How classical music torpedoed 'Birdman' composer's chances at an Oscar

Michael Keaton in BirdmanFox Searchlight

December 24, 2014

This year Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu returned to cinema with a bona fide hit called Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Building buzz first in festivals and then in theaters, Birdman quickly become one of the most talked-about films of the year, with an innovative score written and performed by the miraculous drummer Antonio Sanchez.

Having been recognized with numerous nominations and awards, Birdman's score was considered a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination. Sanchez has spoken highly of the collaborative process he shared with Inarritu, saying, "I was involved with it before the film started, so he could rehearse with the actors. Directors will use temp music to get an idea of the music flow and, in this case, I did the temps with the demos. So I was involved basically with the before, during and after of the whole process."

However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (a.k.a. AMPAS, which runs the Oscars) has deemed the score ineligible according to the rules, which state:

To be eligible, the original score must be a substantial body of music that serves as original dramatic underscoring, and must be written specifically for the motion picture by the submitting composer. Scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music, diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs, or assembled from the music of more than one composer shall not be eligible.

After the initial rejection, a campaign was waged by many on the film's team — including Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — who argued that the score is integral to the film's objectives. This campaign was recently met with a second rejection despite the presentation of detailed cue sheets, descriptions of the collaborative process, and a letter from the president of Fox.

The Academy's stance is that the score is diluted by Inarritu's use of classical pieces by Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, and Rachmaninov. It's not because music from the classical repertoire lasts longer in the film than Sanchez's contributions — Inarritu has demonstrated that the total running time of clips featuring Sanchez's score exceeds that of clips featuring classical music. Nonetheless, the Academy feels that the classical pieces outweigh the original score in presence and stature. Simply stated: they matter more.

That's a tricky stance for the Academy to take, as film composers are increasingly trying new approaches and incorporating existing music into their new compositions. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame faced a similar dilemma in 2008 when his score for There Will Be Blood was declared ineligible on the same grounds — an added kicker in that scenario being that some of the source tracks referenced as diluting the original score were his own classical compositions from years prior.

Complicating this issue is the fact that the classical pieces featured in the film are well-known compositions from the repertoire: Tchaikovsky's fourth and fifth symphonies, Rachmaninoff's second symphony, Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess. Did the historical weight of these masterpieces stack the deck against Sanchez's spare percussion? Does orchestral music inherently count for more than music composed for jazz or rock ensembles?

Though the Oscars remain, well, the Oscars, the Academy has recently been struggling with relevance — trying desperately to experiment with different presenters and show designs, and returning to their former practice of admitting an expanded number of Best Picture nominees. Despite those changes, the Oscars are actually becoming more exclusive rather than less: the total number of films represented in the major award categories each year is continuing to shrink. In hewing to the "dilution rule" for score consideration, is the Academy upholding a standard — or failing to evolve? As Sanchez wrote in his official response:

The disqualification seems to stem from the perception that my score was diluted by the incidental music on the film. I strongly disagree with this idea. The music that people remember after watching the movie is the sound, originality, character, and strength of my score, which seems to be the reason it continues to receive attention, nominations, and awards, which I'm deeply humbled by. Some of the finest composers are members of the Academy and I'm saddened my score didn't resonate with the decision makers.

Many agree with Sanchez, and they're making their opinions known in other awards races: the Birdman score has been nominated for a Golden Globe and several awards from critics' societies. Are the Oscars holding the line — or losing ground?

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.

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