Variety was first out of the gate with an instant analysis of Monday morning’s Oscar nominations for original song and score. The early readings suggest that Hildur Guonadottir’s Joker score and Elton John’s Rocketman song have the inside track, but I am being cautioned that Oscar voters can be unpredictable in these categories and not to count out newcomer Cynthia Erivo for her Harriet song or Thomas Newman (a 15-time nominee so far without a win) for his 1917 score. Voting actually doesn’t begin until Jan. 30, and the Oscars are almost a month away. The original Monday stories, containing more statistical detail, can be found here for score and here for song; the slightly truncated print versions are pictured above.
As the Golden Globe awards were nearing and Academy voters were deciding who to nominate in the music categories, Variety commissioned a final few stories related to songs and scores from calendar year 2019. Chris Willman and I shared a byline as we examined how period films handled music (my portions involved 1917, Ford v Ferrari and Little Women). Then, because Globe voters nominated Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber for their new song in Cats, but Oscar voters failed to place it on the shortlist for nomination, I went back through recent Globe history to try and determine the odds of them actually rewarding Swift for a tune in one of the year’s most lambasted films. And finally, the Society of Composers & Lyricists held its inaugural awards, handing out most of its film awards to women, including the now ubiquitous (at award ceremonies, anyway) Icelandic composer Hildur Guonadottir for her Joker score.
This writer — the author of The Music of James Bond — was proud to supply Variety with the world exclusive that composer Hans Zimmer is scoring the new 007 film, No Time to Die. I placed a lot of calls to sources on both sides of the Atlantic to lock down as many details as possible. The sad part was having to report, also for the first time, that Dan Romer, director Cary Fukunaga’s original choice as composer (they collaborated on Beasts of No Nation and Maniac), had been fired after months of working on the film. Zimmer joined the Bond team in early December; the Oscar winner is, of course, a veteran of action franchises from Pirates of the Caribbean to the Dark Knight films.
ABC, which is owned by the Walt Disney company, re-staged The Little Mermaid in a live telecast on November 5. But how, exactly, did they conceive and execute this mostly underwater adventure with songs and music? The editors of DGA Quarterly, the magazine of the Directors Guild of America, asked me to investigate, so I called Hamish Hamilton, who directed the show (which, one hastens to add, was among the highest-rated live TV musicals of the modern era). Hamilton pointed out that “we had puppets and effects and props and projectors and music and mermaids and flying and performers in very unwieldy costumes!” The story, in DGA Quarterly‘s winter edition, can be read here.
It is a rare privilege to be able to sit down with composer John Williams and discuss his latest project. I was honored that he agreed to talk about his 42-year history with the Star Wars franchise and especially the long-awaited finale, The Rise of Skywalker, which opens this week. In this piece for Variety — believed to be the composer’s only print interview for the new film — Williams talks not only about the movie but about how it all came about back in 1976. Director J.J. Abrams chimes in with some thoughtful historical perspective. The print version was truncated; the online version, which you can read here, contains considerably more information of interest to every Star Wars fan. A few weeks ago, I discussed his latest Grammy nominations, which now bring his total to 71 (including 24 wins)!
Every year at this time the Academy announces its “shortlists” in music (and other specialty areas including visual effects, makeup, documentaries, short subjects, etc.). This year, 170 scores and 75 songs qualified under the rather stringent Oscar rules. My initial story, a Variety exclusive, detailed the six major scores (including Captain Marvel, A Hidden Life and The Irishman) and one song (“One Little Soldier” from Bombshell) that were either disqualified, not entered, or entered too late. My second story was one of those instant-analysis pieces posted an hour after the shortlist announcement: notable omissions, including Taylor Swift’s new song for Cats and John Powell’s fine score for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, topped the list.
A couple of weeks ago, I was tipped off to a shocking payment plan that the Discovery Networks (a conglomerate of cable channels that includes Discovery, Animal Planet, HGTV, Food Network and others) were demanding that composers accept by year’s end: Composers (already poorly paid for their work on all these shows) would no longer be able to receive U.S. royalties for their work when broadcast, a right that all media composers have enjoyed for decades. I interviewed more than half a dozen top composers for this Variety story, all of whom were appalled at the demand and said they would not agree — in large part because they rely on their residuals to keep working. The story generated hundreds of responses on social media, and numerous top composers (including Oscar winner Michael Giacchino, who went on a Twitter tirade about it) have lined up in opposition to what Discovery Networks has proposed.
Original songs for movies is a world unto itself, as we continue to discover. This year’s awards-worthy movie songs were covered in several Variety stories spread over the past two months: discovering that Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber had collaborated on a new song for Cats, Oct. 24; our early guesses as to who might make the final Oscar and Golden Globe lists, published Oct. 29; an overview of this year’s Disney movie songs, several likely to make those final lists, on Dec. 4; and interviewing Diane Warren, Pharrell Williams, Cynthia Erivo and Regina Spektor about their current work, Dec. 6.
Between October and December, my calendar is filled with screenings, composer interviews, live Q&As, and most importantly writing about all of this for Variety. All of this was spread across a series of stories that attempted to cover most of the major candidates for awards consideration at year’s end. The first story, Oct. 29, covered seven early contenders (Joker, Harriet, Ford v Ferrari, Motherless Brooklyn, Pain & Glory, Judy, Us). A second, Nov. 14, examined offbeat approaches (Monos, The Lighthouse, Uncut Gems). A third, Dec. 4, looked at documentary scores (The Biggest Little Farm, The Elephant Queen, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Apollo 11). And a fourth, also Dec. 4, discussed eight more scores (1917, Little Women, The King, The Song of Names, The Aeronauts, A Hidden Life, The Good Liar, Jojo Rabbit).
Two of this year’s biggest, most moving musical scores were for larger-than-life spectacles. Avengers: Endgame became the year’s top-grossing film, and its massive symphonic score by Alan Silvestri (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) matched the galaxy-spanning scope of the Marvel Universe finale. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World featured some of the finest music written for an animated feature in many years, no surprise considering its composer, John Powell (Oscar-nominated for the first Dragon film), devoted months to crafting its lavish orchestral and choral score. Special sections of Variety featured both of these articles: here is the Silvestri piece and here is the Powell story.