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Conversations With the 2024 Oscar Best Original Song and Score Nominees

Mr. Nimbus | 02/13/2024

The nominees for best original song and score discuss soundtracking, and defining, a movie’s biggest moments.

Songs

Two tracks from Barbie are competing for best original song at the 2024 Academy Awards. The Greta Gerwig blockbuster is the first film to have two best song nominees since La La Land seven years ago. Plus: Oscar perennial Diane Warren was nominated for best original song for the 15th time — a benchmark that only five other songwriters have reached.

“I’m Just Ken”
Barbie (Warner Bros.)
Music and lyrics by Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt

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Five years after winning for “Shallow” from A Star Is Born, Ronson and Wyatt are back with this comic highlight from the year’s top box-office hit.

What direction did you get from Barbie director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach?

Mark Ronson: They’re like, “If we’re going to have something for Barbie, then we need something that speaks from Ken’s point of view.” That’s the amazing thing about this film: It definitely is a story driven by women. But there is this wonderful little offshoot of this story of Ken — somebody who’s not as smart or as enlightened as Barbie trying to find their self-worth and value. So I just had an idea [of] what the song should be. And then when we saw the first marketing campaign, like, “She’s everything, he’s just Ken,” we were like, “Wow, they’re really doubling down on this song.”

You and Andrew Wyatt co-wrote another song that was vying for a nomination, Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night,” but Oscar rules state that no more than two songs from a film can be nominated. Is that bittersweet?

Ronson: It is because Dua’s song is still the biggest song from the soundtrack and Dua was really the first artist of anywhere near her stature that committed to the film. It really set the bar for what the whole soundtrack could be. So Dua definitely deserves all the credit for that, and it would have been lovely to have her as well.

“It Never Went Away”
American Symphony (Netflix)
Music and lyrics by Jon Batiste and Dan Wilson

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Batiste, who won the best original score Oscar in 2021 for Soul, stars in this moving documentary about his composing a symphony and receiving 11 Grammy nominations while dealing with his wife’s recurring leukemia. Semisonic’s Wilson has previously written with Adele, Taylor Swift and The Chicks.

Did you originally write this as a lullaby to your wife, Suleika?

Jon Batiste: Yes. She is a best-selling author and couldn’t put pen to paper because the medication blurred her vision badly, so she began to paint and I began to write lullabies. These lullabies were meant for her to go to sleep easier and have peace in the hospital. They were never meant to be released publicly. One of the themes of our relationship is creativity as an act of survival.

Why did you bring in Dan Wilson to co-write?

Batiste: His ability to sit with artists in their most personal and vulnerable moments and not usurp or influence the authenticity of the expression. I like to have a mirror — I felt that collaboration space would be sacred.

Dan, Jon obviously felt you were a kindred spirit.

Dan Wilson: When “Closing Time” was coming out, my first daughter was in the hospital the entire year … I felt I could understand what it’s like to have your most glorious musical successes accompanied by personal difficulty.

“What Was I Made For?”
Barbie (Warner Bros.)
Music and lyrics by Billie Eilish, FINNEAS

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This is the sibling duo’s second nomination following a nod and ultimate win in 2022 with their sweeping James Bond track, “No Time To Die.” “What Was I Made For?” was made with a specific purpose in mind: to become a pinnacle song in the Barbie film. The hit also won song of the year at the Grammys.

How did this nomination feel different from your first?

FINNEAS: Because we were on tour last time, this has been our first time attending the Critics Choice Awards and the [Golden] Globes. So this whole season I’ve been buzzing more.

How do TV and film awards shows compare to a music awards show?

FINNEAS: I do joke that when you go to the Grammys, they’re like, “One minute back from commercial,” and everyone’s up and talking and climbing over chairs. And you’re at the Oscars and they’re like, “30 seconds,” and everyone’s already in their seat waiting silently. It’s a room full of people with a real understanding of being live.

How did you balance this song being so specific to Barbie yet so universally felt?

FINNEAS: The goal is always to do that: to write something about the human experience. And the way that you do that is to examine the humanity of the character, however far-fetched and fantastical the story is … We haven’t all been Barbies, but the first time anything good [or] bad happens to you, you go through it with this naiveté. We were trying to write about how devastating it is to feel anything for the first time.

“The Fire Inside”
Flamin’ Hot (Hulu/Searchlight Pictures)
Music and lyrics by Diane Warren

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The title of Warren’s latest Oscar contender — her seventh in a row — can be interpreted two ways. On one level, it refers to the burning sensation one would get from eating too many Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (the snack food concocted by the movie’s subject, Richard Montañez). But that “fire inside” can also refer to inner drive, something Warren has in abundance.

I like the title’s double meaning.

Diane Warren: The song’s really about passion. As I was writing it, I’m thinking, “I’m like that, too.” I’m the person always having to convince people and fight for what I believe in. I’ve always been a self-starter. I’m pretty persistent. This is kind of my theme song, too, I have to say.

Of your 15 nominated songs, 10 — including this one — scored the film’s only nomination.

Warren: I am always the little underdog, which I love. Maybe it’s weird for some people to see me as that, but I have to fight for a lot of stuff. Even with this song, I kind of did this on my own. It was the only Disney song that got through [to a nomination]. They had some pretty big movies — The Little Mermaid and Wish — that they spent a lot of money on. And this little song got through.

“Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)”
Killers of the Flower Moon (Apple Original Films/Paramount Pictures)
Music and lyrics by Scott George

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George has already made history, becoming the first Native American to land an Oscar nomination for best original song with the Osage Tribal Singers for “Wahzhazhe,” a celebratory song that soundtracks the film’s final scene.

You’ve said your life is defined by music. What song defines this moment now?

Scott George: That’s kind of why we made [this song]. We didn’t want [it to] just be for the movie. Because that, to us, felt like a death sentence. So our intention was to create something that they could use in a movie, but we could also use later to honor our people in celebration.

What was the biggest challenge throughout this process?

George: Trying to submit [the song] to the Oscars. None of our music is written down. It’s all held on to by memory. But one of the submission requirements was that it would be in a written form. And I just happen to know a person that took that on several years back as part of his education … And so he used that recorder that you got to take home in elementary school to find all the notes and write it all out. Within three to four days, he had it finished, and we got it submitted in time.

Sound, Oscars Music Preview, Robbie Robertson, Margot Robbie and Rhea Perlman in Barbie, Scott George and Ludwig Göransson.

Clockwise from top: Robbie Robertson, Margot Robbie and Rhea Perlman in Barbie, Scott George and Ludwig Göransson.

Illustration by Klawe Rzeczy; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; John Phillips/Getty Images; Stephen Lovekin/Variety; Lara Cornell/Warner Bos./Courtesy Everett Collection

Scores

John Williams received his 49th Oscar nomination for best original score, and his 54th overall, which pulls him closer to Walt Disney’s all-time record of 59 nods for an individual. Robbie Robertson, who died in August, is the first composer to be posthumously nominated in this category since Bernard Herrmann was cited 47 years ago for both Obsession and Taxi Driver.

American Fiction
Laura Karpman (Orion Pictures/Amazon MGM Studios)

Karpman, a Primetime Emmy winner in 2020 who is up for her first Oscar for the score to the Cord Jefferson-directed satirical tale, says the nomination is “a validation on so many levels.”

Was it a given that the score would be jazz-oriented since Jeffrey Wright’s character is named Thelonious and nicknamed “Monk”?

Laura Karpman: It was a mandate because of the obvious reference to Monk, but it goes deeper than that. There’s something jazzy about the interplay between the cast members. It’s fast, it’s smart, it’s talky. It works. It’s not just that it was “Monk.” It felt like the right vibe in terms of the rhythms of the action.

You were scoring The Marvels at the same time. Did that creep into this score at all?

Karpman: There’s a really amazing young [flutist], Elena Pinderhughes, and I had the idea of using her for the sound of the villain in The Marvels and I thought, “How perfect. Let’s use a flute as one of the lead instruments in American Fiction.”

The score, including the two main themes, “Monk’s Theme” and “Family Theme,” was composed on your father’s newly restored piano, which you had just gotten back that day.

Karpman: It was the first time I played the piano since it had been restored. I was improvising and came up with the “Family Theme.” For sure, my dad came through that thing. It flowed out of the piano into my hands and back out again. It was weird.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
John Williams (Disney)

Williams, who lands his 54th total Oscar nomination, scored the fifth and last installment of the Indiana Jones series and will be vying for his sixth Oscar.

You previously said you may just do the movie’s themes. What made you change your mind and do the entire film?

John Williams: When I saw the film, I loved both Harrison [Ford] and Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] so much that I became proprietary and didn’t want anybody else to write music for them. Their performances were simply so good that I couldn’t resist.

“Helena’s Theme” is timeless. How did that piece come about?

Williams: The film is set in the 1960s, and Phoebe inspired me to recall the movie sirens of the ’30s and ’40s such as Lauren Bacall and Lana Turner. Helena was a woman who smoked, drank, gambled and had countless adventures, all the while looking breathtakingly beautiful, just like the great femme fatales of yesteryear.

This was your fifth Indiana Jones movie. How did it feel knowing this would be the final chapter?

Williams: I’ve always loved Harrison in all the films he has made, and I’ve been particularly privileged to accompany so many of them with music, among them Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Presumed Innocent and Sabrina. It has always been an honor working with such a great actor, and I have both my friends George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to thank for this great opportunity.

Poor Things
Jerskin Fendrix (Searchlight Pictures)

Musician Fendrix had never worked on a film prior to Poor Things — and director Yorgos Lanthimos had never worked on a film with a composer. And yet, both emerged better for it, as the film’s score earned Fendrix his first Oscar nod.

How did you find out about your nomination?

Jerskin Fendrix: I was by myself in the countryside. I’d gone back to my home to do some recording, and then I had a look and then a lot of people called me. And then my mom came home from work, and [we] had some nice champagne. It was great.

This was a surprising opportunity. How did you prepare?

Fendrix: We didn’t want any references. This had to be a really unique world, very special and exclusive to itself. I deliberately didn’t watch anything for quite a while and didn’t think about other film scores or any other music — I tried to have a look around and see what was already in my head.

You started composing just off the script, is that right?

Fendrix: I also had this very big, 200-page document of all the concept artworks: the set and costume designs and what the sky was going to look like and so on. So I had a good sense of how exuberant and how kaleidoscopic the whole thing looked. And that was very important for knowing what instruments I would choose, what textures I wanted, especially because up until this point, Yorgos’ films have been slightly more sober in their palette. So I was kind of surprised at how bright and insane everything looked. And I did ask, and he said that it’ll be pared down by the time we get to shooting — and it wasn’t.

Sound, Oscars Music Preview, Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon, Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer and Emma Stone in Poor Things

From left: Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon, Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer and Emma Stone in Poor Things.

Illustration by Klawe Rzeczy; Melinda Sue Gordon; Atsushi Nishijima

Killers of the Flower Moon
Robbie Robertson (Apple Original Films/Paramount Pictures)

This was the 12th and last Martin Scorsese film that Robertson worked on. Robertson, who died in August at age 80, is the first composer to be nominated in this category posthumously since Bernard Herrmann 47 years ago for both Obsession and Taxi Driver.

What did you have in mind for the score initially – what emotions did you want to evoke?

Martin Scorsese: Over the years, Robbie and I had figured out how to communicate with each other — we found a common language. For the scene with the oil gusher, I told Robbie that I wanted a gusher of sound, and that’s what he delivered. For the scene where Lily gets into Leo’s cab for the first time, I said that I wanted something dangerous and fleshy, and he gave me something dangerous and fleshy — and in so doing, he gave us a rhythm and a texture that became the heartbeat of the whole picture.

How does this nomination honor Robbie’s legacy?

Scorsese: I know that Killers of the Flower Moon meant a great deal to Robbie, for many reasons. I suppose we both realized that it might be our last chance to collaborate on a picture. And then there was the fact that it was a story set in the world of the First Nations, reflecting one of the worst chapters in the long history of suffering, injustice, real tragedy. As Robbie grew older, his Mohawk and Cayuga heritage became more and more important to him. Because of our friendship, along with other more personal reasons, it became important to me, too, that we work together on a project that dealt with that terrible history and at the same time brought indigenous culture itself, in this case Osage culture, to cinematic life, so to speak. So for us, on many levels, it was a culmination. Robbie’s score is one of the most beautiful in the history of movies.

As for his greater legacy as an artist, his entire body of work speaks for itself. He was a giant. He still is.

Oppenheimer
Ludwig Göransson (Universal)

Göransson, who won this category in 2019 for Black Panther, has already taken home a Golden Globe and a Grammy for his often tense score for Christopher Nolan’s epic about the primary creator of the atomic bomb.

Had you and Nolan developed a shorthand from working previously on his 2020 film, Tenet?

Ludwig Göransson: We were able to enter this film on speed 10, which was needed because there’s a lot to go through. I started writing music based on the script and talking about the characters and the feelings. We were creating our sound world before we started shooting the film.

Your wife, Serena McKinney, plays violin on the score.

Göransson: When the main theme came together, a big part of that was her performance of the melody on the violin, how intimate and fragile that sounded. When I sent that to Chris, the performance really resonated with him and with me, too, so [it] was a huge turning point.

You approached this through J. Robert Oppenheimer’s eyes. How heavy was that for you?

Göransson: It’s a very complex character, and he goes through some very interesting but also at times very dark places. To try to get those emotions out definitely was very challenging.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2024, issue of Billboard.

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus




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