In the 81th Academy Awards ceremony, the Oscar for Best Original Music has gone to Allah Rakha Rahman for his work for the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Rahman, a well-known composer in Bollywood, is a complete unknown in the United States, this was his first work for the international scene, his first nomination and his first Oscar. Surprising? Maybe not.
Among the five nominees to an Oscar for Best Original Music in 2009, Alexandre Desplat (The curious case of Benjamin Button), James Newton Howard (Defiance), Danny Elfman (Milk), Thomas Newman (Wall-E) and the eventually winner Rahman, there was no place for the main names of the industry: John Williams, James Horner, Hans Zimmer or any other ‘usual suspect’ in the category. Maybe Elfman, who lives a ‘second youth’ with interesting projects in the near future. But something is changing in the world of film composers: it is time for a change.
Along the last decades of the 20th century a group of composers, the now called the A-list, created excellent music that surpassed the movies and popularized film music. John Williams is the first name that comes to mind, with his popular success starting during the 70’s (the Star Wars trilogy) to the beginning of the 21st century (the Harry Potter saga). But, next to him, others names will remain: James Horner (Aliens, 1986; Titanic, 1997; A beautiful mind, 2001), Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek, 1979; Hoosiers, 1982; Basic Instinct, 1992), Danny Elfman (Batman, 1989; Nightmare before Christmas, 1993), Hans Zimmer (Crimson Tide, 1995; Gladiator, 2000; The dark knight, 2008)… The last third of the 20th century belongs to them.
However, a new batch of composers hs started to take over. Sometimes, the retirement is because of natural causes: Jerry Goldsmith passed away in 2004, Basil Poledouris in 2006 and Williams, being 77, is very selective with the asignments he accepts. Others, like Zimmer, Horner or Elfman, still have bright moments, but are very often trapped in their own well-defined style. There was a need for new blood.
And those called to take over have come to stay.
On one hand, second level composers that jumped to the front line. Let’s say Howard Shore, who contributed during years to the oppresive atmospheres of David Cronenberg (Crash, 1996; ExistenZ, 1999), Joel Schumacher (The client, 1994) or David Fincher (The game, 1997) thrillers, and got to the mainstream with his monumental work for The Lord of the Rings. Or David Arnold, who might be Williams’ direct heir because of his neosymphonic style (as heard in Emmerich’s Independence Day, a Grammy award) and who has revitalized the music for the James Bond saga with Casino Royale (2006, a Grammy nomination) and Quantum of Solace (2008).
On the other hand, the real relief, young composers with a lot to say. Alexandre Desplat, Dario Marianelli, Michael Giacchino, Craig Armstrong or Marco Beltrami are the names to follow, They cover a wide range of styles, but also have things in common. Just to begin, they all didn’t mind working for television, contributing to raise the quality of series like J.J. Abrams’ Lost or Alias, both with music by Michael Giacchino. And Don Davis, author of The Matrix score, obtained an Emmy in 1995 for the SeaQuest soundtrack. Even more, some of them like Giacchino himself (Medal of Honor saga) or Steve Jablonsky offer their scores in a so unusual vehicle as videogames.
Some of them cope perfectly with the neosymphonism close to Williams, like Don Davis y David Arnold. But it is not uncommon that they merge the orchestra with contemporary elements, electronic or unconventional instrumentation. This is what Dario Marianelli or Tyler Bates do in their action scores (V for Vendetta by the first, Watchmen by the latter), the dark Marco Beltrami, a regular colaborator of Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Blade II) or Craig Armstrong, who combines his works for films (Moulin Rouge, Elisabeth: the Golden Age) with scores for theatre plays and even collaborations with Massive Attack. A bit more out of balance to the electronics are Hans Zimmer collaborators who have started a career on their own: Klaus Badelt (Pirates of the Caribbean) and Steve Jablonsky (The island, Transformers) are comfortable scoring summer blockbusters, but they still have to demonstrate versatility. On the other side lays the clasicist but not necessarily formal style of Marianelli (Pride and Prejudice or the Oscar winning Atonement) and Alexandre Desplat, who didn’t win the Oscar he deserved for The Queen in favour of Gustavo Santaolalla.
They are not all here, but they are the first line. The masters didn’t disappear: Zimmer, Horner, Elfman, Williams, they still have things to say, but they’re not alone anymore. The USA hegemony has reach to an end: for five years the Best Original Music Academy Award didn’t stay at home, and the tendency is to continue: Rahman is hindi, Desplat is French, Marianelli was born in Italy, Armstrong in Scotland, Badelt is German, Arnold is British and, once more, the old Europe has something to say in the Hollywood world of cinema.