The Song Remains the Same

Last week’s announcement of the 2015 Academy Award nominations has lead to a lot of discussion, not only for their unbearable and ridiculous whiteness, but also for John Williams’ 50th nomination in the “Best Dramatic Score” category.  (For reference, a win would bring him his sixth Oscar).

While this is an immense achievement on the part of Mr. Williams, it is also offers an easy insight into what’s wrong with the entire system of the Academy Awards.

John Williams makes great movie music. Always has. He is a master of the form – great references to the classical canon, big orchestral movements, all of the pacing and rhythms we love so much. He inherited a mantle from Korngold, Steiner, Chaplin and even Schoenberg himself, and he has honed and heightened it beautifully.

Everyone knows “Movie Music,” right? It’s a genre. Whenever my wife is listening to a Classical Pandora station, the second it switches from Dvořák to Zimmer, we always know. It’s got a sound to it that, to be honest, usually only works while watching the movie. (Pro tip: that’s actually one of the keys to writing great music for film. If you make it TOO interesting, it can pull you out of the movie, instead of deeper in.  A mentor in theater scoring once told me “Write a complete piece of music.  Then remove the most interesting part.  That’ll be replaced by the actors onstage.”)

But I digress. What’s important is the fact that everyone knows what movie music sounds like.

And that’s the problem.

The members of the Academy already know what’s “Oscar Worthy” in their heads. They have an image of what they should be experiencing during the film, and the artist that gets closest to that fulfilling their expectations is the one that they’ll reward.  For a dramatic score, it’s Williams, Zimmer, Goldenthal, maybe Glass if you’re pushing things.  For actors, that image is almost exclusively white, unless it’s a story about a person of color either helping other people of color fit into the white world, or somehow navigate it themselves. (Blackboard Jungle. Stand And Deliver. The Crying Game.) 

In 1999, a new “most influential movie score of my life” came out. (Prior to ’99 it was Morricone’s The Mission, like many other sound nerds). This soundtrack integrates perfectly with the story – almost all of the music initiates in various car stereos and grows. There are simple layers that accompany the central character’s brief internal monologues. It lofts the story without commenting, and, fairly uniquely, the soundtrack makes for a great album on its own.  Everything in it fits the main character’s world, and, when the story verges into the ridiculous, the music helps us all buy what’s happening, in some epic, wonderful way.  I’m talking, of course, about RZA’s genius work on Ghost Dog.

The winning score that year was Life Is Beautiful by Nicola Piovani.  Williams’ nomination was for Saving Private Ryan.  Ghost Dog wasn’t in the running.  Now, I liked those other two movies – hell, I cried my eyes out for Benigni in the theater, and cheered when he won the big prize. But I don’t remember a note of either of those scores. OK, that’s a little exaggeration – I remember some big orchestral swells from Ryan and I can summon a solo violin if I imagine Life Is Beautiful, tho I don’t know if that’s actually what was in the movie.

RZA’s score wasn’t excluded for the big outward, obvious racist reasons (he’s a black man who writes & produces rap, so we won’t recognize him), but for the far more insidious subtle racist reasons (“that music isn’t movie music.”) There are no traditional instruments playing i-VI-III-VII chord progressions. There are no solo violins echoing across the hills. Instead, there’s this “outsider” music – this popular music form that is not a part of the expected vocabulary of film.

And, to be frank, it’s “young, black music,” and 94% of the voters are white and over 60. Whether they want to acknowledge that or not, their biases decide their votes.  They have left no room at the table for anything but what’s come before.  For any other faces.  It’s that terrible, soft, cozy racism of “separate but equal,” of “I have black friends,” and of “I love visiting foreign places and listening to their music, I would just never put it on my stereo at home.”

These biases aren’t exclusively anti-black – indeed, the Academy’s small mindedness reverberates on many fronts.  What they are is an ongoing proof that, like many American institutions, The Academy’s actions are rooted in a set of habits that are entirely disconnected from the real landscape of the American character.  Institutions have been restricting the privilege of being considered an artist to a very small class of people for hundreds of years, and the Academy is yet another offender.

I’ve written before about the importance of awards in the arts.  As much as those of us who are eligible to receive them don’t want them to matter, they do.  They do to our careers, but even more importantly, they matter to those who aspire to join us.  An Oscar says “You, too, can be up here with us.  You, too, can be toasted by the entire country for what you have achieved.”  When The Academy closes the door so firmly and foolishly to all those young dreamers, it denies us all the potential fruits of their dreams.



(Note: I have never been, nor do I ever expect to be, eligible for an Academy Award in any field.  This is an entirely sour-grape-free blog post.)

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