about any of the songs anyone sings in this movie, nor is there anything special about the people who sing them. BUT! But. The music here is, for the most part, a real treat. The central theme (the one used in “Another Day of Sun”) is a real earworm, and is particularly stunning in that final epilogue. But, like most of La La Land, it feels easy. Easy melodies. Easy structure. It played it safe, but I like listening to it!

FH: I agree!! I think the individual songs from La La Land are not all too special (this is a different argument entirely but the best song in the movie — “Someone In The Crowd” — has been left out of the awards conversation entirely), but the actual scoring of it all feels solid. It’s weird for a musical to have all of its most memorable musical sequences not be… songs with lyrics… but both the Planetarium waltz and final epilogue sound great. It is easy, I guess, but it’s also memorable. I don’t know if I can actively hum anything from any of the other scores but that’s also probably a good thing on my end.

BF: Fran, I hummed the music from “Another Day of Sun” for… weeks? A month? It was a nightmare. Anyway, this will win because the Academy is going to equate “music” with “La La Land.” There’s nothing we can do about it. ACTUALLY, one more thing Fran. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it sort of weird that a movie about a jazz musician has like… no notable jazz?

FH: The most recent movie with notable jazz I can remember is Whiplash, which you and I have discussed outside of this before, but is just a much more interesting Hurwitz score! With jazz!

BF: I completely forgot that was Hurwitz. Weird that he didn’t… do any of that here!

Lion — Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka

FH: I liked Lion, but I’m a little who cares about this score. The use of music was effective in the film, but I don’t find it technically all of that interesting or memorable in the grand scheme of things.

BF: I have not seen Lion yet, but I listened to this score a while ago because I’m a pretty big fan of Hauschka. I had forgotten it entirely until seeing what you wrote. Just above this. So.

FH: I don’t know Hauschka?

BF: Oh my god. Let me drop in some links here. Ferndorf is the album you want to listen to. If you just have time for one, go with “Eltern.” Also, “Freibad.”

Moonlight — Nicholas Britell

FH: This is my possibly my second favorite of all of these scores.

BF: I agree!

FH: It just works great. It’s got a lot of these slower, pensive string and piano pieces that fill in some of the silences in that movie so well. Part of what makes Moonlight such a powerful film is that it’s working on every single level, from the writing to the acting to the cinematography to the music. Even before Moonlight was released, it had this really haunting, memorable trailer where it felt like the score overshadowed even the dialogue in it.

BF: Right, every piece — even if it’s a 59-second track from the score — is a crucial piece of Moonlight’s construction. It also takes me back to tagline on the poster, which is “This Is the Story of a Lifetime.” There’s something gorgeous and a little thrilling about using such lush, dramatically orchestrated pieces for what is really this teeny tiny little production about the life of a single, normal man. The story of a lifetime! The music of one, too!

Passengers — Thomas Newman

FH: Having Newman here feels like the one big staple of this year’s set of nominees (especially because there’s no John Williams or Howard Shore or anyone like that), having earned his 13th nomination for Passengers. It feels very generic space scoring to me, and honestly not all that dissimilar from Newman’s scoring for WALL-E. I didn’t wind up seeing Passengers, but do you feel like this is, uh, nomination-worthy?

BF: Honestly Fran, the whole time I was watching Passengers I was like, “THIS SOUNDS LIKE WALL-E.” It’s WALL-E with more, like, explosive punctuations. WALL-E without the awe, and way more explosions. Anyway, it’s easy to shit on Thomas Newman because the man could fart into a harmonica and get a nod, but he occasionally does some award-worthy stuff. (Don’t get me started about The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.) I mean, he’s talented and good. There’s just so much, and the lesser stuff tends to blend together. Like, you can tell this guy didn’t give one shit about Passengers.

FH: Part of me wonders if someone else turned down scoring Passengers. Like who decided this. I don’t know.

BF: It literally could have been someone at Sony being like, “I liked WALL-E.”

And here were some other notable or memorable scores for us from this past year:

Manchester By The Sea — Lesley Barber

FH: Bobby, go off.

BF: My favorite of the year! My favorite of the year. I did not like Manchester By the Sea much at all, but felt the score — particularly the choral tracks — told a story about coping with grief (and coping with life?) than anything Casey Affleck did (or didn’t do) in the entire film. Affleck has been praised again and again for doing what ultimately amounts to nothing. He was quiet. He was restrained. He punched people every once in awhile. But he didn’t make me feel anything. Barber’s score, from the eerie opening to the oddly hopeful finale, made me feel…everything? I’m having trouble writing about this as a score right now because it’s honestly become such a major part of my everyday life (I listen to it while working most days) that I often forget that it was written for a dumb movie about a sad man and his shitty nephew.

FH: I agree with a lot of what you’ve said but I think his nephew was good.

BF: I was just like, shut up. Also I laughed at the chicken. Also I hated all the scenes about him trying to fuck.

FH: Yeah, but his band was good.

BF: Ahhh, his band! I forgot about them. I actually liked all the scenes that focused on the band. Dear Kenneth Lonergan, remake Manchester By the Sea but make it entirely about the band. Also! I forgot the most outrageous part about this entire thing! Lesley Barber was disqualified by the Academy because of a concern that voters would confuse the classical tracks from its soundtrack with the original work.

Arrival — Jóhann Jóhannsson

FH: So speaking of disqualified scores, we also have the Arrival score, which is a weird and great score, I’d argue, but disqualified mainly because the most recognizable theme from it is a piece by Max Richter called “On The Nature Of Daylight.”

BF: Yeah, it’s a good score. And pretty frequently unsettling in a very Johannsson way. Probably worthy of a spot on the top five, but not one I’m broken up about not seeing with everyone else. Primarily because the most memorable piece of music is the Richter one you mentioned that’s used to bookend the film. That’s what you (or at least I) leave remembering. “On the Nature of Daylight” is… an incredible piece of music. You don’t leave Manchester By the Sea remembering the non-Lesley Barber stuff.

Kubo And The Two Strings — Dario Marianelli

FH: I’ve mentioned Dario Marianelli in passing in this column before, if only because I feel like his music feels so distinctive with every movie he scores. Kubo And The Two Strings is a strange movie — significantly more adult in theme than a lot of the other animated features this year (and arguably a more stirring movie about grief than, well, never mind) — and its score is really colorful and percussive. I don’t think it’s as high concept as some of these other scores, but it felt really memorable to me the way Michael Giacchino’s work felt for some of those early Pixar films.

BF: I feel like I always forget about Dario Marianelli until you mention him (either in your column or to me in a message). And then I re-listen to one of his old scores, usually Jane Eyre, and think, “How could I possibly forget this guy? I still haven’t seen Kubo, but listened to the score on your recommendation. The Giacchino comparison feels spot on. Also, damn, I just remembered that he did Atonement!


BF: Dude was like, “I’m going to make music with this typewriter.” And you know what? He did.

Hell Or High Water — Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

FH: I don’t know if I have a ton of smart things to say about Cave and Ellis. They’re just very cool guys who make cool music for movies every now and then. These two composed one of my favorite scores of all time for The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. They have that wistful, American Western music genre down really well and have somehow never been nominated.

BF: I do think this is one of the actual snubs of the year, by which I mean actual snub and not snub based on a shaky technicality, because I feel like Hell Or High Water could have been a completely different movie without Cave and Ellis. This movie impressively toes the line between bleak and playful for most of its runtime, and I think it could have veered a little too far into the latter if not for their gritty, unnerving score. And DITTO to Assassination of Jesse James. It’s certainly in my top 10 (don’t EVER ask me to make a top 10, by the way, because it’ll make me go insane), and not because there’s a great piece on it called “Song For Bob.”

In conclusion:

Congratulations to La La Land!

Fran Hoepfner is a writer from Chicago. You can find a corresponding playlist for all of the pieces discussed in this column here.