Keeping the Score: A Look Back At Oscar-Winning Soundtracks

Feb 24, 2017

Two of the most buzzed about films of 2016, Moonlight and La La Land, have garnered a collective 22 Academy Award nominations between them, including nods for Best Original Score.

On the surface, the music couldn’t be more different: The soundtrack for Moonlight is an amalgam of classical piano, strings, and hip-hop chopped and screwed techniques; while La La Land offers a modern yet starry-eyed homage to Hollywood’s golden age of musicals.

Together, though, with fellow Best Score nominees Jackie, Lion and Passengers, they carry on an indispensable tradition of storytelling through music. The Academy has been awarding gold statues for Best Original Score since 1934, and on Sunday night, they’ll award another.

Here’s a look at a few of this year's nominees, and a few of the winners over the past 80 years:

2016 (Nominee): Moonlight, Nicholas Britell

2016 (Nominee): La La Land, Justin Hurwitz

2013: Gravity, Steven Price 

There’s probably nothing more awe-inspiring and utterly terrifying than floating in open space, and Price deftly captures both emotions with his atmospheric score. In one of the most anxiety (and motion sickness) provoking scenes in recent decades, Price underscores the terrifying moment when space-walking astronauts are caught in a storm of orbital debris. During the final credits, a soaring voice cascades over an orchestra; a sonification of the human will to survive, even in the harshest of environments. 

2006: Atonement, Dario Marianelli

In a film all about the lifelong repercussions of even the smallest choices, audiences see one of Atonement's main characters living out one of those heavy consequences on the beaches of WWII era Dunkirk. As the single, 5 1/2 minute shot sweeps over the beach, thousands of emotionally and physically battled soldiers are seen awaiting evacuation. Marianelli provides the heart-wrenching score, with the help of the English Chamber Orchestra and cellist Caroline Dale. One particularly poignant moment weaves Marianelli's original harmonies with the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," sung onscreen by a choir of soldiers: 

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

The music is most powerful with the imagery of the scene, but comes with a content and language warning.

1991: Beauty and The Beast, Alan Menken

The 90's were a good decade for Alan Menken, who also took home the Best Score prize the year prior for his work on 1990's Aladdin, and again in 1995 for Pocahontas. Menken continues his collaboration with Disney and has returned to score the 2017 live action reimagining of Beauty and Beast, due in theaters next month. 

1985: Out of Africa, John Barry

Meryl Streep and Robert Redford play almost-lovers in Out of Africa, a narrative riddled with a marriage of convenience, adultery, a nasty case of syphilis, and, of course, an unrequited romance. English composer John Barry's emotional score — and particularly the famous musical moment in which Streep and Redford fly over the vast countryside in a biplane — is lush and gorgeous. Still, the film (which won seven total Oscars, including Best Picture) and the memoir from which it was adapted have been criticized for being part of the white romanticized portrayal of colonialism

1977: Star Wars, John Williams 

Creating a list of award-winning scores without including John Williams would be remiss, since the composer has earned a whopping 45 Oscar nominations over the course of his career — more than any other Academy-nominated composer. His Star Wars soundtrack, with its Wagnerian leitmotifs and nods to Romantic classical idioms, is said to have heralded the revival of grand symphonic film scores.

1959: Ben-Hur, Miklós Rózsa

The Hungarian Rózsa lived what he called a "double life," writing both classical concert music as well as nearly a hundred film scores. Ben-Hur is considered some of his best work, and is also the longest film score ever composed for a motion picture; of the over three hours of music that Rózsa crafted, over two-and-a-half hours of it appears in the film. 

1939: Wizard of Oz, Herbert Stothart

As the era of silent films came to a close at the end of the 1920s, Wisconsin-born Stothart signed a contract with MGM studios, where he spent the next several decades as one of Hollywood's most elite film composers. Imagining the beloved Wizard of Oz  without music is nearly impossible, and the film took home trophies for both Stothart's original score and Best Original Song, for Harold Arlen and Yip Harbug's cinematic gem "Over the Rainbow." 

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