On Monday, Variety reported that the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disqualified four scores from being considered for Oscar nominations. Specifically, the music composed for True Grit, Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right and The Fighter all supposedly violate the Academy's historically-stringent rules about incorporating pre-existing music into new compositions. Meanwhile, Alexandre Desplat's score for The King's Speech remains eligible for consideration, despite the fact that the music similarly includes elements of classical compositions.
While the scores that were ruled out are not particularly avante-garde—all four of them come from studio-funded and distributed films—the arbitrary choice to keep The King's Speech while ousting the others only reflects the Academy's advancing age, inflexibility, and quite frankly, relevance. Tom Hooper's film is precisely the kind of safe Oscar-bait that Academy voters swallow up every year, and its music is a similar sort of line-drive that does everything that's expected of it without providing anything dynamic or unique. And even though the actual nominations haven't been announced yet, there are eminently more transgressive or singular scores to consider—among them Daft Punk's music for TRON: Legacy and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' work on The Social Network—which now seem to be pre-emptively handicapped by the validation of a score which not only breaks the selfsame rules that rendered the other scores ineligible, but is a safe back-up in case nothing more noble or elegant gets nominated.
The use of music in films is an integral component of their emotional impact, and in the last two decades, samples and even source music has become an essential component of many scores. While something like Will Smith's use of Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots" for his theme to Men in Black may not qualify as award-winning film music, Howard Shore used themes from Swan Lake for the score of Tim Burton's Ed Wood, and gave Bela Lugosi's descent into drug addiction a poignant sadness. Coincidentally, Black Swan's ineligibility was also based on using Swan Lake, but it's the interplay of Tchaikovsky's compositions and Mansell's original work that gives the film as a whole such a sumptuous and moody atmosphere.
Meanwhile, to dismiss Carter Burwell's music for True Grit because it references 19th century hymns is an egregious example of fealty to rules that no longer apply in the same way they did when they were put into effect. Listening to the music, it's clear that those themes have been reimagined and transformed via orchestral arrangements that evoke the time and place of the film. But the question, of course, is what percentage of a score can be comprised of pre-existing material—not in the sense that an artist or composer can borrow from other performers, but how the Academy arbitrarily decides that Burwell and Mansell violate that amount, while Desplat remains eligible. To make such distinctions compromises the integrity of the Academy as a whole, and highlights how outdated and pointless their rules truly are.
Of course, there are a number of scores released this year which use almost exclusively pre-existing material, and they're equal (if not superior) to films with completely original content. (Luca Guadagnino's use of John Adams' music in I Am Love, for example, creates one of the most memorable and evocative musical backdrops in recent history, as does Martin Scorsese's use of Adams and other avant-garde composers in Shutter Island.) But ultimately, until the Academy acknowledges its capricious and obsolete restrictions for not only otherwise eligible but truly worthy, it will continue to fail to live up to its very raison d'etre - to celebrate and champion significant and groundbreaking accomplishments in cinema.