The Oscar Concert: Exploring Love, Fear And Fish People Through Music REVIEW: THE OSCAR CONCERT @ THE WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL 2/28/18
LOS ANGELES, CA- The 90th Oscar ceremony will occur in the midst of a tumultuous overhaul in the entertainment industry. Between the #MeToo movement and calls to action in regards to breaking the dominantly white male narrative of the award season, Hollywood is undoubtedly charting its next steps with the utmost caution. Despite the weight of receiving unsparing (albeit warranted) criticism at every turn, the show must go on. Internally, award season will always be an optimistic flurry of face-saving press opportunities, global-scale soap boxes for various causes, or flat out shameless project plugs.
Aside from the onscreen talent, the score of a movie arguably plays the most pivotal role in dictating the tenor of a film. The music has to be inherently big, tense, or otherwise wrought with emotion to transcend from static background noise to a palpable component of the plot. The composers of these iconic scores are oftentimes household names– John Williams, John Carpenter, Hans Zimmer to name a few.
Now, imagine seeing some of the most dynamic film scores played by the absurdly talented L.A. Phil.
Okay, so on top of that, try to conceptualize how that would sound in one of L.A.’s most acutely tuned venues: the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
That’s just what the Academy lined up for the 90th year of the Oscars. Led primarily by the renowned Thomas Wilkins, the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra explored the spectrum of emotion conversed through the marriage of film and music. Enunciating the fundamental sentiments of love, fear, and courage, while connecting some of the most memorable moments in film. The nominees for this year’s Best Original Score also conducted their own pieces, serving as a medley of pièce de résistance.
The concert began with a brief demonstration of the scoring process illustrated by musical selections from Disney Pixar’s Up. The movie follows Carl, a cantankerous old man who has lost his adventurous wife, consequently becoming reclusive until deciding to literally up and leave his mundane town by tying a massive amount of balloons to his house. The film’s composer, Michael Giacchino, interjected heady yet somehow tangible critiques as Thomas Jenkins conducted an initial take on the scene in which Carl first takes flight. It’s not hard to imagine how difficult it would be to translate a film director’s vision into music– how does one compose an adventure?
“That was good, but could we maybe make it a little more, I don’t know, magical?” quipped Giacchino, which prompted Wilkins to jokingly roll his eyes and attempt to make the score “a little more magical.”
“Okay that’s great, but I feel like it’s still missing something.”
As Wilkins and the L.A. Phil busted out different takes of score for the same scene while complying to Giacchino’s various requests, the connection between music and cinema became exceedingly defined. Adding more bassy percussion adds a hint of drama, while playful winds might highlight mischief or humor.
“I think I know what you’re getting at,” said Wilkins, “You want it to be as if this scene is Carl and Ellie’s last waltz.”
With that, Giacchino’s vision came into fruition.
The demonstration reinforced how crucial the score is in setting the right tone and supporting the storyline of a film on an abstract level. You oftentimes can’t put your finger on what exactly it is about a score that invokes a certain emotional response, but even the smallest variations can lead to an entirely different mood.
The concert progressed into five collections of scores, each spotlighting a different emotional motif: “The Sound of Home,” “The Sound of Love,” “The Sound of Fear,” “The Sound of the Chase,” and “The Sound of Courage.” Each segment aimed to unify seemingly vastly different stories with music. It was an interesting case study to mesh three songs from films with very little in common, over clips from a plethora of other films which also don’t have a whole lot in common, and somehow still piece together a moving, cohesive narrative.
“The Sound of Home” was introduced by A.R. Rahman (composer, Slumdog Millionaire). Rahman commenced the category by stating that “home is not often a place, but a state of mind.” Brief clips from noteworthy films including The Sound of Music, The Lord of the Rings, and Brave depicted different definitions of what constitutes as home, whether it was indeed a state of mind or a physical location. They were strung together by the scores of Nicholas Nickleby (Rachel Portman), Amarcord (Nino Rota), and Slumdog Millionaire (Rahman). The sampling touched on the comforts of home within familiar terrain, neighbors, or family. As the songs progressed, the theme of home becoming compromised for the sake of bigger ambitions became more prevalent within an increasingly more dissonant and feverish score.
“As love is an emotion that is often impossible to describe,” began speaker Daniela Vega (actress, A Fantastic Woman), “directors rely on composers to translate these emotions into music.” Romance is probably the most dominant emotion portrayed with the arts, as we are all conditioned to associate love themes with their respective famous couples. Take Gone With the Wind and Casa Blanca, for example. Even the most novice movie buff would be able to do a blind taste test of love themes and be able to identify what movie it was from. This portion of the concert included a refreshingly unexpected assortment of songs from The Adventures of Robin Hood (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), Il Postino (Luis Enríquez Bacalov), and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Tan Dun). The surprising set painted a picture of the complexities of love, with all of its struggles, risks, and triumphs. It was a fresh take on the concept of love and brought it to a more human, universal level.
As an insatiable consumer of anything related to horror, the obvious winner for me was the set entitled “The Sound of Fear.” The portion was introduced by Michael Abels, composer of Get Out, which just so happens to be my favorite horror film of the year. Fear is one of the strongest and innate emotions we experience as it is built into our DNA for the function of survival. The medley delved into the fear of loss, as exemplified by the score of Jackie by Mica Levi. Tense strings build to a crescendo of an overbearing thunder of drums, perfectly depicting the progressive stages of grief. The more standard, pinprick-like keys synonymous with Hitchcock films became dominant as the score from In Cold Blood (Quincy Jones) played over scenes from as Jaws, Vertigo, and Taxi Driver. I completely fangirled when the infamous theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween tiptoed to its chilling climax as the phantom-like Michael Myers stalked his prey on the looming 20 ft. screen. I was swiftly reminded why the canonical horror films of decades past still give even the boldest among us nightmares.
“The Sound of the Chase” was fittingly introduced by Michelle Rodriguez (actress, The Fast and the Furious). It began with a less traditional chase: the chase for success. Dave Grusin’s city-scape inspired score for The Firm set the tone for a bustling, quick-thinking, breakneck pursuit for the hustle. The music faded into a noir-inspired, sax heavy tune from Bullitt composed by Lalo Schifrin. The selection appropriately ended with the harrowing score from The Great Train Robbery (Jerry Goldsmith), from one of the most iconic chase scenes in cinema history. The concluding song added a tasteful touch of mischief and mild satire to an otherwise gripping selection.
The final portion, “The Sound of Courage,” was exceedingly poignant. This segment was presented by Ava DuVernay, producer of Selma. Selma is an exemplary case study of what constitutes as true courage, faithfully portraying Martin Luther King’s unwavering dedication to justice in the face of bitter adversity. This set was graced with the musical prowess of legendary trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who gifted the audience with a song from Malcolm X. Opening with rousing snares fit for a protest march, the assortment transitioned into a more delicate strain from Spirited Away (Joe Hishaishi). Serving as a grand finale fit for a gladiator, the set was rounded out by the soundtrack of Spartacus (Alex North).
After a brief intermission in which I chugged a generous serving of champagne, the audience was regaled with performances by four highly esteemed Oscar nominated composers. Those present included John Williams (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Hans Zimmer on keys (Dunkirk), Andre Desplat (The Shape of Water), and Carter Burwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). This curated set was aptly named “The Sound of the Future,” as it alluded to a more culturally diverse and inclusive industry (although it’s worth noting that there were no female composers present). Each composer was presented by his respective director, whom they undoubtedly braved the laborious post-production process with through every tedious critique. These directors included Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), and Martin McDonaugh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Paul Thomas Anderson was also present to introduce the score of Phantom Thread by Jonny Greenwood (guitarist, Radiohead), conducted by Thomas Wilkins. Perhaps I’m biased due to my loyalty to the horror/sci-fi genre, but del Toro’s monologue stuck with me the most. After sheepishly introducing himself as Michael Moore, del Toro divulged the endearing details about his first encounter with love in film:
“I discovered love in cinema in a different way than most. Most people discover it in Casa Blanca or West Side Story…I discovered it with The Creature from the Black Lagoon at the age of six. Watching the creature longingly and timidly yearning for Julie Adams moved me to no end. Since then, I’ve been dreaming of making a film in which the creature actually gets the girl. This was my tenth film, and I really wanted to create something I’ve never done before. I also wanted to create a movie as fluid as love is. A love that knows no boundaries, and no gender.”
He continued to explain why the score of The Shape of Water was so important, as the main two characters did not have a voice. A completely silent love story develops between a mute woman named Eliza and a pelagic creature who would not be out of place in The Black Lagoon. Del Toro’s decision to trust Desplat, a french film composer, with the essential score was an intuitive and masterful choice. Desplat expertly paired the kitschy-clean quirkiness of contemporary sci-fi with romantic winds for the title track to perfectly execute del Toro’s unconventional narrative. This relationship between director and composer, which is built primarily on blind faith and micro-focused communication, makes or breaks a film’s power to connect. Needless to say, the tenderness sparked between Eliza and the creature would lack structural integrity without a compelling score complementing the plot like a support beam.
Guillermo del Toro’s commentary perfectly encapsulates the significance of music in cinema. The most abstract sentiments can be translated into score, aptly executed in time with the developing drama on screen. Film without song is a skeleton void of emotional depth. The metaphysical capacity of song is uniquely persuasive whether the intention is to invoke feelings of comfort, passion, trepidation, or courage. The harmonious ensemble weaved within the narrative is what makes 2-D stories universal, concrete, and plaintive. Rest assured, the future of this matrimonial ceremony is in safe hands.