'Birdman' Score Drummed Out Of Oscars As Academy Rejects Filmmaker's Appeal

EXCLUSIVE: Birdman may be flying high with critics, but Oscar just shot him down permanently. Musically, that is.

pete_hammond_300x100Perhaps 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 tumblr_inline_nedhanXywA1rxv6dgremarkable 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”.

antonio-sanchez-300x200In 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 Oscars 2Charles 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.

Alejandro_González_Iñárritu_with_a_camera_in_production-e1413504805499In 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 overturnedMicheal Keaton in Birdman 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).

alone-yet-not-aloneThe 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.

  1. Honestly, the score, the drumbeat, totally got in the way. Annoying as hell. Almost ruined an otherwise good film.

    1. I was DRUMMED OUT of the movie theatre….
      Not a good picture coupled with a very distracting overbearing score…
      Would you buy the sound track ?
      I walk to a different drummer I guess,,,

    2. The fact that you didn’t like it, has nothing to do with whether the score should have been eligible or not.

  2. As diffiicult a decision as this may have been, it is the proper one. Too many Academy voters are unable to distinguish between original music and sourced material. A similar, and even more proper, decision was made by the academy on BLACK SWAN a couple of years ago.

    When you mix original score compositions with some of the most melodic music ever recorded, it simply isn’t fair to composers who write 100% (or very close) of the music directly for a movie.

    1. Sanchez’s drum score was totally separate from the classic cues used in the film. It wasn’t “mixed” with pre-existing music, it just co-existed with it in the same movie. Nothing unfair to other composers. That rule rewards the ignorance of the voters.

      1. I just mix in terms of both original and existing existing on the soundtrack together. Too many voters ARE too dense to differentiate.
        Look at the winning scores by Alan Menken for a pair of Disney animated films and Rachel Portman’s for THE BIG MONTY. The songs on those soundtracks added immeasurably to their wins I am convinced. But, the voters should have ignored the songs COMPLETELY when voting. The tightening of the eligibility rules is a reaction to those awards (and others).

  3. I felt it was a fitting addition to the movie, and it was mostly original work. I’m very disappointed. It would be like not including last year’s Oscar-award-winning score for Gravity because there were too many moments of silence.

  4. lol. I love that the Academy keeps inventing new ways to prove it’s complete irrelevance, year after year.

  5. Way back in 1956, the ground-breaking electronic score for FORBIDDEN PLANET was deemed ineligible because “it wasn’t actual music.” Plus ca change…

  6. “Ineligiblize,” Pete? “INELIGIBLIZE???”

    To paraphrase the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts, OR made-up gobbledygook “words.”

  7. Whether “fair” or not, Sanchez’ drum score was phenomenal and really impacted the film for the better. It was also the single best use of music that I’ve heard in a film in quite some time. It’s absolutely wrong that it should be disqualified.

  8. The drum score to Birdman could easily be compared to the cinematography of The Godfather. In that film, the Academy determined there wasn’t enough light on the actor’s faces, and the walls of the sets, to qualify as acceptable photography. So…the work was deemed ineligible and therefore no nomination. The Birdman drum score also failed to pass the bar because there weren’t enough original “musical” notes to qualify as an actual score. At least AMPAS is consistantly obtuse.

    1. It’s funny you should mention “The Godfather”, since Nino Rota’s score for the film was also disqualified from consideration at the 1973 Academy Awards.

  9. I guess there is some precedent to this, as I see Guardians of the Galaxy, and American Hustle from last year, both weren’t eligible, and both were more noted for their use of 60s and 70s rock and pop hits than for original scored music. But in Birdman’s case, it does seem as though the drum score is more integral to the movie.

  10. “Sanchez is not an Academy member . . . ”

    Regardless of whether or not the drum score deserves to be nominated, the above words are key.

    If, for instance, the score in question was composed by John Williams, you can guarantee the Academy music branch would find a loophole to circumvent the rules.

  11. As an Academy member, I’m certainly tired of the whiners. No one is ‘entitled’ to be nominated if Academy rules aren’t followed…. yet alone, win. If there were exceptions for some, there would have to be exceptions for all. For Gods sake, it’s an award — the earth will continue to spin with, or without, personal awards for excellence.

    I appreciate that the Academy continues to enhance it’s integrity by standing strong when issues like this arise. Bravo to all involved.

    1. There are exceptions. It just depends on how hard your studio lobbied for your cau$e. Congrats on namedropping your Academy affiliation, BTW. It shows your opinion is as irrelevant as the Academy that you profess “continues to enhance it’s (sic) integrity.”

    2. The issue is not whether the score should have been nominated. It’s whether the score deserved THE CHANCE to be considered for a nomination. The difference is huge.

    3. There are lots of scores that are completely unremarkable and that would be unworthy of consideration, but whose ELIGIBILITY is never in question.

    4. That is such baloney. No one considering the Birdman score for an original score nomination (or win if nominated) would be considering anything other than the drum score. The classical music cues in the film are clearly separate and recognizable as such. The nature of the score has been widely discussed in the media, the music branch must have a very low opinion of the intelligence of their members if they think voters would not be able to discern what part of Birdman’s score is the original part they would be voting about.

      If these rules were indeed followed with integrity scores like The King’s Speech (to name just one such example where classical music not written by the film composer played a HUGE role musically in the film) would not have been deemed elligible. Yet The King’s Speech was and got nominated.

      Bravo to all involved? No, a big Raspberry to the hypocrites.

    5. If you really are an Academy member, it’s a shame that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

      There very obviously are “exceptions for some.” Remember when The Artist won an Oscar for its score? That score included the theme from Vertigo.

      Good luck trying to explain why Birdman’s score was “dilluted by use of tracked themes or other pre-existing music,” but The Artist’s score wasn’t.

  12. The Music Branch of the Academy was correct. My musical takeaway from the film was Mahler and Tchaikovsky. The percussion was barely (if at all) musical, and they might have considered it to be sound effects. Birdman is an emperor with no clothes; kudos to the Music Branch for noticing its distinct lack of original musical garments.

    1. That you would say your “musical takeaway from the film was Mahler and Tchaikovsky” only underscores that the classical music cues were widely recognizable as such, and not the original score portion of the film, supporting why it should have been eligible for consideration. That you would refer to the percussion as “barely (if at all) musical” reveals a rather limited view of what constitutes music, but again is consideration for what should be nominated, not what should be eligible.

      Clearly there are many in the music branch who are uncomfortable with the means by which this original score was created, and were afraid that it would be nominated and might even win. So they use a narrow view of this rule – one that has not been applied as stringently to other previously nominated scores that shared aural space with classical tracks (ex: The Kings Speech) – and eliminate Birdman from consideration. A cowardly undemocratic move.

  13. I have not yet seen the movie, but I DID purchase the soundtrack and have listened to it several times. Antonio is an amazing talent and I enjoy the recordings he releases as well as those from other musicians that he works with.

    I have seen him play live many times. Watching and listening to him play was the first time that I thought “hey, this guy is playing MUSIC with his drums” not just keeping a beat…

  14. the “academy” is a dead body that really has very little relevance in today’s film culture. they just can’t understand something different and creative that might rock the boast. many years from now they will decide to give this guy some sort of “honorary” oscar for his grounbreaking work. time to get a new standard.

  15. The Academy is about as open-minded to unconventional music as the Grammys, which is to say, not at all. I was almost certain that the Birdman score was going to be nominated. It captured the simmering tension of Michael Keaton’s character remarkably well. It doesn’t surprise me that they would rule out a score like this. It certainly disappoints me, however.

    1. The most annoying “score”, I have ever heard in a major motion picture. If I hadn’t been with friends, it would have driven me out of theatre. Totally took me out of the film.

  16. Better to have people asking why you didn’t get an Oscar, rather than asking why you did.

    (Can’t say I loved the drum score, though that’s not relevant to the argument. )

    1. you can write drums on a music sheet, and it can be translated to any other instrument (rythmic ones included).

  17. I loved Sanchez’s score and wish AGI had not used any of the classical music cues, not bc Sanchez would be eligible to be nominated but bc his work was much more interesting.

  18. This is dumb, why do they have to point to an indvidual to be nominated for best score. It would make way more sense for just the movie score to be nominated as a whole, as a collective piece

  19. We are talking here about the score being ELIGIBLE, not winning. I think it’s unfair they didn’t even allow it that. Then everyone else could have decided for themselves. For me, it was as much a ‘score’ as any winning film in the past.

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