Which, of the 15 shortlisted original scores for 2022, will Oscar’s music branch choose as their final five nominees in the category?
It is as diverse a group as the branch has ever considered, both in terms of the composers and the nature of their music. The composers hail from seven different countries; two are women and five are people of color.
Five are past Oscar winners and five others are past Oscar nominees, although it’s the newcomers to the Oscar race who seem to be sparking the most attention in these final days before nomination voting begins Thursday.
Their music ranges from traditional orchestra to elaborate choral work, electronic sounds to experimental compositional techniques. Approximately 390 music-branch voters (all composers, songwriters or music editors) are eligible to vote.
A guide to the shortlist contenders:
Topping the list is 90-year-old John Williams, whose 29th film for director Steven Spielberg is the last in an unprecedented collaboration stretching over 50 years. By far the most honored composer ever (with five statuettes and a total of 52 nominations), he seems likely to score that 53rd nod for his warm, nostalgic and sometimes melancholy music for characters who are effectively playing Spielberg’s parents.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”
Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, the sole composer to date to have won for a Marvel movie (2018’s “Black Panther”), could score again with the sequel. His daring and complex soundscape of African and post-Mayan-culture music for the sophisticated Wakanda and the undersea kingdom of Talokan, respectively, are impressive.
Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (the 2019 winner for “Joker”) is being touted for her pastoral, mostly guitar-based compositions for Sarah Polley’s powerful drama “Women Talking.” (The composer’s other awards-season favorite, “Tár,” was disqualified as having too little audible original music by comparison with the extensive classical music excerpts.)
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”
Also poised for placement in that final five is French composer Alexandre Desplat (a two-time winner for 2014’s “Grand Budapest Hotel” and 2017’s “The Shape of Water”), whose charming score for del Toro’s acclaimed stop-motion animation film was designed almost entirely for wooden instruments, befitting the title character. Interestingly, Desplat is one of four shortlisted composers who are also on the song shortlist, in this case for the charming “Ciao Papa.”
Don’t count out past winner Justin Hurwitz (double winner, for song and score, for 2016’s “La La Land”), whose brash approach of jazzy stylings and rich orchestral flourishes propelled viewers through the anything-goes 1920s Hollywood of Damien Chazelle’s controversial epic. He spent three years on the project, including writing all the music for the on-screen bands.
“The Woman King”
Terence Blanchard, a two-time past nominee (“Da 5 Bloods,” “BlacKkKlansman”), deserves a spot for what may be his most ambitious score to date. He utilized a choir of African-American operatic voices, legendary jazz singer Dianne Reeves and symphony orchestra for the West African historical drama.
“All Quiet on the Western Front”
German composer Volker Bertelmann (previously nominated for “Lion”) augmented his orchestra with the unusual sounds of a turn-of-the-century harmonium, while eliminating most of the drums-and-brass war-movie clichés, for Edward Berger’s German-language World War I epic.
“The Banshees of Inisherin”
Smaller ensembles were the order of the day for other past Oscar nominees, including Carter Burwell (“Carol,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) for Martin McDonagh’s black comedy. The composer, eschewing a traditional “Irish” sound for a movie set in 1920s Ireland, opted instead for a fairy-tale sound for Colin Farrell’s confused main character: celeste, harp and bell sounds, augmented with flute and just 15 string players.
Another past nominee, Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”), tackled the fact-based story of two New York Times reporters chasing the Harvey Weinstein sexual-assault story. This demanded a different, although still intimate sound: the cello (played by his wife, Caitlin Sullivan) takes center stage with unusual playing techniques, adding a small ensemble of New York string players as appropriate.
“Don’t Worry Darling”
Another previous nominee, English composer John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon”), supplied Olivia Wilde’s film with a fascinating score that may be the film’s best chance for awards attention: a unique collection of processed female vocals that were designed to represent the repression of women by men in the “Stepford Wives”-like community of the film.
Michael Abels, director Jordan Peele’s resident composer (“Get Out,” “Us”), hasn’t yet been nominated but could be for his music for Peele’s horror-sci-fi film. He managed to capture the sense of awe, and later terror, of the extraterrestrial visitors with a 75-piece orchestra and 32-voice wordless choir.
Chanda Dancy could make history as the first Black woman to be nominated in the category. She scored the Korean War story about a hero fighter pilot, with a 109-piece Nashville orchestra. The classically trained Dancy was hired before shooting and wrote throughout production, watching dailies and coming up with themes for director J.D. Dillard. Three women have been nominated in the last six years, and with the growing attention being paid to this rapidly expanding part of the music community, Dancy could make the cut.
“Avatar: The Way of Water”
Another English composer, Simon Franglen, had the unenviable task of following in his longtime collaborator James Horner’s footsteps with a massive score for the box-office hit. He had worked with Horner on the original to come up with colorful sounds for the exotic planet Pandora but found that he needed an entirely new mix of orchestra, voices, synths and a variety of world-music elements to accommodate the many new characters and environments of James Cameron’s three-hour sequel.
Nathan Johnson, cousin of “Glass Onion” director Rian Johnson (and composer for last year’s del Toro movie “Nightmare Alley”), is cited for the first time for his music for the “Knives Out” sequel: a classy throwback to mystery scores of the past, with its harpsichord and elegant orchestral backdrop.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once”
Perhaps the biggest question mark is, will the branch nominate an experimental rock group? Son Lux composed the lengthy score for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” underlining the multiverse madness with multiple themes and a mixture of orchestra, voices and virtual instruments. Son Lux is a trio of musicians, and Oscar has nominated teams of composers for a dramatic score only six times in its history (although one such team, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste, won for “Soul” in 2020).