On January 24th, we at Variety received word that the Oscar producers had decided to perform only two of the five Best Song nominees on the show (Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” and Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars,” by the two most popular recording artists). Within an hour, I had three other solid sources confirming this, so that afternoon we broke the story. (It was the lead story on Variety‘s front page for nearly a day.) The Academy denied it, of course, but the backlash was immediate and the Twitterverse blew up over it. Producers were forced to retrench, and one week later, artists from the other three songs were invited to perform. And in our most recent exclusive, we broke the news that Bette Midler would perform the nominated song from Mary Poppins Returns on the show.
One of my favorite annual Variety assignments involves analyzing the competition in the Best Song and Original Score categories as the Academy Awards campaign winds down and the voting begins. While Oscar pundits debate whether “Shallow” from A Star Is Born will win the song honors or be upset by one of the others, and whether If Beale Street Could Talk is really the favorite among the scores, we look closely at all 10 nominees and provide some historical and statistical perspective. Here is our “Contenders: Best Song” story and our “Contenders: Best Score” story, both of which ran in the Feb. 12 issue of Variety.
Although it wasn’t eligible for an original-score nomination — Kris Bowers’ 20 minutes of score was insufficient by comparison with all the other music in the film — Green Book still managed to be one of the year’s toughest assignments for a composer. That’s because Bowers came aboard early, trained actor Mahershala Ali in how to play convincing-looking piano, then transcribed and performed all of the Don Shirley music that was heard throughout the film. Oh, and then he wrote the original score, too. I discuss all this in a story that ran in the Feb. 12 issue of Variety (it’s not online, so click on the image at left to read it).
One of the most important miniseries in television history, the Emmy-winning 9 1/2-hour Holocaust, was the first TV production to focus specifically on the rise of Nazism and the Third Reich’s “final solution” to murder six million Jews. The producers hired Morton Gould, one of America’s most distinguished composer-conductors, to write the score (his music for CBS’s 26-part World War I series remains one of the greatest documentary scores ever penned for the medium). It was an honor to write the notes for the album, drawing on my 1992 interview with the composer; although a Grammy-nominated LP in 1978, it had not previously been available on CD.
One of the world’s great jazz trumpeters has a secret desire: to set aside the instrument and transition into a new career of writing music for movies. Arturo Sandoval recently wrote the underscore for Clint Eastwood’s The Mule — for which he also played the trumpet and penned the delightful Latin-infused source music. We visited with Sandoval at his studio for Variety and talked with him about his odyssey from Cuba to America, his collaboration with Eastwood and his hopes for a new career (we were reminded that he’s already won an Emmy for scoring his own life story in HBO’s For Love or Country).
In a little over a week, we’ve seen the Golden Globe nominations for song and score; the Grammy nominations which, with its offbeat eligibility year, combines the best of this year with last; and the news about scores that were disqualified, for various reasons, from Oscar consideration. Here are three stories I wrote for Variety that summarize each: a quick analysis of the Golden Globe nominations in music; a look at Black Panther composer Ludwig Goransson’s surprising Grammy nods; and our annual look at what the Academy music branch has nixed for potential Oscar consideration.
The venerable Varese Sarabande company — long seen as Hollywood’s leading soundtrack label — celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, so Variety asked me to look back at its history, interview composers about its impact, and research its biggest hits. It was a surprisingly fun assignment, as its full backstory had not previously been told: how a small classical outfit accidentally became a movie soundtrack label, spawned a million-selling hit, and may have even won an Oscar for one composer (that’s in dispute, but it’s a good story). Here is the main story, about the label’s history; here is a top-10 rundown (assembled from SoundScan numbers and Varese executives’ memories); and here are some thoughts from grateful composers.
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.