Is the Academy ready to acknowledge the very different kind of film score that Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails fame, wrote for The Social Network? That was one of the key questions buzzing at a Beverly Hills party for the Oscar score and song nominees, as Reznor and his composing partner Atticus Ross mingled with an suit-and-tie crowd that included everyone from old-timers like Hal David to ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
The quiet consensus among film music buffs is that this year's best song lineup is a bit of a snooze-fest. "I don't think any of the songs are any good, to be honest with you," Elton John recently told Entertainment Weekly. John singled out the song that Dido and A.H. Rahman composed for 127 Hours and the tune that Gwyneth Paltrow sings in Country Strong as the two most acceptable, while calling the nominees from Tangled and Toy Story 3 "horrible." Not everyone would be so harsh—and as a frequent contributor to animated films, Elton may have a competitive interest there.
But it seems like a given that the song nominees would not be performed on the telecast this year—as they weren't last year—if it weren't for the opportunity to give Paltrow a chance to belt another one out on live TV. As a bonus for rock fans, anyway, the absence of Dido (who's pregnant and unavailable) does mean that Florence + the Machine will be stepping in to perform 127 Hours' "If I Rise."
On the other hand, the five nominees for best score represent a uniformly strong field that represents just about the full spectrum of film composing right now. As Hans Zimmer, nominated for Inception, told Yahoo!, "I'm really excited about how international we are—I mean, from all over the place—and how all these different cultural influences really resonate in film music." No doubt Zimmer was referring in part to A.R. Rahman, who hails from India, as well as his usual fellow Brits. But also, he said, "I'm a huge Trent Reznor fan, and I think it's pretty exciting for him to be let loose on a medium like this."
Yahoo! talked with Reznor and other nominees at the reception held by the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and he still seemed amazed by the road that led him to the Oscars... and what some are predicting as a Social Network scoring win tonight.
"When I took on this work, honestly, getting awards never crossed my mind," Reznor swore, taking a break from hanging out with fellow rocker Marr (pictured). "It didn't cross my mind. When I finished the film and realized that with every revision it got better—and it went from what could have been kind of a wordy TV movie, almost, about some unlikeable guys—it started to feel a bit more weighty in the themes, as the editing and music and everything tightened up over those few months. It felt like, hey, this is a pretty important movie. Then it started to get into 'Hey, you could get nominated.'
"Because the approach, as you know, wasn't traditional, I didn't feel like it had much of a shot. I assumed that to be taken seriously, it had to use the tools of the trade and the (established) discipline of how to score a film. I don't know how to do that. I just talked with the director and spent a lot of time thinking about what he wanted and what felt right instinctually. I didn't decide to take a quick class to figure out how to put these things together. I just kind of went with my gut and thought, let's see what happens with (David) Fincher's reaction. So even to be nominated for this, let alone winning a Golden Globe—which I still can't believe even happened—really is a great feeling.
"It feels nice to be recognized in this field, which it feels like people do take seriously," Reznor continued. "In the music business, you put records out and they vanish into the stolen ether instantly. They're instantly copied to iPods, judged, dismissed, and gone. It feels like people pay more attention to this side of film and it lasts longer. People spend more time with films and the music in films. It's weird that it's a competition, though—me versus these guys. It if happens, it happens, and if it doesn't, we're here and this feels great to me."
Asked for his favorite among the others, Reznor said, "I think what Hans did with Inception is excellent. The way he used the orchestra and the bombast was something I'm impressed with... With that said, ours is the best! I'm just kidding." Sure he is.
Zimmer returned the complimentary favor, saying, "I'm a huge Trent Reznor fan, and I thought what they did with The Social Network was really great. And then I think John Powell outdid himself with How to Train Your Dragon. It's not only beautiful and gorgeous and amazing, but he managed to do what we all try to do: make an old-fashioned score modern. Perhaps you might have noticed we're friends." (Zimmer and Powell are about to collaborate on a Kung Fu Panda sequel, as they did on the original.)
John Powell said he'd asked Zimmer about what to expect from the buildup to the Oscars. "He told me, 'It will be a pig-[expletive]'," he laughs. "And he was right. But that made me glad he gets other people to do his lyrics."
Powell's music for How I Trained Your Dragon is seen as sort of the ultimate anti-Reznor choice: a big, classic Hollywood score. In this year's running, at least, he's the most John Williams-like choice. "What the [bleep] is that?" he laughed. "It's a great irony. Because a few years ago, everybody always thought of me as the beats-and-heavy-guitar-s--- guy. And now I'm old school! Honestly, I remember when they listened to the Bourne stuff (he scored all three of those Matt Damon films), they would say, 'Oh yeah, he just does loops. And he's got some orchestrators to stick some loops on top.'... I don't feel that old, so I'm not sure how I'm old-Hollywood now. I haven't figured that out."
Zimmer, for his part, pointed out: "I'm the old one among the nominees this year. Which is really cool, because I was always hoping there'd be young, new faces in this. Because otherwise film music would just disappear. I think we are incredibly relevant now. We don't have to stick to the old formulas."
Avoiding the formulaic included, in Zimmer's case, hiring Johnny Marr to perform much of the Inception score. When we spoke with Marr at the reception, it turned out he's also composed a score of his own, for the upcoming Antonio Banderas vehicle The Big Bang, which will be out in May.
"In the last four or five years, the state of the artistry for film composers has gotten higher and higher, from what I've seen," said Marr. "Pretty much all the movies that have been nominated, you can imagine listening to in the car or on a plane, whereas ten years ago, everything sounded like bombs going off, because that was what was going on on screen at the time."
As for Inception, "Hans is a Jedi," Marr laughed. "Even some people who didn't quite get the movie straight away got the music.
"Hans and I have been hanging out a little, and I love the process. Because with film music you're reacting to things emotionally. It's a completely different world from writing rock music. There's a need to be very, very clear when you're writing to a (pop music) audience, and I like that movies can be a little more abstract. As soon as you put words on something, it completely ties it down, and you have to be very deliberate. And you have to make assumptions about the audience, too, in rock music. If you don't, you're being indulgent. Whereas you don't have that at all in movies; it has to be dictated by what you're seeing."