John Powell is nominated for the Best Original Score Academy Award, for his work on How to Train Your Dragon.
Last year's Best Picture Oscar may gone to a gritty tale amid the Iraq war (The Hurt Locker), but Michael Giacchino's winning score for Up had nothing but smiles.
That was last year. Now, we've got five new works in the running for Best Original Score. On the eve of the Academy Awards telecast, here's a breakdown of the competition.
John Powell, How to Train Your Dragon
How to Train Your Dragon is a Dreamworks animated adventure. It also represents the first trip to the Oscar dance for composer John Powell, whose credits include Shrek, United 93 and Green Zone. His budget here allowed for a full-sized orchestra, and Powell knows how to use it.
He weaves four principal themes throughout the score, including some Celtic flavor. He's something of a fearless orchestrator, as well: In one spot, he combines a penny whistle and dulcimer; in another, there are 14 bagpipes. At its core, this film is a romantic adventure, and in John Powell, the directors found a composer who could convincingly deliver a grandly heroic theme.
Hans Zimmer, Inception
The next nomination is for Hans Zimmer, who scored the science-fiction suspense film Inception. We talked about him last year when his Sherlock Holmes score was a contender, and he won an Oscar for his 1994 work on The Lion King. With Zimmer, you pretty much know what you're going to get, along with a standard warning to turn down the volume.
Inception is scored for orchestra and electronics. The composer says that he was not allowed to see a rough cut of the picture, and had to write his first draft based solely on the script. He then worked with director Christopher Nolan to fit his ideas into the film. The result is the neat trick of a techno-electronic score with a soul. For Inception, Zimmer does this — at least to my ears — by at times channeling the late John Barry.
Alexandre Desplat, The King's Speech
If you like delicate, sophisticated soundtracks, expertly scored, it's hard not to like Alexandre Desplat. His three previous nominations have been favorites of mine: The Queen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. This time around, it's The King's Speech, about how England's King George VI overcame a stuttering problem.
You have to love Desplat's sinewy melodies. This music was recorded at EMI's Abbey Road studios, where they found and used three vintage microphones owned by the British royal family. To characterize the king's struggles, the composer wrote what he describes as "music [that's] not going forward." He also couldn't ignore some classical selections used in director Tom Hooper's temporary soundtrack, including Beethoven's "Emperor" piano concerto.
Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight
James Franco in 127 Hours. Composer A.R. Rahman is nominated for Best Original Score based on his work for this film.
Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight
A.R. Rahman, 127 Hours
Composer A.R. Rahman won Oscars for both Best Original Music Score and Best Original Song for his 2008 work on Slumdog Millionaire. This year's nomination is for 127 Hours, a psychological survival drama. It's a mostly moody and melancholy, largely electronic score with interesting threads running through it.
The composer says that he connected the film's main character with the sound of the guitar — an instrument that was new to him as a composer. Each of the soundtrack cues containing this guitar music is tagged with the word "Liberation": "Liberation Begins," "Liberation in a Dream" and finally just "Liberation."
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, The Social Network
The last of this year's nominees is the tag team of Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the film The Social Network. It's the first Oscar consideration for each composer; director David Fincher wanted Reznor and wouldn't take no for an answer.
What he got is a predominately bleak ambient soundtrack with faint traces of humanity. There's little continuity in a wildly varied score: For one sequence that's controversial for both cinematic and musical reasons, the composers were told to take Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and give it a Wendy Carlos treatment.
Great films don't come with an expiration date, and I continue to believe that Oscar-winning film scores should be held to the same standard. So this year, voting for the score that I think shows that level of skill and inspiration, I'm casting my ballot for How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell.