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Oscars 2016: The confusing rules to be nominated for Best Original Score

John Williams is nominated for an Oscar for
John Williams is nominated for an Oscar for "Best Original Score" for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
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The Academy Awards contest for Best Original Score is a great field this year, with nominees Thomas Newman, Carter Burwell, Ennio Morricone, Johann Johannsson and John Williams. But the Academy’s eligibility rules are somewhat arcane, and questions have been raised about why Morricone’s score for “The Hateful Eight” is eligible, but the music for “The Revenant” is not.

In fact, it’s the second consecutive year that the score for a film by Alejandro G. Iñárritu was deemed ineligible. ("Birdman" composer Antonio Sanchez did recently win a Grammy for best score soundtrack for visual media.)

Oscar Best Score noms

To sort through those questions, The Frame's John Horn spoke with Jim Fusilli,  rock and pop music critic for the Wall Street Journal. He recently wrote the article "Nomination Frustrations at the Oscars."


You open your article by saying that the rules to even qualify in the Oscar running for Best Score is as perplexing to the public as it is for Academy members. You wrote that the Academy’s rule for its music award states that an original score is “written specifically for the motion picture by the submitting composer.” But it isn’t as simple as that, is it? 

It hardly ever happens and it's particularly pronounced this year with Ennio Morricone's score for "The Hateful Eight." 

Morricone had written some music from the 1982 John Carpenter film “The Thing," but some pieces ended up not being used. Either way, it does seem to violate the "written specifically for the motion picture" rule. 

The rules are on the Oscars website. It states that the music has to be written for the work that's submitted. In Morricone and Tarantino's defense, one could say, Yes, the music was written in the past but it was never used, so therefore it is new music. But to the general filmgoer, what really matters is the music. 

The Hateful Eight

Let’s talk about  “The Revenant.” It’s a beautiful score and yet it wasn’t nominated because of a confusing technicality. It had too many composers that were attached to the score?

Yeah, not all the music was written by a single composer. Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote most of it and two other composers added additional music and orchestrations. It's very much a Sakamoto piece of music and it's a shame for it to have been disqualified over what seems to me to be an application of the rule that isn't applied to everyone in the same way. This isn't to disparage the work of the other two composers (Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner), who are both excellent, but in the passage of time, this score will always be known as a Sakamoto score. 

The Revenant

By the Academy’s standards, it would seem that the score for “Carol” by Carter Burwell is one of the few that’s unequivocally eligible. And yet, as you said in your Wall Street Journal piece, you think one of the things that makes it so effective is its stark contrast with the 1950s pop songs that appear in the film. This is kind of splitting hairs, but do you think the pop songs have something to do with the impact of the overall score in "Carol?" 

You know, I thought that was the case in "Slumdog Millionaire." 

With A.R. Rahman's music. 

Correct, and I thought that the audience — and probably the Academy members — were so in love with the kind of Indian-pop music that was in that film that they tended to think of it as part of the score, which it is not. I love Carter Burwell's score for "Carol." I think it's so magnificently appropriate for the storytelling, but there are 23 pop songs in that movie and I wonder on balance is there more Burwell music than there is pre-recorded pop music? I'm not sure. 


It also seems like even somebody like John Williams, who has written music for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," is borrowing from himself. There are a lot of cues that are iconic "Star Wars" cues, and some critics argue that a lot of the score for the new film sounds a lot like his old score from the original trilogy.

I think you're right and I don't know how he could have avoided that. Mr. Williams has been very clever in nodding and hinting certain things through his use of music. He said he used about seven minutes of music he had written from his earlier films, but I just can't imagine that movie making as much sense as it does without his music. The emotion of the scene is carried by his music. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This whole conversation make me wonder what, exactly, is the Academy honoring in this category of Best Score? What is the point of this award? 

Over the years, I've had the pleasure of spending time with most of the Oscar-nominated film composers and they all say, The sole purpose of the score is to amplify the film. I can't think of a composer who ever said to me, Yeah, when I was writing this film's score, I did want to clarify story and amplify character, but actually I was thinking about the CD that would come out afterwards. I just don't think those composers think in that way. I think their primary and, perhaps, sole function is to serve the film. 

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