The process of choosing “best song” and “best score” for this year’s Academy Awards will be a little more complicated for voters. Revised Oscar rules mandate that the music branch choose 15 pre-nominees in each category, requiring them to see and evaluate all of the eligible works an entire month earlier than usual. This may alter the results and eliminate late-December releases from the race. I discuss this in an analysis story for this week’s Variety. Also this week: individual looks at 13 potential score nominees, including Mary Queen of Scots, A Quiet Place, Green Book, On the Basis of Sex, Widows, Red Sparrow and Fantastic Beasts 2, BlacKkKlansman, Stan & Ollie, Boy Erased, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, If Beale Street Could Talk and Vice.
As many of you know, one of my special interests over the years has been the music of composer John Barry. He scored just four Westerns during his career. I first met him while interviewing him about one of those, his eventual Oscar winner Dances With Wolves, for Premiere magazine. But in the early 1980s he scored another one, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and it was a pleasure to write the liner notes for this first-ever CD release of the 1982 LP. Country legend Merle Haggard sings the ballad, “The Man in the Mask,” and lyricist Dean Pitchford contributed some eye-opening reminiscences in a new interview for my essay.
Make no mistake, Mary Poppins Returns — the long-awaited sequel to one of the most beloved Disney films of all time — will be among this year’s biggest Christmas movies. I was lucky enough to see it several weeks ago in anticipation of writing at length about the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and the score by Shaiman. Variety published it this week, and it includes not only the thoughts of Shaiman and Wittman but also comments from director Rob Marshall and star Emily Blunt. My longer, more general story about the film that incorporates even more of my interviews — including co-star Lin-Manuel Miranda, was posted a few days later, and that is here.
Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-born composer of Mission: Impossible, Mannix and more than 100 film scores (including Cool Hand Luke, Dirty Harry and The Amityville Horror), will receive an honorary Academy Award on Sunday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ annual Governors Awards. Schifrin, who has been nominated six times but never won, helped usher in a new era of film scoring in the 1960s and ’70s with his seamless mixture of jazz and classical influences. To preview the event, I wrote this appreciation of the composer for Variety (which features a rare photo of him performing with the L.A. Philharmonic in 1971).
This week, Variety published its first “Contenders” section designed to inform award voters (and watchers) about worthy work in 2018 releases. It may be a record for the earliest one yet (it’s still only October!); there’ll be another at the end of November. We started with three really interesting stories: Michel Legrand scoring Orson Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind; British classical composer Thomas Ades doing his first film, Colette; and perennial favorite Alexandre Desplat, who has three scores in contention (most likely to gain attention: Isle of Dogs). Also in this issue: a preview of my composer panel at the inaugural Variety Music for Screens Summit, which was Tuesday, Oct. 30 in Hollywood.
A neighbor of mine, an avid filmgoer, was surprised to learn that the current Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga movie A Star Is Born is a remake of an earlier film (in fact, this is the third official take on the story). Variety asked me to look at the music of the prior films: the 1937 original with its Max Steiner score; the 1954 edition starring Judy Garland, with its Oscar-nominated song “The Man That Got Away”; and the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and its Oscar-winning love theme “Evergreen.” I talked to historian Leonard Maltin, Garland expert John Fricke and songwriter Paul Williams for this fun assignment, which was even deemed one of a handful of Star Is Born-related pieces most “worth reading” by The New York Times.
I hope The Hate U Give is remembered at awards time. It’s a powerful and very timely film, and Variety asked me to write two stories about its music. One was about Oscar-nominated Lion composer Dustin O’Halloran’s piano, synth and strings score, which carefully and effectively augments the songs assembled by music supervisor Season Kent. The second was about the soundtrack release via Def Jam, which features new songs by rising stars Arlissa and Bobby Sessions. Interviews with the composer, songwriters, director, music supervisor, studio and label execs made this assignment especially meaningful.
Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, widely considered among the most interesting of the current generation of film composers, died in February at the age of 48. But the Oscar-nominated composer of The Theory of Everything, Arrival and Sicario had completed more work before his death. His final score, for Mandy — Panos Cosmatos’ wild horror-revenge thriller starring Nicolas Cage — is a dark, massive, industrial-metal sound that matches the grim, violent, sometimes insane milieu of the film. I interviewed the director, his manager Tim Husom, and his agent Kevin Korn, about this last work and about the new foundation in the late composer’s name.
I couldn’t wait to see First Man — in part because manned spaceflight was my obsession all through the 1960s and I have very vivid memories of watching Neil Armstrong set foot upon the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, and also because I was fascinated by how director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz would top their Oscar-winning work on La La Land in 2016. I spent time on the recording stage as Hurwitz conducted all of the key musical sequences and then interviewed him in his studio (complete with Moog synthesizer, theremin and vintage Echoplex machine), followed by a phone conversation with Chazelle. The results, published in Variety, are here.
Each year, for its summertime Music for Screens section, Variety asks me to prepare a chart listing every nominee in all six music categories including a brief description of the music itself, or something relevant to the nomination. It means a lot of TV watching in July and August! And often interviewing the composers, songwriters and music directors about what their jobs were and how they went about the task of writing or supervising the scores of each show. Editors always call it the Emmy “cheat sheet,” although I don’t know if that’s for the voters or the viewers…