Oscars 2014: Music stars muscle in on Academy Awards glory

Soundtracks are no longer the preserve of film composers 

Arcade Fire’s William Butler is tipped to win his first Oscar on Sunday, for Best Original Score for the Spike Jonze-directed film Her. Fans of Arcade Fire will already be familiar with one of the tracks, an instrumental version of “Supersymmetry”, which appeared on the band’s No 1 album, Reflektor.

The nominations for best music at this year’s Oscars are star-studded, with Pharrell Williams and Karen O also up for gongs. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ frontwoman is up for Best Original Song for “Moon Song”, written for and inspired by Her and performed by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson in the film. She is up against Williams, soon to release GIRL, his first solo album in eight years, for his No 1 hit “Happy”, which he wrote for Despicable Me 2.

Looking down the list of 2014 Oscars-nominated films, there are others with outstanding soundtracks – although overlooked in the music-award categories. Set in the early-1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis features a soundtrack compiled by T Bone Burnett, the producer behind the eight-million-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? album. Among its 12 new recordings of acoustic roots songs made especially for the film and soundtrack, Marcus Mumford performs a new arrangement of the folk song "Fare Thee Well" (Dink’s Song) with actor and musician Oscar Isaac. Much of the soundtrack was recorded live on set, performed by Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and Isaac. The other stand-out soundtrack that could have earned a few nods for Best Original Song is The Great Gatsby, whose executive producer Jay Z stars alongside Lana del Rey, Florence and The Machine, will.i.am, The xx, The Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie and Nero, all recording original new music for the film.

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Jay Z amongst others was featured in 'The Great Gatsby'
It signifies how many names in rock and pop are contributing songs to film soundtracks. More and more rock and pop musicians are branching into film soundtracks. While Nick Cave has been at it since the 1990s, other successful rock and pop musicians turned film scorers are Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, whose Academy Award-winning success scoring films has led to him scoring David Fincher’s forthcoming adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, and Radiohead’s classically-trained Jonny Greenwood, who has soundtracked several high profile films including Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. More recently, Jon Hopkins scored the Saiorse Ronan-starring How I Live Now, penning a track, “Garden’s Heart”, alongside Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan. Rufus Wainwright and John Bramwell have also suggested film composing is in the pipeline.

For many musicians, it’s the next step in their career; some who have been in a band for many years may be tired of touring and making records and are keen to stretch themselves. Andy Burrows, who performed as Razorlight’s drummer for many years, and has since turned solo artist/collaborator with Editors’ Tom Smith, turned to film scoring when he was approached by Channel 4 to help write the music for The Snowman and the Snowdog animation.

“Rock and pop musicians are having to broaden their horizons and become more versatile,” Burrows tells me. “The record industry is shrinking, so there have to be other ways to earn a living. I think film-score composing is probably the first, most exciting thing. It also involves zero touring which is always appealing.” He welcomed the ready-made inspiration that comes with scoring a film. “The main difference was that there was something to write for – an inspiration already in place. That’s quite a relief for any songwriter I think – not having to tear your heart out, or bare your soul, to give a song purpose.”

Andy Burrows turned to film scoring after he was approached by Channel 4 (Getty Images) Andy Burrows turned to film scoring after he was approached by Channel 4 (Getty Images)
But it’s a very different discipline, warns music supervisor Matt Biffa, who has helmed the music for Snatch and Harry Potter, worked alongside Graham Coxon on Fresh Meat, and is working on the upcoming film Posh by Lone Scherfig, based on a play by Laura Wade. “The thing about working with artists on films is that the discipline is different. When you’re in a band the only people you’re writing for are the band members whereas when you’re doing film or TV you’re at the mercy of the producers, director, editor... and all have an opinion. It’s such a different discipline and I think it’s more difficult than people imagine. I’ve been in situations where quite well-known artists have really objected to the way they’ve been treated. Film people are quite heavy-handed sometimes. You need to be thick-skinned.”

Securing an artist with a several million following such as Pharrell Williams onto the soundtrack is going to attract certain attention to the film. Likewise employing Jay Z, for The Great Gatsby.

“You have to check your motives are pure”, warns Biffa of picking celebrity musicians for the sake of commercial value. “Trent Reznor and Jonny Greenwood have done it very successfully. These people have a ready-made audience and when it’s done right you get incredible creative results. You’re helping the director tell the story.

“Jay Z on The Great Gatsby is a coup. The film rubs off on the artist and an artist rubs off on a film. It’s cross-pollination on social networks. You get access to five million people on Twitter who become aware of the film simply because they follow. I’m sure Spike Jonze is doing it because it’s making a valid artistic contribution to the film. But I have suspected motives – ‘we’ll get Billy Corgan or Damon Albarn’. The question is, why did you want them so much? Because you want a valid creative experience or just the added commercial value that they bring?”

The soundtracks to teen films are becoming as important as the films themselves. It’s also no longer about just making a compilation of old songs. It’s about creating a new exciting album that’s as anticipated as the film itself.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack had indie-rock songs by Coldplay and The National, and electro-pop from Ellie Goulding, that were exclusive to that release. The upcoming soundtrack to teen film Divergent, out on 4 April, is equally anticipated, its 16-song tracklist including never-before-heard tracks from rapper Kendrick Lamar, dreamy indie-pop from M83, Banks, and Ellie Goulding.

Judging the music categories for future Oscars is only going to get harder.

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