Oscar's musical choices over the years have rarely been cutting-edge. But old habits may be changing, as evidenced by this year's mix of the traditional and the retro, the edgy with the old hat.
All five original score nominees are familiar names with Academy Award track records. For "Catch Me If You Can," John Williams -- who, with 42 nominations including five wins, is closing in on Alfred Newman's record of 45 -- skipped his usual symphonic approach, creating a jazzy '60s sound for Steven Spielberg's con-man tale.
Elliot Goldenthal's authentic-sounding, period Mexican music for "Frida" brought him nominations for score and song (the latter shared with his director and longtime collaborator, Julie Taymor). Five-time nominee Thomas Newman's "Road to Perdition" score combined his penchant for subtle, atmospheric cues with occasional big-orchestral moments containing a hint of Irish colors.
Most observers think that the horse race is between two very different scores: Elmer Bernstein's "Far From Heaven" and Philip Glass' "The Hours." Bernstein, 80, is a veteran who has penned some of the most famous themes in movies ("The Magnificent Seven," "The Great Escape," "To Kill a Mockingbird") and has only one Oscar (for 1967's "Thoroughly Modern Millie"). His melodic, small-ensemble work on "Far From Heaven" was as widely acclaimed as the picture and its actors.
Glass, the celebrated concert hall composer whose minimalist works infuriate as many critics as they enthrall, wrote a score for "The Hours" that seems to have accomplished that feat again. For fans, it's spare and lovely; for critics, it's irritating and repetitive.
Given Oscar wins by classical composers in two of the last three years (John Corigliano for "The Red Violin" and Tan Dun for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), along with the popularity of the film, Glass can't be counted out.
Overlooked in the balloting: last year's winner, Howard Shore, for his elaborate, orchestral and choral score for "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."
It's in the original song category that the 244 members of the motion picture academy's music branch demonstrated a surprising openness to contemporary musical trends. Rap's Eminem beat the odds with a nomination for his "Lose Yourself" from "8 Mile," and one has to wonder if he will tame its profanity for the live global telecast.
But will Oscar voters add the controversial rapper's name to those of past best song winners Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern?
Not likely, especially with much safer choices in the mix such as U2's thoughtful "The Hands That Built America" from "Gangs of New York" and Paul Simon's charming "Father and Daughter" from "The Wild Thornberrys Movie."
"Burn It Blue," the Goldenthal-Taymor end-title song from "Frida," is the biggest longshot. Broadway veterans John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the original score for "Chicago," returned to pen a new song for the film -- "I Move On," sung over the end titles by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger -- and it's certainly the most traditional movie song of the bunch.
But U2's Bono and company -- who are frequent Golden Globe nominees, mostly for hit songs from flop movies, but who have until now been ignored by the Oscars -- are clearly the front-runners. They come Hollywood liberal-approved, and if "Gangs" winds up losing in most categories to "Chicago," a best song win could make a nice consolation prize for the film.
Jon Burlingame teaches film music history at USC.