Listening to Things: Brokeback Mountain, original score by Gustavo Santaolalla

When last I checked in to talk about the Academy Award winners for Best Orignal Score, I made my feelings for the banality of the music for Finding Neverland known. I decided it was about as inspiring and as inoffensive as the music played at a shopping mall’s food court.

Well, guess what, Dear Readers? We have another food destination for our trip through the twenty-first-century’s winners! This week, we’re headed to the coffee shop. But not, I’m sorry to say, to your friendly neighborhood coffee shop. Alas. We’re on our way to the corporate coffee shop you’ll find on three out of four corners downtown where they somehow manage to mess up a basic gingerbread cake and guard the bathroom keys like they’re made of solid gold.

Why, you ask, are we on our way to Starbucks? Because Gustavo Santaolalla’s music for Brokeback Mountain would fit right into a Spotify playlist for a “corporate coffee shop”. Guitar-based, inoffensive, banal. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard plenty of other local singer-songwriters playing similar music in my neighborhood coffee shops.

Perhaps they should get big, shiny awards, too.

But anyway.

The soundtrack album for Brokeback Mountain (as it appears on Spotify) lists seventeen tracks with a total running time of 43 min 30 sec. This includes songs by such greats as Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Rufus Wainright, and others. Santaolalla is credited with seven tracks for a total of roughly thirteen minutes of music.

Thirteen minutes.

Thirteen minutes of safe, banal, unmemorable guitar music that sounds like it would fit in anywhere from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon. The only thing that really makes it sound “Western” is the guitar it’s played on. The musicians doing the heavy lifting for this score are country legends, and I can’t help but think that it was their inclusion on the album that swayed the Academy voters toward it, which would hardly be fair as it’s supposed to be the original score being chosen.

What’s more irritating about Brokeback Mountain winning for best original score with, remember thirteen minutes of original music in its official soundtrack, is what it was up against: Dario Marianelli’s score for Pride and Prejudice, two of John Williams’ scores (Munich and Memoirs of a Geisha), and Alberto Iglesias’ score for The Constant Gardner.

Now, I’m biased toward Dario Marianelli and his music for Pride and Prejudice. It’s one of my favorite films and one of my favorite film scores, and if had won I would have been thrilled.

But once again, I think John Williams was cheated out of a well-earned win because his score for Munich was brilliant. That there is an hour of original music (entirely by Williams) is a mark in its favor against Brokeback Mountain. But there is so much more going on in this music than Santaolalla could have dreamed of doing for Brokeback.

Munich‘s music is fraught with tension, with much of it set in minor keys or using semitones, or with the melodies played by the lower end of the orchestra– by cellos or basses, for example. And if the guitar was the instrument of choice for the 2005 awards, then guess what? ‘Avner’s Theme’ is a beautiful solo guitar piece with a theme that is developed across its three minutes, instead of being a background sound that’s easily overlooked. There are rumbling, discordant sections (Munich is a tense film about terrorism at the 1972 Munich Olympics, after all), and sections that are soft almost nostalgic.

So what gives? Why did the Academy decide that Santaolalla and his thirteen or so minutes of music were more deserving of the award than (another) phenomenal score by John Williams, who is arguably the greatest film composer of all time? Were they looking for something pretty? If so, they could have selected Dario Marianelli’s score for Pride and Prejudice, which features a charming and intimate piano piece that denotes “home”, as well as sweeping themes that encompass such notions as love and freedom.

Did the lack of guitar music hurt Marianelli’s chances? Did the challenging sounds of Munich hurt John Williams’ chances? I have no idea. I’m over here being all sorts of confused (and annoyed) because the thirteen minutes (no, I’m not letting it go) of original music that show up on the soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain might be worth some snaps of appreciation at a coffee shop, but I can’t fathom how they were worth an Academy Award.

Next week: Another Santaolalla score. For Babel. Which won over Javier Navarrete’s score for Pan’s Labyrinth and Phillip Glass’s score for Notes on a Scandal.

I’m already annoyed.

5 thoughts on “Listening to Things: Brokeback Mountain, original score by Gustavo Santaolalla

  1. I don’t think I’ve heard any of the scores mentioned, except Pan’s Labyrinth. But I have very much enjoyed John Williams scores in the past. I’ve read Memoirs of a Geisha but haven’t seen the movie and didn’t know Williams scored it. Not sure if I’ve heard anything by Gustavo Santaolalla. Sorry to hear about all the disappointment, though.

  2. I hadn’t heard anything about Santaoalla before this. Apparently, he’s scored numerous films, television shows, and video games in addition to being a world-renowned guitar player. But so far, his music just hasn’t done much for me.

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