Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who took the business by storm a couple of years ago — earning an Emmy for Chernobyl and an Oscar for Joker — was back in town recently to discuss her music for Tar and Women Talking. It was a rare opportunity for me to write a cover story for Variety, and while she ultimately missed out on Oscar nominations for both scores, she remains a fascinating personality and a talented composer. Along with the profile, I wrote a sidebar on the role of conductor John Mauceri in helping Todd Field get the musical details right for his Tar screenplay.
Once in a while my editors at Variety will commission an essay on a topic of current interest. They asked for two in December, and I found both fascinating: A long piece looking at the progress, or lack thereof, that women composers have been making in film and TV music; and a second, somewhat lighter in tone, about the current popularity of television themes — mostly on the streaming services — and how they seem to be more memorable lately.
A few years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ music branch — the approximately 400 composers, songwriters and music editors who decide the Oscar nomination slate for songs and scores — returned to an old practice: the “shortlist,” a way of winnowing down the vast number entered (this year, 147 scores and 82 songs) to a manageable few. I follow this process closely and chronicle it for Variety. Here is an early prediction of the score lineup, looking at 22 possibilities; here is my exclusive on the score and song disqualifications; here’s a full list of the songs that were eligible; and here is a quick analysis of the shortlists themselves, announced on Dec. 21. (I had earlier investigated the idea that the Doja Cat song in Elvis might be disqualified — and it was.)
It’s been a wild couple of months doing almost constant live Q&As with composers and songwriters for the current crop of Oscar hopefuls. For the Society of Composers & Lyricists alone there have been nearly a dozen. Some of the more memorable ones have been Tar with composer Hildur Guonadottir and director Todd Field; White Noise with Danny Elfman; Pinocchio with composer Alexandre Desplat and director Guillermo del Toro; The Banshees of Inisherin with Carter Burwell; Glass Onion with Nathan Johnson; A Man Called Otto with composer Thomas Newman and producer-songwriter Rita Wilson; and Spirited with songwriters Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Khiyon Hursey.
Every year, mostly in November and December, Variety asks me to see a nonstop barrage of new movies and interview their composers. This year’s crop included Justin Hurwitz for Babylon, Marcelo Zarvos for Emancipation, Chanda Dancy for Devotion, Nicholas Britell for She Said, Ludwig Goransson for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Hildur Guonadottir for Tar, Terence Blanchard for The Woman King, Michael Abels for Nope, Benjamin Wallfisch for Thirteen Lives, and Michael Giacchino for The Batman.
Variety was first out of the gate with an instant analysis of Monday morning’s Oscar nominations for original song and score. The early readings suggest that Hildur Guonadottir’s Joker score and Elton John’s Rocketman song have the inside track, but I am being cautioned that Oscar voters can be unpredictable in these categories and not to count out newcomer Cynthia Erivo for her Harriet song or Thomas Newman (a 15-time nominee so far without a win) for his 1917 score. Voting actually doesn’t begin until Jan. 30, and the Oscars are almost a month away. The original Monday stories, containing more statistical detail, can be found here for score and here for song; the slightly truncated print versions are pictured above.
As the Golden Globe awards were nearing and Academy voters were deciding who to nominate in the music categories, Variety commissioned a final few stories related to songs and scores from calendar year 2019. Chris Willman and I shared a byline as we examined how period films handled music (my portions involved 1917, Ford v Ferrari and Little Women). Then, because Globe voters nominated Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber for their new song in Cats, but Oscar voters failed to place it on the shortlist for nomination, I went back through recent Globe history to try and determine the odds of them actually rewarding Swift for a tune in one of the year’s most lambasted films. And finally, the Society of Composers & Lyricists held its inaugural awards, handing out most of its film awards to women, including the now ubiquitous (at award ceremonies, anyway) Icelandic composer Hildur Guonadottir for her Joker score.
This year’s Variety Music for Screens summit featured an entire day’s worth of panels of interest to those active in music for movies, TV, games and elsewhere. I moderated two panels, one of which spotlighted Joker composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (pictured) discussing her much talked-about score, as well as the unique sounds of her Chernobyl miniseries that recently won her an Emmy. The second panel featured composers Amie Doherty (Undone), Michael Abels (Us), Christophe Beck (Frozen II), Nicholas Britell (Succession), Alan Silvestri (Avengers: Endgame) and Siddhartha Khosla (This Is Us).