In listening to several scores to films nominated for Academy Awards in 2020, a particular feature emerges: a prominent cello theme. The instrument has been called on to convey a range of moods and even shaped the plot of at least one film.
In “The Joker,” the cello famously inspired the “bathroom dance,” in which Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur, dressed as Joker, begins to inhabit his alter ego. Phoenix improvised the scene after the director played Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score on set. Guðnadóttir performed the cello parts herself, and as she told the BBC, “Joaquin was basically responding in real time to the music – the scene wasn’t scripted like this at all.” Her score won a Golden Globe and a Bafta and is nominated for an Oscar.
The cello is paired with a lonely harmonica to lend a dark, gritty quality to the main theme of “The Irishman,” written by Robbie Robertson.
It brings an epic quality to Thomas Newman’s soaring main theme of “1917” (played by London cellist Caroline Dale):
And although not as prominent, there’s at least one solo cello cue in Bryce Dessner’s score to “The Two Popes.” In this scene it signifies tension and mystery as votes are counted for the election of the next pope.
What is it about the cello this year? Its timbre has long appealed to composers seeking to evoke emotions that linger between the dark and soulful, cool and edgy. Occasionally used as a plot device (see James Bond’s “The Living Daylights“), it appears briefly during a key scene in the genre-bending Korean film “Parasite.”
It may also owe partly to the “Game of Thrones” effect: composers may have identified, at least subconsciously, what that cello-led theme did for the HBO series’ identity. Perhaps the Oscars will inspire a few intrepid cellists to take up these themes in recitals or as encores?
Top Photo: Hildur Guðnadóttir performing at the Roundhouse, London (Wikipedia Commons).