Assistant Professor of Film Studies Michael Slowik ’03
Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” In this article, Assistant Professor of Film Studies Michael Slowik ’03 writes about how film scores can “convey and amplify a film’s emotional landscape” by considering two films nominated for 2020 Oscars for best score.
The secret to the success of two Oscar-nominated scores
Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards an Oscar to the film with the best original score.
The best scores—like those from Lawrence of Arabia and Black Panther—convey and amplify a film’s emotional landscape.
How do composers pull this off?
Back in 2014, I wrote a book examining the musical methods of early sound films. Ninety years later, some of the basic techniques developed during that era remain relevant. They include what industry professionals call “spotting,” which refers to when music appears in the film, and decisions about which musical styles to incorporate.
This year, two very different Oscar-nominated scores—those from Marriage Story and Joker—show how style and spotting can have major effects on a viewer’s engagement and emotional experience with a film.
Sounding out the breakdown of a marriage
Marriage Story tells the story of a married couple whose separation leads to an increasingly bitter and contentious divorce.
The film’s score, composed by Randy Newman, uses music in a classical style—but mainly during moments of kindness and human connection.
In the film’s lengthy opening, for example, we hear Charlie and his wife Nicole describe what they love about each other. During this sequence, the audience hears strings, flute, harp and piano. Perhaps Newman chose classical music because, for many listeners, its sounds can evoke the perfection of a past era. He splices these sounds with dialogue reflecting what most people want from their romantic relationships: warmth, trust and mutual support.
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