The Revenant was robbed.
For all the Oscar nominations The Revenant has received, the movie was victim of a glaring omission: Best Original Score. The score, created by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto (with additional music by Bryce Dessner of the National), creates a sonic tapestry that deepens the emotional impact of one man’s struggle against nature and other men. The score also succeeds on its own merits for delivering an affecting blend of ambient sounds and melody, worthy of your attention regardless of your interest in the movie.
The score works for many reasons. First, the music complements the tension and sadness of the story, its violence, and the film’s natural beauty instead of trying to amplify it. A more conventional composer might have “piled on” by overwhelming the viewer with lush orchestration and rousing drums to dial up the action and remind you that you’re watching a stunning vista — much the same way that boldface, all-caps, and italics often serve to underscore a written narrative, and usually unnecessarily so.
But Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner have something else in mind: the strings, percussion, and bass add texture and nuance to the movie’s many emotionally powerful moments.
For instance, “Goodbye to Hawk” builds slowly with a sad cello that gently suggests the emotion welling up inside the protagonist, frontier guide Hugh Glass, after he experiences a profound loss in the wilderness of 19th Century America. A single cello descends and floats for more than a minute. But at the 1:40 mark, “Goodbye to Hawk” changes course, taking on a more foreboding mood. A percussive sound repeats itself over a rising bed of strings and a thudding bass.
Within two minutes, anger and resolve overtake sadness, creating a kind of strength inside of Glass that he will draw upon throughout his perilous adventure. The strange, repeating electronic percussion sound feels something like a Native American drone. The composition is minimalist in nature — and yet signals a change in mood more powerfully than a wall of sound would have.
The score also combines melody with an unstructured ambience depending on the needs of the scene. The composers (principally Sakamoto and Noto) know when the music needs to suggest with ambient effect, rather than carry a scene with melody. For example, “First Dream” consists of a curious mixture of strings, piano, and percussive effects that narrate an otherworldly experience in which Glass dreams of his past life.
But the score sprinkles in melody at the right time, too. “Out of Horse” is a sad but sweet excursion, with the ondes Martenot instrument creating a flute-like melody that carries a key scene in which Glass seeks an unusual form of natural refuge from the elements.
Ryuichi Sakamoto has described working on The Revenant score as “the return from death” — and he is not exaggerating. He began work on The Revenant as he was recovering from throat cancer. At first he hesitated to work on the score. As he told Fact magazine, he was afraid he was too weak to collaborate with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has a reputation for being a difficult work partner. But he admired Iñárritu’s work and decided to seize what might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a 63-year-old man staring down mortality.
He explained to Fact his use an ambient music thusly: “Since the beginning, I always thought the real main character in this film is nature . . . So to respect the sounds of nature, I thought the music shouldn’t be too narrative. I wanted my music to be like a part of the sound of nature.”
In the same interview, Alva Noto added, “I think we both created a lot of sounds where you could think of nature. A lot of sounds that are like a breath. They don’t always have a melodic quality — we’re just creating a space, a feeling. So I think they’re things that people might understand as sound design rather than music.”
The strength of The Revenant score, its understated interplay with nature, may very well be why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overlooked it. The score is just not flashy enough. There are no moments that listeners can easily latch on to and hum along with, as with the Star Wars movies.
Both Sakamoto and Nova agree, as is evident in their interview the Fact. As Nova put it, “[The Academy] couldn’t understand that these many noises had musical qualities. Which is very important, because we both come from a strong electronic background where every sound is important, not just the melodic ones.”
Fortunately, music listeners don’t need the Academy to dictate our tastes. We have the power to immerse ourselves in music on our own. And I hope you will immerse yourself in score for The Revenant.
The Fader, “In Conversation with the All-Knowing Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Saxelby, 4 December 2015.
NPR, “Review: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner, ‘The Revenant’,” Tom Moon, 30 December 2015.
The Wellesley News, “A Glimpse inside the Broody Soundtrack of ‘The Revenant,’ Scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Jiang, 10 February 2016.