“Birdman” Score Snubbed: Why Oscar Hates Drummers

Antonio Sanchez’s gorgeous drum score for “Birdman” was disqualified before it even had a chance to win an Academy Award

Jeff Peretz
Feb 19, 2015 · 8 min read

What do you call those folks who hang around with musicians? Drummers.

It’s an old joke, but apparently the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agrees. In December, they excluded Antonio Sanchez’s gorgeous, drum-centric score for the movie Birdman from consideration for the Best Original Score award—ostensibly because there are a few scenes in which we hear traditional classical music not originally composed for the film.

The rule they are citing, Rule 15 Section II-E of the Academy’s annual guidebook, states that “Scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music, diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs or assembled from the music of more than one composer shall not be eligible.”

What this means is that music branch of the Academy has the power to disqualify any film score for consideration if the film in question has any other music in it besides the score. But, as the history shows, how they enforce this rule is arbitrary at best, and elitist at worst. When the score has been traditional orchestral music, the use of other songs or compositions has been OK. But when the script has been flipped—with rhythmic music in the fore instead and classical as the incidental music—it has not. The real reason? The voters at the Academy don’t consider rhythm to be as “musical” as harmony and melody.

For example, the rule has often been ignored when the same circumstances being cited for the exclusion of Birdman apply. The King’s Speech, which used Beethoven’s 7th Symphony to underscore the most dramatic moment in the film, the actual 1939 radio speech for which the film is titled, somehow did not “dilute” Alexandre Desplat’s minimalist classical score or disqualify it from being nominated.

It would be one thing to simply disqualify a score because there is other music in the film that was not written by the score’s composer. But that’s not what’s happening here. What seems to be going on is that the style of music in question (European classical music) seems to have the power to “dilute” the influence of certain scores (scores by rock stars and drum-scores) but not others (classical scores).

Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

There has long been an elitist mentality towards non-classical music by the Academy. When we look at some of the greatest non-classical soundtracks of all time: Lift to the Scaffold by Miles Davis, 1958; Shaft by Isaac Hayes, 1971; Superfly by Curtis Mayfield, 1974; Paris, Texas by Ry Cooder, 1984; Beverly Hills Cop by Harold Faltermeyer, 1984; Ghost Dog by The RZA, 1999 and Slumdog Millionaire by A.R. Rahman, 2008) only two (Shaft and Slumdog Millionaire) have been nominated and only one (Slumdog) has ever won for Original Score (Shaft won for Best Original Song). None of them however have ever been deemed ineligible for consideration.

In fact, the use of European classical music has always been treated differently than use of pop music when used in the same fashion. Birdman contains 30 minutes of original music composed for solo drum-set and 18 minutes of standard classical pieces. Had there been 18 minutes of Motown songs, we probably would not be having this discussion.

Why? Pop songs used in a film are considered part of the “soundtrack,” which the Academy considers separate from “score.” The success of films like Pulp Fiction and this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy owe a great deal of their success to their carefully curated soundtracks. Soundtracks are filled with songs not written for the films but used to bolster the feeling of being in a certain place and time.

Why didn’t the use of Bob Marley’s “Crazy Baldheads” and the Beatles “Baby You’re a Rich Man” dilute or disqualify Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose’s score from being nominated for The Social Network? Because the Academy doesn’t believe that a pop song has the power to dilute a score. On the other side of the equation, the 1st movement of Mahler’s “9th Symphony in D major” in Birdman is a classical piece, not considered a “song” by the Academy and therefore not pushed into the “soundtrack” category the same way “Crazy Baldheads” is.

But neither Mahler nor “Baldheads” were written for the films in which they appear. “Crazy Baldheads” was chosen for its commentary on the “con man” coming with his “con man plan” and as such helped carry the films message. Similarly, in Birdman, Inarritu chose Mahler because he felt it supports the story and visuals of his film… no different. The problem, one might argue, is that we would never confuse a Bob Marley song with the underscore of the movie the way that we would a Mahler piece. But that argument doesn’t fly when the score that the Mahler piece is set against is played entirely on a drum-set.

Actor Chris Pine and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs announce ‘Birdman’ as a nominee for Best Picture on January 15, 2015 in Beverly Hills

When we consider that the members that make up the music branch of the Academy, led by Charles Fox, are mostly of one racial background, one gender and one age group, its not hard to see how they could be confused by an all drum score. Sadly, but not surprisingly this elitism has its roots in another type of “-ism,” America’s Puritan fear of things African in general and fear of African rhythms in particular. When we consider how America first reacted to jazz (too scandalous), to rock-n-roll (too rebellious), to funk (too sexual), to reggae (too trippy), to hip-hop (too scary), it’s not hard to see why an all drum score would not just be overlooked but actively snubbed for recognition. Its important to keep in mind, the Academy didn’t only not nominate the score for Birdman, they disqualified it from consideration and then shot down a heartfelt appeal by the films director to reconsider.

Who is the Academy to tell the team responsible for this work of art what is or what is not the score to their film, especially when the creators of the film consider their score to be the intricate and spontaneous rhythm compositions of Mr. Sanchez?

I would suggest that rather than hiding behind their antiquated rule and quantifying the amount of time spent hearing melodic and harmonic instruments vs. a drum set, the Academy should instead look at when and why the change occurs. Here’s an example with a slight spoiler alert: The character Laura, played by Andrea Riseborough thinks she is pregnant for the first three quarters of the movie. The classical pieces are used as a musical theme for the unborn child. Once the character realizes that she isn’t pregnant, we never hear the strings again. The harmonic and melodic information associated with particular characters are aesthetic choices no different than adorning one of them in a blue shirt and another in red. What would happen if a film with amazing costume design were to be snubbed in similar fashion for having a character spend too much time in a blue shirt?

What separates Birdman from the pack this awards season, is the originality of its approach. It was filmed in such a way to make it feel like it was all one big shot. In other words, each scene seamlessly transitions into the next as if the viewer were peering over the shoulder of the actors in real time—not unlike a drum solo that in its ebb and flow of intensity can outline the bigger musical form of a song without revealing where the change in sections occur. The fact that this film chooses to acknowledge “flow” and “feel’ as very real elements in its execution is a testament that the drum-score is not only a cool sonic device but also at the core of the identity of the entire approach.

The cast of ‘Birdman’ (L-R): Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and Andrea Riseborough at The Shrine Auditorium on January 25, 2015 in L.A.

Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephan Mirrone were able to find a way to blend the color, lighting and cut points to convince us that we were seeing one long shot, this doesn’t happen hook, line, and sinker without all of our senses being convinced. In this way, you can add Antonio Sanchez’s name to Lubezki’s, Crise’s and Mirrone’s as part of the team to pull this off which was precisely the argument that the filmmakers made when they filed their appeal to the academy.

Mr. Lubezki was nominated for the cinematography, Inarritu for directing, Michael Keaton, Ed Norton and Emma Stone all nominated for their fearless acting… even Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock were nominated for sound editing and Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga for sound mixing. There has to be more to the story as to why what the sound editors were editing and what the sound mixers were mixing is not even eligible for the same type of recognition.

I suspect that this will eventually change just as the attitudes towards rock-n-roll and hip-hop have now over the years. A.R. Rahman’s win in 2008 for Slumdog Millionaire was certainly a step in the right direction, although one gets the feeling that its exoticism has more to do with that than its contemporary feel. In disqualifying Antonio Sanchez’s score for Birdman, the Academy missed a golden opportunity calibrate its compass. When Birdman goes on to win Best Picture on February 22nd, it will be in no small part due to the power of its original score and the fact that it was fearlessly played entirely on a drum set.

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Jeff Peretz, pka Sidd Still, is a multi-instrumentalist and producer who has recorded and/or performed with Mark Ronson, Lana Del Rey, Rock Wilder, Tim Robbins and Stanley Clarke. He is a Visiting Professor of Music Theory at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at the Tisch School of the Arts. His books include Zen and the Art of Guitar, Guitar Atlas: Cuba and Guitar Atlas: The Middle East.


Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

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Medium’s Premier Music Publication: An ear for the new, a heart for the classics

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