Oscars 2021: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross' Original Score nominations for Mank, Soul are testament to their versatility
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross previously won in 2010, for David Fincher’s The Social Network, beating heavyweights Hans Zimmer and AR Rahman among others.
The first time I found myself thrilled by a Trent Reznor score was in 2001 when I was 13 and did not have the slightest idea who he or Nine Inch Nails (the industrial/ambient rock band Reznor founded in 1988) were.
I was a trigger-happy teen addicted to the gory pleasures of Quake, the iconic first-person shooter PC game that was all the rage back then. Zombies, ogres, ‘shamblers’, even a demonic Rottweiler— what more could a demon-hunting teenager want? And if you managed to get past the laundry list of otherworldly enemies, at the final stage you had the dreaded Shub-Niggurath (most video game names of the era were Tolkien-esque) to contend with.
As I found out later, Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails provided the music and sound effects for Quake and its sequels (Reznor also voiced the protagonist, Ranger). This was an inspired choice, and moreover, it foreshadowed the soundtrack work Reznor would embark upon from the 2010s onwards, alongside Atticus Ross, who became first a frequent studio collaborator and then a full-time member of Nine Inch Nails. Quake featured an anachronistic mix — it had medieval monsters in medieval settings, but with the handprints of complicated, sci-fi machinery all over the gameplay itself, including but not limited to the weaponry at Ranger’s disposal.
Reznor’s score is still remembered as one of the high points of the original Quake. The sound effects were uniquely scary. There were sudden bursts of heavy machinery sounds. Hordes of monsters announced themselves on the horizon courtesy epic shreds of the electric guitar over a solid, synth-heavy layer of ambient sound. Many years later, Reznor would describe his classic Nine Inch Nails album Ghosts I-IV (an all-instrumental album, on which Ross worked as programmer/studio collaborator) as “the soundtrack to daydreams”; the OST for Quake, then, was the soundtrack to nightmares.
Reznor and Ross have just scooped up two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score this year — for their work on the David Fincher film Mank, as well as Pixar’s animated film Soul, where they share the nomination with jazz/R&B musician Jon Batiste. The duo previously won in 2010, for Fincher’s The Social Network, beating heavyweights Hans Zimmer and AR Rahman among others. Throughout the last decade, they have consistently produced some of the most original and immersive film music you will ever come across.
The Social Network and the Fincher years
When Fincher approached Reznor to score The Social Network, the former had worked on a few high-profile Hollywood projects like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). This movie would, however, forge Reznor and Ross’s highly successful partnership. It was also a showcase for all the different genres Reznor mixed in his music, all his influences: industrial metal, pop-rock, dream-pop and alternative, with a bunch of unclassifiable stuff.
In its manic progressions from softer sounds to more alienating, abrasive, distortion-heavy (even the visual presentation of the album was inspired by “glitch art”, which utilises analog ‘error’ aesthetics) tracks, The Social Network soundtrack became the perfect conduit for Mark Zuckerberg’s journey onscreen — as his little ol’ personal project, started on a night of boredom, became arguably the most powerful and influential internet business in the world.
Reznor and Ross tapped into something ominous and yet alluring; the perfect mixture for the story of a boy genius who would slowly become a revered — and feared — man.
That mixture of admiration, disgust (Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg was pretty much an asshole, remember?) and fear is understood perfectly when you listen to Reznor and Ross’s soundtrack. For good measure, Reznor and Ross also reworked some of the creepier tracks on the Nine Inch Nails album Ghosts for The Social Network.
The Social Network OST was a game-changer for the Best Original Score Oscars. The Academy voters typically reward lush orchestral sounds. You know, escalating piano-based music with a side of string quartets, or feel-good music, the kind seen in a lot of children’s animated films. Even a cursory look at Reznor and Ross’s fellow nominees will tell you this: Rahman for 127 Hours, Zimmer for Inception, Alexander Desplat for The King’s Speech, and John Powell for How to Train Your Dragon. Zimmer and Desplat, in particular, are masters at the conventional, piano-based soundtrack I am talking about here — between them, they have over a dozen Academy Award nominations and three wins.
The win of The Social Network in such a strong field changed the way audiences and critics looked at film music. Expectations and possibilities had both been readjusted. Following this victory, Reznor and Ross collaborated with Fincher on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl as well, with the latter in particular drawing rave reviews. Apparently, Fincher told Reznor and Ross to model the music of Gone Girl after the filler music he heard at a chiropractor’s office — he wanted the music to communicate a false sense of well-being. And when you listen to the soundtrack, that is precisely what the duo has achieved. Think about all the scenes in the movie before we realise the true motivations of the protagonist Amy (Rosamund Pike); a “false sense of well-being” is exactly the state of mind the director wants you in during that section.
Since then, Reznor and Ross have worked with a bunch of other directors as well. Their score on actor Fisher Stevens’ (lawyer Marvin Gerard on The Blacklist) climate change documentary Before the Flood was widely acclaimed; the film also featured post-rock band Mogwai, which lent the score a psychedelic edge reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails’ '90s works. Master documentarian Ken Burns’ series The Vietnam War marked Reznor and Ross’s TV debut. They also returned to the post-apocalyptic sounds of their Quake years with the Netflix film Bird Box.
Mank, Soul, and beyond: New directions
Reznor and Ross reunited with Fincher to create the soundtrack for Mank, which I feel is a shoo-in for the Academy Award this year. Mank, of course, is a biopic about screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, and how he wrote the screenplay for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), widely considered to be one of the finest films of all time. In a Netflix behind-the-scenes feature, Reznor talks about the challenges of scoring for a period piece, mindful of the fact that this was a highly unconventional period piece, a pre-modern story in postmodern clothes (like, say WandaVision episodes mimicking classic 1950s sitcoms).
“Ross and I were intimidated, as usual, but I think any good project starts with a level of discomfort. It was difficult, initially, to figure out what we wanted with this story, tonally speaking. We were looking for something that's interesting, and would feel, if it was in 1940, an experimental approach to how it would sound.”
The result is a 92-minute long OST with over 50 tracks, with Reznor and Ross letting go of their usual synth-heavy style in favour of era-appropriate, old-timey instrumentation.
For them, this was as big a stylistic leap as, say, Skrillex deciding to play only Bach from now on. Adding to the wow factor is the fact that because of COVID-19 restrictions, all the musicians featured on the album recorded their individual bits from home — and Reznor and Ross stitched them together painstakingly, in production. This is a bit like solving a thousand-piece jigsaw while having your ‘solved’ pieces removed and replaced every half an hour.
And what a soundtrack it is: ‘In Your Arms Again’, ‘San Simeon Waltz,’ and ‘Scenes from Election Night’ are absolutely brilliant, and there are several other standout tracks too.
Further proof of Reznor and Ross’s expanded horizons is their other Oscar nomination this year, for Soul (shared with Jon Batiste, who you might recognise as the band-leader on Stephen Colbert’s show). Soul, the story of a middle school music teacher on a quest to reunite his body and soul after an accidental separation, is easily the happiest movie that Ross and Reznor have worked on — this, in itself, presented a new challenge for the duo. That and the fact that the OST had to be jazz and R&B-based, genres that the two had not really done before, make Soul all the more impressive.
A film about a music teacher cannot afford to feature subpar music and luckily, Batiste, Reznor and Ross delivered in style. Batiste made the jazz compositions that play when we are watching the New York segments of the film, while Ross and Reznor made the much weirder, loopy, jazz-adjacent tracks that play during the “Great Before” (the place where unborn souls are “prepared” for life) segments. But Batiste also joined Reznor and Ross intermittently, to “blend the two worlds, musically”, as he said during a Disney panel interview at Essence Festival.
The soundtrack of Soul is like a warm hug: I cannot think of a simpler way to describe it, really. Pixar films, of course, famous for precisely this kind of thing, and the music of Soul is a big part of why the film became such a runaway success. It is not an add-on or an afterthought: it is, in a lot of scenes the very engine that drives the emotional rollercoaster. You will find yourself humming bits of several tracks days, weeks after you watch the film.
Either Mank or Soul would be a worthy winner. But in my opinion, Reznor and Ross deserve their second win for Mank, and not just because of its aforementioned brilliance. I would like Mank to win also because it is cinema about cinema. And a Reznor/Ross victory would certainly cement their status as one of the pre-eminent film composers of this era.
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