In Oscar Nominations For Best Score, Some Hear Sour Notes

Feb 22, 2015
Originally published on February 23, 2015 6:46 pm

The movie Birdman is favored to pick up several major Academy Awards Sunday night, but it will not be taking home the Oscar for best original score. That's because it was declared ineligible for Oscar consideration.

Birdman has one of the year's more distinctive musical scores, propelled by the unaccompanied jazz drumming of Antonio Sanchez, a bandleader and longtime drummer for guitarist Pat Metheny.

It's Sanchez's first film score. To create it, director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu asked him to improvise along with rough footage of the scenes. After as many as 60 or 70 takes, Sanchez recorded the final score.

Sanchez says he never gave a thought to awards until the nominations started rolling in. On the same day he was nominated for a Golden Globe award, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences informed him that his score had been declared ineligible for Oscar consideration because the soundtrack used too much music by other composers, including Mahler and Tchaikovsky.

" 'Scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music,' that's the exact phrasing of the rule," says Jon Burlingame, who writes about TV and film music for Variety and teaches film history at the University of Southern California.

Burlingame says eligibility for the Oscar is determined by a small group known as the executive committee of the academy's Music Branch. "In this case," he says, "they clearly felt the classical selections were just too much to overcome."

Birdman producers appealed, but the academy stood its ground. It declined to comment for this story.

This is not the first time it's excluded an acclaimed score for the same reason. The music branch disqualified the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood for the 2007 film There Will Be Blood.

Birdman composer Antonio Sanchez says the whole process strikes him as arbitrary. "To me, it seems like they have very strict rules that they seem to bend," he says.

Consider the score for The King's Speech. It was nominated for the Oscar in 2010, despite using Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in the movie's most important scene.

Even academy members concede the rules are a little murky. "It's art," says Daniel Carlin, a former executive board member of the music branch. "We're trying to make business rules about art, and that's a difficult thing to define."

Carlin says the rules exist to make sure Oscar voters don't confuse an original score with licensed music in the soundtrack. "I don't mean to say that the average voter couldn't tell the difference between drums and Mahler," he says.

The question, he says, is when they leave the theater and think about a soundtrack, "Are they including the Mahler and Tchaikovsky — is that part of the reason they thought it was a terrific score? And if it is, it shouldn't be eligible."

Carlin insists academy voters are open to new sounds. The synthesizer-driven score for The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won the Oscar in 2011.

But is the music branch more likely to bend its rules for a traditional, orchestral score? Maybe. "The music branch, it's really comprised of aging, old white guys," Carlin concedes. "And we harken back to the Bernard Herrmanns and other great composers who sit down with a blank piece of paper and create these things out of their heads."

That is little consolation to Birdman composer Sanchez. He'll be watching the Oscars at home Sunday night like the rest of us, when the pit orchestra plays somebody else's winning score.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The movie "Birdman" is favored to pick up several major Academy Awards tonight. But it will not take home the Oscar for best musical score. That's because it was declared ineligible for Oscar consideration. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, its composer is in good company.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The camera in "Birdman" swoops through the hallways of a rundown Broadway theater propelled by the drumming of Antonio Sanchez. Sanchez is a bandleader and drummer for guitarist Pat Metheny. This is first film score.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM SCORE, "BIRDMAN")

ROSE: To create it, director Alejandra Gonzalez Inarritu asked Sanchez to improve along with rough footage of the scenes.

ANTONIO SANCHEZ: We must have done 60 or 70 different takes. Then they actually used them on the set to rehearse and to shoot.

ROSE: Then Sanchez recorded the final score.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM SCORE, "BIRDMAN")

ROSE: Sanchez says he never gave a thought to awards until the nominations started rolling in.

SANCHEZ: The day I got nominated for the Golden Globe, that's the day we got a letter from the Academy.

ROSE: Saying the score had been declared ineligible for Oscar consideration because the soundtrack used too much prerecorded music by other composers, including Mahler and Tchaikovsky.

JOHN BURLINGAME: Scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music. That's the exact phrasing of the rule.

ROSE: John Burlingame writes about TV and film music for Variety and teaches film history at the University of Southern California. Burlingame says eligibility for the Oscar is determined by a small group known as the executive committee of the academy's Music Branch.

BURLINGAME: It's how they feel when they see the film. And in the case of "Birdman," they clearly felt that the classical selections were just too much to overcome.

ROSE: "Birdman" producers appealed, but the Academy stood its ground. It declined to comment for this story. This is not the first time it's excluded an acclaimed for the same reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM SCORE, "THERE WILL BE BLOOD")

ROSE: The Music Branch disqualified the score for the film "There Will Be Blood" by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. "Birdman" composer Antonio Sanchez says the whole process strikes him as arbitrary.

SANCHEZ: To me, it seems like they have very strict rules that they seem to bend.

ROSE: Consider the score for "The King's Speech."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM SCORE, "THE KING'S SPEECH")

COLIN FIRTH: (As King George VI) This is to this, I preface that I now call my people...

ROSE: That score was nominated for the Oscar despite the fact that the movie uses Beethoven's 7th in its most important scene. Even Academy members concede the rules are a little murky.

DANIEL CARLIN: It's art, you know, and so we're trying to make business rules about art. And that's a really difficult thing to define.

ROSE: Daniel Carlin teaches at USC's Thornton School of Music, and he's also a former member of the executive board of the academy's Music Branch. Carlin says the rules are there to make sure that Oscar voters don't confuse an original score with licensed music in the soundtrack.

CARLIN: I don't mean to say that the average voter couldn't tell the difference between drums and Mahler. The question is are they including the Mahler and the Tchaikovsky - is that part of the reason why they thought it was a terrific score? And if it is, it shouldn't be eligible.

ROSE: Carlin insists academy voters are open to new sounds. Take the synthesizer-driven score for "The Social Network" by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which won the Oscar in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM SCORE, "THE SOCIAL NETWORK")

ROSE: But is the Music Branch more likely to bend its rules for a traditional orchestral score? Carlin says maybe.

CARLIN: The Music Branch, it's really comprised of aging, old white guys. And we hearken back to the Bernard Herrmanns and other great composers who sit down with a blank piece of paper and create these things out of their heads.

ROSE: That is little consolation to "Birdman" composer Antonio Sanchez. He'll be watching the Oscars at home tonight like the rest of us when the pit orchestra plays somebody else's winning score. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.