With the announcement of the 2014 Academy Award nominations this week, the indie rock stratosphere received two nominations, in somewhat minor categories. Both were for original music from the same phenomenal film, Spike Jonze’s “Her.” William Butler of Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett (formerly known as Final Fantasy) are up for “Best Original Score,” while Karen Orzolek, better known by stage name Karen O, of Yeah Yeah Yeahs got the nod for “Best Original Song” for “The Moon Song.”
As my past shortcomings in Oscar predictions will attest, I’m no clairvoyant in picking the winners. But it seems unlikely either nominee will take home their respective trophy. First-time nominees Butler and Pallett are up against Academy-celebrated wunderkinds like John Williams and Thomas Newman, while Karen O’s modest ditty isn’t exactly the type of song Academy voters usually go for – Elliott Smith, anyone?
Butler, Pallet, and Orzlolek might all leave the ceremony empty-handed on March 2. But their contributions to “Her,” along with the prudence of Jonze in recruiting and utilizing these artists’ talents for the film’s original soundtrack, must be applauded in their own right.
I saw “Her” last weekend and was floored. The screenplay’s ruminations on the future of technology, modern romance, and gender roles resonated strongly, and perhaps more so as a result of the original music. The contributions of Butler, Pallett, and Orzolek play an active and vital role in the film’s central romantic relationship between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore and Samantha, the cognizant, intelligent, and emotional computer operating system impeccably voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
Throughout their courtship, Samantha writes several original piano pieces for Theodore and plays them straight into the earpiece by which he communicates with her. Those melodies are intangible expressions of a mutual love that is by definition intangible -- between human and software. Incorporeality is a central theme of the film, and the impressionistic bits of music – which by Samantha’s definitions are meant to represent falling in love or lying on a beach in perfect harmony -- evoke strong empathy for a romance that initially struck me as comedic.
The moment when Theodore and Samantha seem in closest (figurative) proximity occurs when the two perform “The Moon Song” with Theodore playing ukulele and Samantha singing, alone in a remote cabin. It’s one of several moments when I forgot Samantha wasn’t actually present in the room with Theodore, a dissonance caused by what I was hearing, and in direct contrast to what I was seeing on the screen. Too often, we describe music as “transcendent,” but I think that’s the effect we’re getting at.
Jonze, who cut his teeth directing music videos for the likes of Fatboy Slim, Bjork, and Weezer, integrates the soundtrack magnificently. It’s an approach unprecedented in his previous work. Sure, the trailer for his previous film “Where the Wild Things Are” was a surefire recipe for audience goosebumps with its use of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” juxtaposed against clips of the child Max frolicking with the film’s creatures. But “Her” never pushes for those no-brainer power anthem moments. Instead it uses subtle minimalist pieces pushed into the narrative forefront.
I’d be thrilled if any of these artists, including Jonze, who is up for “Best Original Screenplay,” won for their contributions to “Her.” But win or lose, the film should be celebrated as a victorious intersection of film and music media, and a testament to the multidimensional talent of some of our favorite modern noisemakers.