Monday, December 27, 2010

Oscars Music Branch Shoots Self in Foot

The music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has long stood as an ultra-conservative bastion when it comes to crossing t's and dotting i's. No score that includes too many "songs" is eligible; no score that is based upon or incorporates more than a smidgeon of any previously existing melodies or elements is eligible; no song that was not originally commissioned for use in the film in which it appears is eligible.

But of course all this is utter nonsense. Were such rules to be applied to music generally, many of the greatest composers of all time would be deemed ineligible, and pop music too would be a wasteland of seeming "unoriginality." Any musical form, such as Hip-hop, which takes its cue from the manipulation of what the Copyright Office calls "previously existing sounds or compositions," would be ruled out completely. The result of past disqualifications have often been absurd, eliminating such anthemic works as "Come What May" (the climactic song of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge), while leading to Oscar wins for songs that, though "commissioned" for the film they accompany, were most often closing-credits cover music, utterly disconnected from the films they followed.

But now the Academy has gone to the point where I believe it has taken the rules themselves to the point of reductio ad absurdum. Carter Burwell's brilliant score for the Coen Brothers' version of True Grit has been disqualified. And why? Because it incorporates hymns and other traditional material. The idiocy of the decision makes me think of the earlier, 1969 version of the film, with a score by Elmer Bernstein, nominated for 11 Academy Awards for his scores. Bernstein's 1969 score has a curious rhythmic and melodic kinship to the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B," released just 3 years earlier. John Wayne's co-star in the film, Glen Campbell, was (perhaps incidentally) for a time part of the Beach Boys' touring lineup. My point here is not to malign Bernstein, but to suggest that he, as would any other composer worth his salt, have been sensitive to, and taken in, the musical sounds and motifs of his day. Transformed by his hand, they became something else: they became film scores. A hymn, or a pop song, or a snatch of a street-scat, does not a score make; a composer does this, forging them in the smithy of his soul into another kind of metal entirely, in an ancient and honored tradition.

Burwell, a gifted composer with dozens of scores to his credit, has the distinction of having provided the music for every single Coen Brothers' movie from their first -- Blood Simple -- onwards. And he has, quite often, taken traditional material in hand to do so, most notably in my favorite of all his scores, that for Miller's Crossing, which Burwell based on an old Irish air known as "Limerick's Lamentation." For True Grit, he and the Coens made a conscious decision, possibly influenced by Charles Portis, the author of the novel on which the film was based: they took hymns, hymns popular in the late nineteenth century but seldom sung today, as the material upon which the score would be built. Yet those hymns, as graceful as lovely as they are, were but the scaffolding of the score; we hear "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" as a somber piano solo, a symphonic wash, and a galloping foxtrot; it haunts the peripheries of the compositional landscape like a melancholy sun which will neither rise nor set.

One wonders what the Academy's judges would think of similar uses of hymnody, such as award-winning composer Gavin Bryars' remarkable use of a chance recording of a London street-tramp into the distended threnody of his cycle, "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet." Would they judge that that, too, was too much based on pre-existing material?

I would say instead that the attitude of the judges themselves is too much rooted in ideas of the past, specifically in the neo-Romantic cult of originality which was not a feature of Western classical music until quite late in its development, and is a concept quite alien to many other musics of the world as well as to pop music generally. Let us, as George Bernard Shaw once suggested in another context, get rid of the lot of them, and replace them with some intelligent Newfoundland dogs.


  1. I was amazed to learn,in an interview with Carter Burwell in the New York TImes available here, that the Academy also rules out songs for being "too memorable"!!

    Well, it's odd, but I can't seem to remember any of the names of the AMPAS judges in this category ... perhaps they're worried about not being memorable enough. In any case, I'd sure like to see a grass roots movement to replace these hidebound old hacks with people who actually care about the film music that people care about ...

  2. The exact rule in question, I would add, betrays its prejudice in its language: "scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music, diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs, or assembled from the music of more than one composer shall not be eligible."

    Well doespreexisting music "diminish" a score? The rules make this a foregone conclusion, but I would beg to differ; as a musician myself as well as a music critic, I can imagine the use of preexisting music augmenting a score -- and this is exactly what I think Burwell has done with True Grit.