EXCLUSIVE: Birdman may be flying high with critics, but Oscar just shot him down permanently. Musically, that is.
Perhaps the most inventive and talked about motion picture music score of the year — a winner already of numerous critics awards as well as nominations from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Movie Awards — has been deep-sixed by Oscar even before it had a chance to compete. When Antonio Sanchez’s remarkable percussive drum score for Birdman went missing from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ December 12th list of 114 eligible films for Best Original Music Score, eyebrows were raised. After all this was not exactly a list that discriminates, including everything from Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt? to Ouija. A quiet, and meticulously detailed appeal was launched by the composer, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and distributor Fox Searchlight. After an emergency meeting of the Music Branch Executive Committee late last week in which all the points in letters sent for re-consideration by Gonzalez Inarritu and Sanchez (in a particularly finely tuned account of his intimate involvement in the film from soup to nuts) were addressed, the Academy rejected those arguments and reaffirmed its original decision to ineligible-ize the score. Reportedly there was heated discussion in the initial meeting, but at this one the vote was said to be “overwhelming”.
In dispute was the fact that even though Sanchez’s drum score was dominant, comprising more than 50% of the total music, at question was the use of classical music cues for other points in the film. Under their rules of eligibility as spelled out in their guidelines for entrants, “scores diluted by use of tracked themes or other pre-existing music, diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs, or assembled from the music of more than one composer shall not be eligible”.
Yet in preparation for this appeal, Fox sent new cue sheets that showed Sanchez’s drum score was more prevalent in the film than even the original submitted cue sheets showed. It seemed like Fox Searchlight was on solid ground. But, according to sources, in a letter spelling out their reasons for rejection of the score, the Academy emphasized their decision had nothing to do with the quality of Sanchez’s work which Music Branch Executive Committee Chair Charles Fox (who signed the letter) called “superb”, and said there was never any question about the artistry of Sanchez’s drum score.
Some have insinuated the Academy’s Music Branch Executive Committee, and the 244 -member branch at large consisting of composers who deal mainly on the orchestral side of the equation, may just not believe a singular drum score is a real score. Sanchez is not an Academy member and his score obviously didn’t employ the large number of studio musicians that usually work on films. There’s no real precedent here. But the Academy’s Music honchos are sticking to their decision and the committee pointed to the rule noted above as the overriding reason.
The Music Branch says it has, in fact, applied this rule many times in the past, not just in Birdman’s case. In this instance it was felt the tracked classical music was equally effective in the context of the movie and that, combined with Sanchez’s drum score, created the “musical identity” of the film. The issue of how much or the actual percentage there is of drum vs source music apparently did not weigh as heavily in the final decision. But the Academy’s official definition of what qualifies as an original score reads: “A substantial body of music that serves as original dramatic underscoring and is written specifically for the motion picture by the submitting composer”. Certainly Sanchez’s unique score was “substantial”. The crux of the matter appears to be that there is other music in the film that needs to be taken into account.
In an interview on Wednesday with Gonzalez Inarritu and his editor Stephen Mirrione, I brought up the score and its initial rejection by the Academy. The director, who became very passionate about the issue, said Sanchez was involved every step of the way. He said the drum score, which was also used live during rehearsals and the actual filming of the movie, was an essential part of the film he wanted to make. “The drums for me are the heartbeat of these actors. I think what the drums bring is an instrument that hasn’t been explored very much in films. I think it’s as effective as a guitar or piano, it’s just the most primitive instrument of all . It helped me to get the spine to navigate, to get the flow, to get the rhythm,” he said, emphasizing that the score is absolutely Sanchez’s drums and that the classical music (about 17 minutes in the entire film) is always source music playing in the context of the characters. He used pieces from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov as music that Michael Keaton’s character chooses to play or is in his head, but he said it could actually have been any source music. Sanchez’s score on the other hand was absolutely key and irreplaceable. The intensity of the drum cues almost became a separate character in the film, and an indispensable part of it.
As for the original decision to in-eligiblize the score which he was hoping, and expecting, to be overturned when we spoke, he felt it was not defensible. “It’s an incredible, unfair decision that I am appealing. Obviously Antonio’s score is more than 50%. It’s a fact. I knew there was a lot of prejudice about if the drum is melody or not. This guy studied seven years at Berklee, he did 30 years as a professional drummer. He composed the music (for this film) three times. Normally when you edit the film you get temp music. In this case he even composed the temp music. I held the actors with his music. I think all those classical pieces are, in a way, great, but honestly if I would have put another good classical piece it would be the same film. The film would not be the same without Antonio’s drums. That’s why it hasn’t been unnoticed because it’s so unique and it has such a personality that not to qualify it is to say ‘drums aren’t important, we don’t consider that composing’. (If it is disqualified) they will commit a big mistake. It would be scandalous ” he said. Ironically one of the other few disqualifications this year was for the score for another drum-heavy movie, Whiplash. That disqualification centered though on the fact that there just weren’t enough minutes of actual dramatic underscore (by composer Justin Hurwitz).
The word “scandal” is no stranger to the music branch of late. Deadline first broke the story last year about the disqualification of the nominated song, Alone Yet Not Alone after it was discovered that former Governor and Music Branch chair Bruce Broughton had used his inside knowledge to send personal emails to branch members urging them to vote for his tune from an obscure film, a definite no-no. It turned out to be an embarrassment for the Academy and rules in that regard were tightened this year. Should Birdman’s score go on continuing to win a slew of film awards, as appears very possible, this omission, even from consideration for an Oscar could well be another embarrassment. But at this point the deed appears to be done. Online voting for nominations officially begins next Monday, but in fact those requesting paper ballots have already received them.