2019 Calvin Awards: Best Use of Music
By Kim Hollis
February 20, 2019
Quick! When you think about a movie like Almost Famous, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Tiny Dancer? Something else relating to music? What about Requiem for a Dream or Apocalypse Now or The Big Chill or Platoon? All these films have big time music triggers, and sometimes just the inkling of a song will remind us of a movie we love. It happened to me the other day when I heard The Weight, reminding me that the soundtrack to The Big Chill is amazing even if the film might not have held up over the years.
Yes, a soundtrack or a score can change the way we feel about a movie, impacting emotion and pacing. Thus, BOP chooses to award a movie for the way that it uses music rather than simply awarding Best Song or Best Score. Those pieces can matter in a movie, but sometimes it’s the soundtrack, too. Or some combination of original song, original score, and songs licensed for the project.
You could probably predict this year’s winner without giving it much thought. One movie in 2018 dealt with the music industry, songwriting, collaboration, and the positive and negative emotions that go into those different aspects of creativity. A Star Is Born explores these themes amidst the story of a rising young singer who becomes romantically involved with a famous but flailing rock star. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you probably know the ubiquitous “Shallow,” a song that perfectly encapsulates a turning point for Ally and Jackson. In Jackson’s portion of the song, he is asking whether Ally is searching for more, while Ally asks Jackson if he’s “tired trying to fill that void.”
Director/star Bradley Cooper has said that every single lyric he and Lady Gaga created for A Star Is Born had purpose. “The music really became character in the movie,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “There is no lyric that’s ever in any point of the movie that doesn’t have exactly to do with where one of them is or hopes to be or regrets being.” The duo accomplished that goal beautifully, and the result is a soaring, tragic film that resonates with anyone who has ever thrilled at the moment of perfect creation or wallowed in the dark depths of writer’s block and despondency.
Second place goes to a film that packed in plenty of pop culture into its quest story. Ready Player One revels in celebration of 1970s and ‘80s movies, television, video games, and more (along with the Iron Giant and others who were denizens of the ‘90s and beyond). When John Williams dropped out, Alan Silvestri stepped in to handle the score, which seems mighty appropriate since Silvestri was the man behind Back to the Future, which is referenced in the film.
As for the soundtrack itself, Spielberg was open to suggestions from cast and crew, but basically culled a more expansive Spotify playlist (given to him by book author Ernest Cline and screenwriter Zak Penn) to get the final songs that appeared in the film, from Van Halen’s “Jump” to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” to “You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates and one of Spielberg’s favorites, “Just My Imagination,” performed by the Temptations. If you were a child of the ‘80s, the songs will take you back, and if you weren’t, they should evoke a pretty good representation of the era. The one disappointment is that “Dead Man’s Party” by Oingo Boingo is missing completely when it played a significant role in the book.
What movie was cooler this year than Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? Is it even cool to say “cool” anymore? Well, whatever adjective describes something super-fantastic, trend-busting, and groundbreaking, we should use it for this singular animated film. That goes for the soundtrack, too, which takes care to incorporate tunes appropriate for young hero Miles Morales and other characters as well. With current talent like Post Malone and Swae Lee, Nicki Minaj along with Anuel AA and Bantu, DJ Khalil and Lil Wayne, the eclectic songs were the perfect fit for a movie that celebrates heroes who don’t look like the ones we’re traditionally used to. And that’s a GOOD thing.
A movie like If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, deserves a soundtrack that punctuates the high points and the low points. Director Barry Jenkins had previously collaborated with composer Nicholas Britell on the Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight, and for Beale Street, the process was effectively an exchange of ideas back and forth until the pair arrived at the perfect accompaniment – jazzy and dreamy, using strings and brass to accentuate the themes and mood of the film.
I’ll bet you had no idea until 2018 just how much you NEEDED Chinese versions of “Money (That’s What I Want)” and Coldplay’s “Yellow” or a Cantonese update of Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Or how about the Elvis Presley song “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” for a gorgeous, perfect wedding scene? These are but a few of the gifts that came our way courtesy of Crazy Rich Asians, and if the only thing you learn from this article is that director Jon M. Chu wanted to reclaim the word “yellow” as something offensive from his youth that he turned into a positive (at which point Coldplay gave their immediate consent), then you have walked away with a nice bit of trivia indeed. It plays at the end of the film and is just the perfect culmination of the joy the creators are hoping we experience.
Do I even need to explain why Bohemian Rhapsody appears on this list? I thought not. The Freddie Mercury biopic obviously covers the music of Queen (especially “the operatic section”), from their earliest days as a bar band all the way to their world-beating performance at Live Aid. Whether or not you love Queen, the pacing of the music in the film is perfectly set to appeal to fans and non-fans alike. I certainly know a lot of kids who discovered their music this way, which is pretty okay in my book. I remember buying Queen albums when I was a kid. I feel like everyone ought to experience their music.
Black Panther deserves attention for its combined score and curated soundtrack. To write the score, composer Ludwig Göransson journeyed to Senegal and toured with musician Baaba Maal as well as spending time with local musicians to create his score. From there, Göransson layered on more research by listening to thousands of recordings of African tribes. The result is a triumphant piece of cinematic history. For the curated soundtrack, Kendrick Lamar wanted music inspired by the themes of the movie. Many reviewers viewed the soundtrack as one of the best rap albums of the year, with the song “King’s Dead” even winning a Grammy.
I have an admission to make. I have turned against a lot of Coen Bros films because of the presence of Tim Blake Nelson, an actor who I just never enjoyed. That all changed with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, because in Nelson’s opening segment, I laughed and laughed. Every song that came along with Nelson’s portrayal of Buster Scruggs was an absolute hoot, including “Cool Water,” “Little Joe the Wrangler,” and “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.” Every segment of the film has music that is important to the plot of the individual stories, but the standouts, other than Nelson’s, are “Mother Machree” (the always amazing Tom Waits) and “The Unfortunate Lad,” performed by Brendan Gleeson.
In past Best Use of Music writeups, I imagine that I’ve mentioned how much I admire composer Alexandre Desplat. He’s responsible for some of my favorite scores of the past 20 years, including Girl With a Pearl Earring, The Queen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Ghost Writer, The Imitation Game, and The Shape of Water. But for me, he’s never better than when he works with Wes Anderson, whose films Desplat has orchestrated since 2009. His playful pieces are perfect for Anderson’s animated films; Fantastic Mr. Fox will stick in my head if I even think about it, and 2018’s Isle of Dogs will join it as one of the great soundtracks for Anderson’s long and notable movie career.
We close it out with yet another composer whom I deeply admire, this time Justin Hurwitz. The key musical collaborator for Damien Chazelle, the two have found success over and over again in their evoking mood through the proper orchestral (or percussive… or movie musical…) accompaniment. For First Man, the soundtrack balances calm, soothing melodies as well as powerful, space-driven tunes. I’d go so far as to call First Man a somber, sad movie, and I have to believe that the music is much of what drives that belief for me, along with Ryan Gosling’s performance.
Films that finished just outside of the top ten include BlackKklansman, Deadpool 2, Mary Poppins Returns, Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You.
2019 Calvin Awards
Best Overlooked Film
Best Supporting Actor
Best Supporting Actress
Best TV Show
Best Use of Music
||Star Is Born, A
||Ready Player One
||Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
||If Beale Street Could Talk
||Crazy Rich Asians
||Isle of Dogs
||Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The