If you’ve seen director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” chances are you’ve been impressed by the film’s memorable and inventive drum-heavy soundtrack. The score by Mexican-born drummer/composer Antonio Sanchez can’t be ignored and has received rave reviews. It punctuates the drama and drives the narrative arc about a washed-up movie superhero trying to mount a comeback on Broadway.
Iñárritu called the percussive score "the heartbeat" of his actors.
“Birdman” was one of two movies - the other one was "The Grand Budapest Hotel"- that swept the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards announced Thursday morning in Hollywood. The film is nominated for Best Picture and Iñárritu for Best Director. But the soundtrack and the composer won’t win an Oscar.
Indeed, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ruled the soundtrack ineligible for best original score last December, citing its use of 17 minutes of pre-recorded classical music, a decision panned by Sanchez, fans and critics who contend it’s the drums which are dominant and comprise the majority of the film’s music.
In an interview Thursday with NBC News, Sanchez said the academy explained that the score was highly effective in places, but the effect was diluted by the amount of classical music. Sanchez said he couldn’t fathom the academy’s reasoning.
“The score is memorable for being so different, so daring, so imaginative,” Sanchez said from Hollywood, where he was to perform at Thursday night's Critics’ Choice Movie Awards. “To say it is diluted is to say it’s not so memorable, and to me that’s a contradiction.”
Admirers of the film score feel Sanchez’s pain. One fan suggested on social media that perhaps artistry and creativity can’t fit into the academy’s rigid box of arcane rules.
And the soundtrack has won high praise from critics, including one who wrote that Sanchez’s solo drum-kit approach to scoring the film was among “the most original, audacious and impressionable I’ve ever seen.” The soundtrack was nominated, but didn’t win, for a Golden Globe, and won Best Score for a Feature Film from the Hollywood Music in Media Awards last November. It is up for Best Score at the Critics’ Choice awards.
A four-time Grammy-winner who’s played with the likes of jazz greats Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker and Chick Corea, the Latino musician feels he’s been penalized for being different.
“Those are not only my thoughts, but the general consensus among musicians is that maybe it’s a little too advanced for the ears, too innovative, too daring,” Sanchez said. “The academy’s motto is, ‘We champion the power of human imagination.’ To me, not so much, not this time.”
González Iñárritu, who like Sanchez, hails from Mexico City, has been the composer’s fiercest defender. He appealed the academy’s decision, contending that the classical music in the film could have been any classical music, but that the drums were irreplaceable.
Earlier Thursday, González Iñárritu, perhaps sensing this would be a difficult day for his friend, had called the composer from Canada, where he is shooting his latest project.
“He told me my lack of presence (on the Oscar ballot list) is presence itself, and that everyone knows I should be there,” said Sanchez, who is now based in New York.
"Birdman" director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who like Sanchez, hails from Mexico City, has been the composer’s fiercest defender, calling the drumming the "heartbeat" of the actors in the movie.
The two met in 2002 at a concert in Los Angeles, where Sanchez was playing with Metheny, and kept in touch since. But Iñárritu’s invitation in 2013 to compose the “Birdman” film score was a surprise.
The idea for a drum-heavy score was Iñárritu’s from the start.
“He said that because it’s a dark comedy and because of the nature of the long shots he was planning, he thought the drums would give it the comedic rhythm and the anxiety and tension of the situations portrayed in the film,” Sanchez told NBC.
The drums are integral to the film, said Sanchez, because they are mostly inside the head of lead character Riggan Thompson (played by Michael Keaton, also nominated for an Oscar).
“They portray his mental state and his emotional turmoil, and a lot of times you don’t know if it’s part of the score, or if he’s imagining,” Sanchez said.
Though Sanchez said he had “kind of” gotten over the Oscar snub, Sanchez knew Thursday’s Oscar nominations and the requisite media attention would remind him. On the other hand, the attention had also been a blessing in disguise.
Sanchez said the snub was unfair, but he’s moved on. “I know it is what it is,” he said. “The work speaks for itself.”