2021 Calvins: Best Use of Music

By Kim Hollis

April 1, 2021

Soul: Best Use of Music

Jazz. Blues. Metal. Jaja Ding Dong. These are but a few of our favorite musical styles that exemplify the Best Use of Music in a movie from 2020 (or January through February of 2021).

Thanks to the glory of streaming video, we had ample opportunity to see an eclectic bunch of films over the course of the year, allowing us to recognize some surprise entries along with some that you would probably expect to see in a typical year.

Our winner in the category took it in a landslide, as Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste delighted audiences both young and old with their score for Soul. When Gen X-ers like me were banging our heads to albums like Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral, I’m sure we all expected to see him nominated for an Oscar for his music in an animated film.

Note that although Reznor and Ross are also nominated for an Academy Award for Mank, it finished just outside our top ten films in this category, barely missing the double nod for the duo.

Soul will make you love jazz music. If not, it will at least give you an understanding of why people do love jazz music. It’s the perfect metaphor for the topsy-turvy “Great Beyond” and “Great Before,” not to mention Joe Gardner and 22’s search for meaning (or “spark”).

“A-one. A-two. A-you know what to do.” You’ll never forget bandleader Cutler uttering these words to count in the band every time they play in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The blues music is the heart of the film, of course, playing tribute to the legendary blues singer Ma Rainey herself, with arrangements by Branford Marsalis. The passion and the desperation come through in the songs, evoking an era and atmosphere that puts the viewer into the scene with the musicians.

The intensity of metal is accentuated when contrasted against silence. The Sound of Metal’s Ruben has lost his hearing, meaning he can no longer collaborate with his girlfriend/bandmate, Lou. It’s not only about the metal, though, as a devastating moment also occurs when Lou sings a gentle French ballad with her father.

“I ONLY WANT TO HEAR JAJA DING DONG!” Such is the fate suffered by Icelandic singers Lars and Sigrit as they play local pubs in their small hometown of Húsavík. They want to grow and create… and to play on one of the world’s biggest stages in the Eurovision Song Contest. They get there eventually in a film that uses a combination of silly and serious songs to deliver a delightful diversion. Their song honoring their hometown, “Húsavík,” is truly transcendent.

But if you do only want to hear Jaja Ding Dong, they’re probably up for it.

We round out our top five nominees with The High Note, as it could qualify based on Tracy Ellis Ross’s “Love Myself” alone. Yes, the comparisons of her to her mother (Diana Ross) are unavoidable, but she is a dominant force in the film, along with some additional contributions by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (a revelation in the film) and Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos. (Maybe this time next year we’ll call him In the Heights’ Anthony Ramos.)

A new Christmas classic sneaks on the list, as Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey brought joy to audiences stuck at home during the holiday season. This family musical kept us humming and singing for days after we watched it thanks to tunes crafted by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, Michael Diskint, and John Legend.

One Night in Miami almost certainly lands on the list due to the strength of musical performances from Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke. He’s complemented by a searing score by Terence Blanchard as well as the One Night in Miami Band. “Speak Now,” written by Odom Jr. and Sam Ashworth is an important cultural touchstone and a worthy nominee for the “Best Song” Oscar.

You can always count on the music in Charlie Kaufman’s films to be thought-provoking and memorable. Composer Jay Wadley uses a combination of electronic and original orchestral music to create something evocative and unique for I’m Thinking of Ending Things – especially that climactic ballet scene.

Alexandre Desplat is one of my favorite contemporary composers, and I immediately recognized his work in The Midnight Sky. Not many people saw the film, which probably contributes to its low placement here, but it’s a gorgeous score.

Finally, we recognize Small Axe: Lovers Rock, one film in an anthology of five from Steve McQueen. Dan Kois of Slate says that the “reggae, dub, and disco soundtrack… is also the soundtrack of its characters’ lives, hopes and dreams.”

Along with Mank, other films sitting just outside the top ten include Palm Springs, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Time, and Bill and Ted Face the Music.

Top 10
Position Film Total Points
1 Soul 153
2 Ma Rainey's Black Bottom 111
3 Sound of Metal 69
4 Eurovision 66
5 The High Note 51
6 Jingle Jangle A Christmas Journey 48
7 One Night in Miami 45
8 I'm Thinking of Ending Things 39
9 Midnight Sky 36
10 Small Axe: Lovers Rock 30



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