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Happy 50th Birthday, Alexandre Desplat

Robert G here from Sketchy Details wishing a Happy Birthday to the most in demand film composer of our time.

Can you believe that Alexandre Desplat has scored 128 separate film and television projects since 1985? How about how a year hasn't gone by since 1991 where he didn't score at least three different TV or film productions? He has had quite the successful career in France and has started to work consistently in America in the past eight or so years.

Desplat has been nominated for Best Original Score four times at the Academy Awards: The Queen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The King's Speech. He's clearly doing something right to get the Music Branch's attention. His work is especially noticeable for not being the super flashy film scoring that demands attention. He does what needs to be done to set the right tone and lets the film be the focus.

Indeed, every year he lost the Oscar, he lost to a film with a far flashier or more pronounced score...

Gustavo Santaolalla had the instantly recognizable acoustic guitar sequence in Babel. A.R. Rahman brought his Bollywood flair to Hollywood with Slumdog Millionaire. Michael Giacchino had that sweeping old-fashioned waltz in Up. And Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross blew everyone away with their moody use of synths and keyboards in The Social Network. Someone like Desplat doesn't stand a chance against scores that steal attention from the film.

Desplat is the kind of composer I aspire to be. He has a distinct sound that is instantly recognizable but it is always appropriate to the context of the film. His music tends to be a little bit sentimental with a bit of a dark edge. He favors traditional film orchestra instrumentation--piano, strings, brass, woodwinds, orchestral percussion--and always establishes a recurring theme. This little string of melody will be spun as many ways as possible throughout the film. It's never distracting. That is his greatest strength. You know a film score is working right if it helps the story and visuals progress without drawing attention to itself. It's designed to establish a tone or mood that only music can accomplish.

The first time I really took notice of Alexandre Desplat was in his score to the Nicole Kidman film Birth. Aside from being a severely underrated, underseen, and underappreciated film, Birth is one of the rare times where Desplat sets up cheerful theme. He can spin it dark in an instant to match the more serious subject matter. That's not a challenge. This score is simultaneously unique in his career and instantly recognizable as Desplat's work.

This year, Alexandre Desplat is responsible for the original score in four films: The Tree of Life, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (he added some really nice touches but was mostly working off of John Williams' original score in the first film) A Better Life (a tiny film that I wouldn't expect to get noticed for its music), and The Ides of March.

The Tree of Life features some really beautiful original scoring. The problem is that the final edit of the film uses many other composers for specific stylistic reasons. The most recognizable is Mahler's "Symphony No. 1," used in the opening scene and a crucial scene later on. While I give credit to Desplat for finding a way to connect all of these disparate samplings of existing music together with his atmospheric score, I will not be surprised if the Academy declares him ineligible for Best Original Score for this film. There's just so much music he didn't write in it and it's all used in far more important scenes than his original score. Still, it is a lovely score. You can listen to 30 seconds samples in this video.

I have a feeling that if Alexandre Desplat is going to play into the Oscar race this year, it will be for the upcoming The Ides of March. We don't know a lot about the film yet. What we do know is that it's a political drama, which is always an invitation to do dark, lush, moody themes that typically pick up at the tail end of all major dramatic scenes. It's probably the flashiest way Desplat's music could be used in a film. You can notice something similar with how his score was mixed into last year's The Ghost Writer. It could just be that he needs a film to push his music to the forefront to break through from regular nominee to Academy Award winner.

As vivi ferriari pointed out in the comments, Desplat is also scoring Roman Polanski's Carnage. If the Academy goes big on that film, Desplat could easily get swept up.

Here's to Alexandre Desplat's 50th Birthday. May he continue to take pride in his craft and deliver just what a film needs with each project he takes on.

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Reader Comments (15)

Off topic. ... but did anyone else just feel the earthquake? I am in Princeton NJ and it scared the @#$% out of me!

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave

I felt it while I was trying to schedule this post. Everything in my office started shaking and I thought I was imagining it. The quake is connected to the 5.8 earthquake in Virginia. People up through Upstate NY and down to South Carolina have reported feeling the effects.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Welcome to Cali! (Although 5.8 is quite a trembler.)

Thank you for the shout-out to Birth. That film should've racked up multiple nominations, and at least two wins -- for Nicole Kidman and Desplat's score. (AMPAS can be so disspiritingly blind to genius.)

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

His snub for Birth was an awful lesson for me in how everyone in the Academy (i.e. the individual branches) generally just does as they're told. Regardless of feelings about every other aspect of the film, I have a really hard time believing other musicians and composers didn't see the beauty in this work, and how it worked so wonderfully within the film. I'm sure he'll eventually ride a tidal wave of love for one film or compose that big theme to finally get a win, but he should've had an easy one already in my opinion.

Take care everyone. How random is an earthquake in Virginia!?

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Yeah-I don't see him being a James Newton Howard or Thomas Newman and racking up multiple nominations without ever getting a win-I think he'll luck into one at some point (he had to have been a close second last year for The King's Speech).

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Great post and analysis! Desplat is such a great and reliable composer. Each score is distinctly his, but so unique. "BIrth" and "Tree of Life" are great choices to spotlight, and I was a big fan of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" as well though I adore pretty much all of his work!

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert

Mareko - YES. I can't believe both Kidman and Desplat were not nominated; I would have made it four: Cameron Bright and Allison Elliot as Anna's sister (also very very underrated). That's one of those supporting actress perfs that just grows richer for me with time. (A lot of the critics singled out Anne Hecht, but I barely remember that performance now, although I thought she was very good at the time.)

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I think the problem was Birth's concept. People weren't comfortable with that story being told. It didn't matter that the film was not nearly as shocking or exploitative as it could have been. The concept was enough to shut people off. Didn't matter how great the film actually was. It couldn't be nominated if the voters didn't see it.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Desplat, my love, my hero!
One of my favorite composers of all time, his scores are pure poetry and beauty! Lust caution, the painted veil, birth, the tree of life...amazing scores, with heart and soul!

But you forget CARNAGE in your list (yes he is the composer of Carnage and not Alberto Iglesias, look this notice: and is really true, his name are in the poster!)
and he made the theme of My week with marilyn!
Anyway maybe he can lost again in this Oscar, but probably he will get a nomination:)
vivi ferreira

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commentervivi ferreira

Thanks vivi. I just went by IMDB listings. I don't think a theme is enough to get in for score, but I'll update to include Carnage as an option.

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Robert - Then how do you explain the BP appeal of No Country for Old Men and Silence of the Lambs? The concepts of those two were unsavory, too.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I was browsing his music on Spotify and stumbled upon The Queen’s album. Wow, it’s extraordinary, especially that track called People’s Princess. I can’t wait for his work on Carnage since the scores for The Ghost Writer are beautiful.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMikhael

Here's to Desplat's 50!

May he continue to make more amazing film scores on the level of Birth (was hoping an audio sample would pop up in this post, huzzah!), Girl with a Pearl Earring, Lust Caution, The Ghost Writer and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

May he not be relegated to work and compete within the confines of classical/renown composers within the same film like Tree of Life, Harry Potter and The King's Speech.

May he continue to grab the Academy's attention and, more importantly, ours.

May he one day win a richly deserved Oscar that cannot possibly be argued for as a career win. And may he do it with his own signature flair and on his own terms.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Janice - HDU. lol. Anne Heche stole the show from EVERYONE. She was spectacular. I was floored the first time I saw it. And since nobody had told me she was a highlight, I didn't expect much. Even now, thinking about her last scene just gives me chills: "If you had been Sean, and I kind of hoped you had, you would've come to me first. And I would've explored this."


LOL love all the Birth talk BTW. Though it's not without its minor script problems here and there and Becall's character strikes some wrong notes, "a severely underrated, underseen, and underappreciated film" is right.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Mark, if I did my own list of "Movies that I think about when I think about movies" (as Nat is - although it's been on hiatus a while), Birth would certainly be part of that list; I think of it as one that, 50 years from now, the film fans of that generation will look at each other (or us, rather) and ask "Why was this a flop? Why did you people not GET this movie?"

Assuming that 50 years from now our entire species hasn't descended into monosyllabic-grunting knuckle-draggers.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

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