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Movie Music 2008: Oscar-Nominated Scores

Soon, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present its Oscars for the 80th time. But in the category for Best Original Score, there's controversy this year that has nothing to do with the just-concluded writer's strike.

Film-music specialist Andy Trudeau has been breaking down the nominations for Weekend Edition Sunday for the last 12 years. He joins Liane Hansen to talk about the newest wrinkle in the proceedings.

For this year's awards, the Academy made a rule change prohibiting studios from sending soundtracks to Oscar voters. As Trudeau understands it, the move was made so that voters make their decisions based on how the music works only within the context of the film.

"I really think this is a mistake," Trudeau says. "I think the best film music not only serves its film, but it has qualities that are rich enough to open up when you hear it again and again and again. And I think it's those kinds of scores that are the ones the Oscars should be honoring."

Trudeau discusses the merits of each of the five nominated scores, noting that this year's soundtracks are especially strong. After he's done, he submits his pick: the score to Atonement, written by Dario Marinelli.

"I think it's a wonderful irony that the year the Academy bans sending copies [of the score] to the voters, we get such a batch of nominations," Trudeau says.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There is some controversy about this year's Oscars which has nothing to do with the just concluded writer's strike. Here to talk about that little tempest, and to guide us through the nominations for Best Original Score is Andy Trudeau, who's been handling that chore for us for 12 Oscar seasons.

Andy, welcome back.

ANDY TRUDEAU: Hey, Liane.

HANSEN: What's got you so steamed?

TRUDEAU: Well, anyone who's talked to me for more than two minutes about film music knows that I believe very much that great film scores can stand on their own.

Well, the Academy seems to feel otherwise. This year it has a new regulation that prohibits studios from providing copies of the score to any voting members during the balloting for the score.

The thinking seems to be they only want it evaluated in the context of the film. I really think this is a mistake. I think the best film music not only serves its film but it has qualities that are rich enough to open up when you hear it again and again and again. And I think it's those kinds of scores that are the ones the Oscars should be honoring.

HANSEN: It doesn't keep them from sending out the soundtrack to people like you and me, though. It's just people who are voting?

TRUDEAU: Just the voting members, right.

HANSEN: All right. Well, we'll keep what you just said in mind that the music should be taken on its own as we sample from the five nominated scores this year. And we're going to go alphabetically in terms of film. The first film up is "Atonement" and the score is by Dario Marinelli.

TRUDEAU: He's an Italian composer working mostly in Great Britain. He's been scoring film since '94. We've talked about him before. He did the score to "Pride and Prejudice" two years ago. He's a composer. He mixes a romantic outlook with a modern composer's tools in this particular score, which is a romantic story with tragic overtones.

Central to one of the characters is the sound of a typewriter. And it's the tapping sound that becomes a musical element in his score, which he blends with instruments and then alters sometimes electronically. Here's a sample:

(Soundbite of "Atonement" score)

TRUDEAU: That's the altered sound. Here comes the typewriter. He thinks of it as a keyboard instrument.

(Soundbite of "Atonement" score)

TRUDEAU: Just for the record, the composer says he used a 1930 Corona typewriter. This is a wonderful score, rich with invention and ideas. Here's an excerpt I really like. It involves the orchestra and a soldier's chorus. When this section begins each is going in its own melodic direction. But as it progresses the orchestra slides under the chorus and becomes accompaniment to it.

(Soundbite of "Atonement" score)

TRUDEAU: Chorus going in one direction, orchestra going in another direction.

(Soundbite of "Atonement" score)

TRUDEAU: I love it.

(Soundbite of "Atonement" score)

TRUDEAU: It's a small point, but one I think even in the context of a movie could easily be missed.

HANSEN: We've been listening to some selections by Dario Marinelli for the Joe Wright film "Atonement."

Next nominee for Best Original Score is music for "The Kite Runner" by Alberto Iglesias.

TRUDEAU: He's a Spanish composer - very active in Europe - and writing film music since 1984. We have previously encountered him here with his score for "The Constant Gardener," which had an African setting. He seems to be the one to call when you want a score that will combine the dramatic power of a Western symphony orchestra with the exotic colorings of a non-Western culture.

He does this very cleverly. He treats those local instruments as part of the orchestra. Now, listen in this cue how he moves very smoothly from a Western guitar to a Persian dulcimer.

(Soundbite of "The Kite Runner" score)

TRUDEAU: There's our guitar. Got a little Indian percussion in the background.

(Soundbite of "The Kite Runner" score)

TRUDEAU: Here's our dulcimer.

(Soundbite of "The Kite Runner" score)

TRUDEAU: And now they play a soft duet together.

(Soundbite of "The Kite Runner" score)

TRUDEAU: This is a score just filled with wonderful moments that really come out when you can just listen to the score. And there are times really you just want to kick back and listen as the composer weaves the various threads together. This is a cue just to listen and enjoy as it bubbles along.

(Soundbite of "The Kite Runner" score)

TRUDEAU: Just listen to the different layers of sound going on here.

(Soundbite of "The Kite Runner" score)

TRUDEAU: Guitar's going to rise up in the mix.

(Soundbite of "The Kite Runner" score)

TRUDEAU: Now, listen carefully. You're going to hear a voice slide in there too.

(Soundbite of "The Kite Runner" score)

HANSEN: Oh, really creates an interesting ambience.

TRUDEAU: Absolutely, absolutely.

HANSEN: We've been listening to excerpts from the score for "The Kite Runner" by Alberto Iglesias, one of five soundtracks nominated for this year's Best Original Score Oscar.

Now, we're going to move from drama in Afghanistan to drama in the corporate world. We're going to listen to some of James Newton Howard's work from "Michael Clayton."

TRUDEAU: An American composer. We've heard him before. He did the score to "The Village" previously nominated here. Yes, we've talked about that.

This score really had a problem, I think, for the composer. It tackles a difficult task of coloring a dark movie that's driven more by ideas and character than by action or setting. This score operates on a very low level in terms of lots of things happening low down in the sonic spectrum if you will.

It lives in a suspenseful world of small changes and very dark colorings, and here's a prime example:

(Soundbite of "Michael Clayton" score)

TRUDEAU: Everything's down.

(Soundbite of "Michael Clayton" score)

HANSEN: Has that thriller…

TRUDEAU: Yes.

HANSEN: …sort of aspect to it.

TRUDEAU: Get that pattern in your mind. He's going to switch it over to percussion after the end of the phrase.

(Soundbite of "Michael Clayton" score)

TRUDEAU: Switch.

(Soundbite of "Michael Clayton" score)

TRUDEAU: And then it walks us out.

(Soundbite of "Michael Clayton" score)

HANSEN: Some dark and suspenseful music from "Michael Clayton." The composer, James Newton Howard.

To the fourth nominee this year for Best Dramatic Score Oscar - and I don't know if I'm speaking an oxymoron here, but we're Best Dramatic Score Oscar for "Ratatouille" by Michael Giacchino.

TRUDEAU: This is a first nomination for an American composer who self describes himself as a film geek.

HANSEN: Uh-huh.

TRUDEAU: He feels very strongly that music has the ability to tell a story. This is cartoon music; lots of quick changes. Statements are made with exclamation points and here subtlety is not necessarily a virtue.

Listen to this opening cue, and I don't think you'll have any trouble figuring out where the film is set.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

(Soundbite of laughter)

TRUDEAU: Now, here's come a quick change.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

TRUDEAU: And for the atmosphere…

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

TRUDEAU: …a little French accordion.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

TRUDEAU: This is music that throughout the score is very inventive, witty and, heck, even intelligent.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

TRUDEAU: Giacchino uses whatever he thinks will make the right sound so the instrumentation is all across the board on this score. This particular cue features a guitar, a whistler and a harmonica.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

TRUDEAU: Got your pucker ready?

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

TRUDEAU: I think this gives you a feeling of the fun that's in this score.

HANSEN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

TRUDEAU: Now, just a touch of the accordion.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

TRUDEAU: And he'll hand it over to the harmonica.

(Soundbite of "Ratatouille" score)

TRUDEAU: It's a score that's just full of surprises.

HANSEN: Oh, I love it. It's a little bit reminiscent of Grappeli(ph) violin bistro.

TRUDEAU: Yes. Claude Bowling's in there too, yes.

HANSEN: Yeah. Fascinating. Portions of Michael Giacchino's music to "Ratatouille," the fourth of five soundtracks nominated this year for an original score Oscar.

And finally number five we have a Western. "3:10 to Yuma," music by Michael Beltrami.

TRUDEAU: Another American composer. Today's Westerns are either going to lean towards Aaron Copland and Elmer Bernstein or towards Ennio Morricone. Listen to this cue and I bet you you'll have no trouble knowing which way Beltrami is leaning.

(Soundbite of "3:10 to Yuma" score)

HANSEN: That's a Morricone signature.

TRUDEAU: I think we're serving spaghetti today, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of "3:10 to Yuma" score)

TRUDEAU: Yeah, very much Morricone being channeled, I think, in this score here. This is another score though that is filled with a number of very interesting little touches. For one example, here's a sound Beltrami gets by tying together this strings of a piano with fish wire and then strumming them. This cue opens with a solo guitar.

(Soundbite of "3:10 to Yuma" score)

TRUDEAU: Electronic wash there.

(Soundbite of "3:10 to Yuma" score)

TRUDEAU: There's our strumming.

(Soundbite of "3:10 to Yuma" score)

HANSEN: I could've sworn I heard some "Midnight Cowboy" in there somewhere, of course. Well, that was music from Marco Beltrami's score for "3:10 to Yuma."

And the nominees for Best Original Score: "Atonement," "The Kite Runner," "Michael Clayton," "Ratatouille," and "3:10 to Yuma."

Andy, we do this every year. Which one gets your vote?

TRUDEAU: Well, I hope all the listeners agree that there's some very interesting music to be found by listening through into the score. And I think it's a wonderful irony that the year the Academy bans sending copies to the voters we get such a batch of nominations.

For me, the one I think this year I'll be returning to again and again is Dario Marinelli's "Atonement."

HANSEN: Andy Trudeau has been with us for the past 12 years to talk about the nominees in the Best Original Film Score category. The academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce the recipient of the gold Oscar at the 80th annual awards ceremonies tonight.

And, always, Andy, thank you so much.

TRUDEAU: It's great fun, Liane.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can find more of Andy Trudeau's features on film music on our music Web site, npr.org/music.

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

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