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Movie Music 2009: Oscar-Nominated Scores

Sunday night is the night when the 81st Academy Awards will be announced at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. Tucked in among the Oscars for Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Picture will be an important but lesser-known category: Best Original Score. Film-music specialist Andy Trudeau has come in to discuss the nominees every year since the 68th Academy Awards.

The rules for the nominated scores seem to change every year. Last year, studios were told not to send recordings of the nominated scores to Oscar voters — a move Trudeau assumes was made so that voters would make their decisions based on how the music works within the context of the film.

This year, however, sending recordings is acceptable.

"I guess someone decided that hearing the music is a good thing," Trudeau says. "Works for me, but we'll see what happens when Oscar 82 rolls around."

Noticeably absent from this year's list of nominees is the score for The Dark Knight, written mostly by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. The Academy gatekeepers originally counted up the number of composers who had a piece of the score and decided that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. After a second listen, it was determined that Zimmer and Howard wrote enough to make the score eligible for nomination, but the honor was not awarded after all.

Last year, Trudeau's pick for best score (Atonement, written by Dario Marinelli), took home the statuette. We'll find out tonight if his pick — Alexandre Desplat's score for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — has the same success.

"Call me old-fashioned, but if I had a ballot, I'd go for a score with strong melodies, crystalline orchestration; one that takes us on an emotional journey," Trudeau says.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

At the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles tonight, the Academy Awards will be announced. Tucked in among nominees for Best Actor, Actress and Best Picture is our favorite category, Best Original Score. Our guide to the nominations is WEEKEND EDITION commentator Andy Trudeau.

ANDY TRUDEAU: Just like taxes, the rules for the Oscars seem to change every year. Last time, studios were told not to send recordings of the nominated scores to Oscar voters. This year, it's okay. I guess someone decided that hearing the music is a good thing. Works for me, but we'll see what happens when Oscar 82 rolls around.

This year's music alphabet begins with the letter C for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The score is by Frenchman Alexandre Desplat.

(Soundbite of film score, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

TRUDEAU: We last heard from Alexandre Desplat two years ago, when he was nominated for his soundtrack to "The Queen." As a painter in sound, he applies his colors with great care. In almost every cue, you can hear each of the various thematic threads he's weaving together. And when a melody is called for, well, he can melt your heart.

(Soundbite of film score, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

TRUDEAU: For a film about a man whose body grows younger as he grows older, Desplat wrote melodies that could be played both forwards and backwards.

(Soundbite of film score, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

TRUDEAU: A curious case, indeed. Music by Alexandre Desplat for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

This year's Oscar alphabet stops next at the letter D. Now, it could've been for "The Dark Knight," written mostly by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, but the score wasn't nominated - although not for lack of trying. The soundtrack was initially declared ineligible.

The Academy gatekeepers counted up the number of composers who had a piece of the score, and decided that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. It's too bad these folks didn't remember 1939, when the Best Score award went to John Ford's "Stagecoach," and statuettes were handed to four - count them - four composers.

After a second listen to "The Dark Knight," it was determined that Zimmer and Howard wrote enough to make the score eligible for nomination. But it wasn't - nominated, that is. No problem, though, for James Newton Howard, who made it on his own for the picture, "Defiance."

(Soundbite of film score, "Defiance")

TRUDEAU: Howard's been around the block a few times with previous nominations, including "Michael Clayton," "The Village" and "The Fugitive." For a picture set during World War II on the Eastern Front, Howard's score is a model of restraint. Much of the musical argument is in quietly pulsing percussion or low-string registers.

Now, since a pair of Jewish freedom fighters are at the heart of the movie, there's writing for solo violin. Unlike the John Williams score for "Schindler's List," where the fiddle is strongly spotlighted, Howard usually blends it into the texture.

(Soundbite of film score, "Defiance")

TRUDEAU: Just as Yo-Yo Ma has become the designated cellist for quality film scores, so has Joshua Bell become the violinist to call. He performs the solo work for James Newton Howard's "Defiance" soundtrack.

From the letter D, we jump to M for the biopic "Milk." The scoring here's by Danny Elfman, perhaps typecast for those wonderful, will-o-the-wisp themes that he's written for a variety of costumed heroes, from "Batman" to "The Flash" to "Spiderman." When he does get a dramatic film to score, critics tend to take notice.

Two of Elfman's three previous Oscar nominations were for "Big Fish" and "Good Will Hunting." "Milk" gives them another opportunity to show he's not a one-trick pony.

(Soundbite of film score, "Milk")

TRUDEAU: Composer Danny Elfman admitted that scoring the film "Milk" was a tough challenge. He had to create an equivalent in music for the determination shown by the film's subject, California's first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk. He gave it his best effort in a cue titled "Harvey's Theme."

(Soundbite of song, "Harvey's Theme")

TRUDEAU: Danny Elfman's score for "Milk" is traditional in the sense that the music charts an emotional course. There's very little that's traditional about this year's fourth Oscar nominee, "Slumdog Millionaire," with music by A.R. Rahman. Here's a soundtrack that just wants to rock.

(Soundbite of film score, "Slumdog Millionaire")

TRUDEAU: A.R. Rahman is a performer, producer, sound mixer and composer who's got quite a following for his work in India. Not unlike soccer, he's hugely popular everywhere in the world but the United States. "Slumdog Millionaire" is very much a song score, where the tunes provide atmospheric backdrop, and the lyrics sometimes move the plot along.

(Soundbite of song, "O Saya")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) They can't touch me, we break our friends so fast, they can't even touch me. Been that, touch me, I'll show you my zig-zag quickly. Pick up that pack of my journey, don't run, they start to follow me. I'm in a luck, some days they suck. We live by the buck we get for the family. One day I want to be a star, so I get to hang in a bar. I go to Vegas to get the payoff, just to forget my scar.

TRUDEAU: Usually, a film score set in exotic places tries to blend West and East. A.R. Rahman delights in just letting them collide.

(Soundbite of film score, "Slumdog Millionaire")

TRUDEAU: Oh, did I mention that besides Best Score, A.R. Rahman has two songs nominated, as well? Count on hearing a lot of his music tonight.

(Soundbite of film score, "Slumdog Millionaire")

TRUDEAU: This run-through of the 81st Oscar soundtrack alphabet ends at W, with Thomas Newman's music for the Pixar science-fiction tale "Wall-E."

(Soundbite of film score, "Wall-E")

TRUDEAU: Set in a galaxy far, far - well, actually pretty close to home, "Wall-E" is Thomas Newman's first science-fiction score. Now, he's not lacked for previous Oscar nominations, including "The Good German," "Lemony Snicket," "Finding Nemo," "Road to Perdition" and, one of my favorites, "American Beauty." "Wall-E" shows off his wonderful ability to make music out of weird vocal sounds, off-kilter tunings and melodic fragments.

(Soundbite of film score, "Wall-E")

TRUDEAU: Just about everything's in this soundtrack, including the kitchen sink. Here's what sounds to me like a nod to Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther." Can you say robo-muki(ph)?

(Soundbite of film score, "Wall-E")

TRUDEAU: Thomas Newman's "Wall-E" rounds out this year's Oscar nominees for Best Original Score. Also in the hunt are "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," by Alexandre Desplat; "Defiance," by James Newton Howard; "Milk," by Danny Elfman; and "Slumdog Millionaire," by A.R. Rahman.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but if I had a ballot, I'd go for a score with strong melodies, crystalline orchestration, one that takes us on an emotional journey. So, I'm casting my one, non-official vote for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by Alexandre Desplat.

(Soundbite of film score, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

HANSEN: You can hear full tracks from all five Oscar-nominated scores at our Web site, where you can also spend time with NPR music's Stephen Thompson. He'll be blogging during tonight's Oscar ceremony, along with our pop culture blogger, Linda Holmes. You'll find them at NPR.org/Oscars.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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