As voting opens for the Oscar shortlists on Feb. 1, the picture is slowly coming into focus: Academy composers and songwriters are faced with one of the most diverse batches of scores they’ve ever heard.
The approximately 350 members of the Academy music branch are sifting through dozens of films to try and single out 15 scores and 15 songs worthy of placement on its shortlists, which will be revealed Feb. 9. These preliminary choices will be narrowed down to five final nominees in each category, to be announced March 15.
It’s a surprisingly competitive year, making predictions even more difficult. But the music branch likes to reward familiar names, so look for such past winners as Alexandre Desplat (“Grand Budapest Hotel”) for his alternately melancholy and hopeful score for “The Midnight Sky”; Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther”) for his propulsive, synth-orchestra hybrid for the intense spy thriller “Tenet”; and Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings” films) for his classically inspired music for “Pieces of a Woman.”
Two other previous winners, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”), are potential nominees for a pair of films: their jazzy ’40s backdrop for David Fincher’s “Mank,” an orchestral departure for this normally synth-based duo; and their ethe- real afterlife musings for Disney-Pixar’s “Soul” — although the latter is com- plicated by the considerable amount of on-screen jazz by Jon Batiste, which may make qualifying tricky and depend upon a decision by the branch executive committee.
Previous nominees likely to figure into the mix include Terence Blanchard (“BlacKkKlansman”), whose heroic score for Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” is among his most powerful; James Newton Howard (“The Village”) for his Western Americana in “News of the World”; and 15-time nominee Thomas Newman (“1917”), although it’s not yet clear whether voters might choose his retro ’60s score for “Let Them All Talk” or his atmospheric approach to “The Little Things.”
The music branch could also tap a few fresh faces: Emile Mosseri (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”) for his offbeat, fairy-tale sounds for the acclaimed Korean-language “Minari”; Henry Jackman (“Captain America: Civil War”) for his dramatic music for the harrowing drug-addiction film “Cherry”; or Daniel Pemberton (“Birds of Prey”) for his ’60s-style rock ’n’ roll score for “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Despite the demand for diversity on all fronts, women composers may have a tough time breaking through this year. Tamar-kali’s “Shirley” and Amelia Warner’s “Wild Mountain Thyme” feel like dark horses, and Lolita Ritmanis’ orchestral and choral “Blizzard of Souls” (Latvia’s entry for international feature) is an undeniable longshot, although she is a prominent figure on the L.A. scene and a founder of the Alliance for Women Film Composers.
The song field is even more wide open than usual. The only sure bet is perennial favorite Diane Warren, whose memorable “Io Sí (Seen)” from the Sophia Loren-starrer “The Life Ahead,” sung and co-written by Laura Pausini, is an early favorite. Warren has a second shot with “Free” from the Disney Plus drama “The One and Only Ivan.” And after 11 nominations without a win over the past 33 years, the Academy may decide it’s finally time to hand her the coveted statue.
A major theme among this year’s entries is social justice. Leading the pack are songs from two films set during the turbulent 1960s: Leslie Odom Jr.’s “Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami,” in which he plays Sam Cooke, a simple tune that resonates both with its film and our time; and “Hear My Voice,” Celeste’s protest anthem that concludes “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
Four more originated in documentaries: Janelle Monáe’s “Turntables,” from “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” which deals with the especially timely theme of voter suppression; Mary J. Blige’s “See What You’ve Done,” from “Belly of the Beast,” about illegal sterilizations in women’s prisons; Angélique Kidjo’s “How Can I Tell You,” by Broadway’s Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, from “Nasrin,” about an imprisoned Iranian human-rights activist; and Taylor Swift’s “Only the Young,” a pro-voting anthem from Netflix’s widely seen doc “Miss Americana.”
Not to be counted out: “Square Root of Possible,” sung so winningly by young Madalen Mills in Netflix’s all-Black Christmas musical “Jingle Jangle”; Sinead O’Connor’s delicate “I’ll Be Singing” from the romantic comedy “Wild Mountain Thyme”; and Rita Wilson’s touching “Everybody Cries,” from the Afghanistan war film “The Outpost.”
Songs from animated films often figure in this category, so look for Cathy Ang’s soaring “Rocket to the Moon” from “Over the Moon”; Brandi Carlile’s foot-tapper “Carried Me With You” from Disney- Pixar’s “Onward”; and possibly the Justin Timberlake-penned “Just Sing” from “Trolls: World Tour,” to make the early list.
The biggest mystery is whether the Academy music branch will take seriously a pair of comedic entries: “Húsavik (My Home Town),” sung, partly in Icelandic, by Sweden’s Molly Sandén in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”; and the eight-minute, intentionally offensive “Wuhan Flu” from Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” which boasts nine writers, six more than Oscar rules permit.
It’s hard to picture the Academy singling out, as one of the year’s best original songs, a satirical redneck ditty about a virus that’s already killed more than 400,000 Americans.
It’s a politically sensitive time, and the question is, will the Academy’s music branch have a sufficiently broad sense of humor to indulge it?