By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 19, 2013 at 2:30PM
The Oscar-contending music scores are particularly strong this year, given the propelling theme of survival and reinvention. Among the standouts are "Gravity," "All Is Lost," "The Book Thief," "Philomena," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," and "Prisoners." Even original songs have spiritual uplift, including "Let It Go" ("Frozen"), Cold Play's "Atlas" ("The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"), U2's "Ordinary Love" ("Mandela"), and Ed Sheeran's "I See Fire" ("The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug").
With "Gravity," Steven Price's unusual, subsonic score (sans percussion and conventional orchestration) was part of the immersive sound design that emphasized contact through vibrations and putting us right there in space with Sandra Bullock.
"The music needed to have an expanded role," Price says. "You feel what the characters hear through their suits and sounds coming through vibrations, which meant traditional sound design didn't exist. Alfonso [Cuaron] wanted to express sounds through tonal things and through music so the sound became part of the composing process in that respect. The score had to carry the emotional journey but also tonally express what you might expect to be sound in any other sort of environment."
For "All Is Lost," the experience was high output but gentle reduction for Alexander Ebert. The first piece he wrote at the piano was "Excelsior," which eventually became the main theme featuring alto flute. For the water motif, he used acoustic guitar, and the strong influence of Ennio Morricone also found its way into the score.
"That one night was the beginning of a six-month journey," Ebert explains, "but what was interesting was that first intuition really ended up being the through line. It was written as a relatively fast-paced waltz, but as soon as I saw the picture, the whole thing become slow and subtle."
"The Book Thief" comes out of nowhere as one of John Williams' most quietly powerful scores in years. For instance, the main title, "One Small Fact," contains a joyful use of piano that carries it along. The dean of film composers says he uses the lyricism to override the pervasive darkness of this Holocaust story narrated by Death yet told from a child's perspective. Better to create a world filled with reading and writing than bombs falling on small towns, according to Williams.
With "Philomena," Alexandre Desplat delivers a restrained and elegant score, inspired by Judi Dench's performance, comprised primarily of a carnival waltz that reflects Philomena's generous spirit and undying faith as she searches for the son that was forcibly taken away from her.
"The movie starts with this scene in the fairground and we hear in the background an organ playing a tune and that's mine," Desplat explains. "When this melody comes back, I'm not sure anyone has noticed that it was in the fairground. Never mind -- it's there, subliminally played. And that's how I've tailored the score with this theme recurring here and there, orchestrated in a way that reminds us of the fairground sound with little recorders and strings."