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Oscars 2021: Charlie Wilkins on this year’s music winners

Apr 28, 2021

This weekend saw the 93rd Academy Awards take place, and to say it was always going to have a different feel to previous years may be an understatement. The pandemic has forced many of this year’s entries to open to the smaller screens of streaming platforms rather than crowded theaters and audiences, and it also delayed proceedings by two months. But when it eventually came round, we were treated to a cinematic production set in LA’s iconic Union Station. As incredible as the sights were, though, we were more interested in the sounds of the evening – and who better to examine that than PHMG’s Brand-Sound™ Manager Charlie Wilkins? Charlie’s an experienced film composer in his own right with credit’s including 2019’s Action-Thriller ‘Beyond the Law’, starring Steven Seagal and DMX. Here, he breaks down the night’s musical winners for us.

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Best Original Score Winner: Soul – Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste

‘Soul’ may have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, but its score has swept the categories in all the major awards – with  Annie Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTAs recognition following the Oscar for Best Original Score. And while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are previous winners (The Social Network in 2010), Jon Batiste became a first time nominee and winner. Batiste, best known as the Musical Director on ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’, wrote all of the on-screen jazz music, as Reznor and Ross developed the synth-based sounds of the afterlife worlds explored during the film. This is the second Pixar film to win Best Original Score after ‘Up’ (Michael Giacchino in 2009), and only the 3rd time that the Best Music award has been shared by 3 composers.

Originally conceived as a ‘love letter to jazz’, the contrasting soundscapes for ‘real life’ in New York City and the Great Beyond/Great Before really immerse the viewer into the story. The music follows main character Joe Gardener’s journey, deftly capturing his sense of both confusion and wonder at the new world he’s literally fallen to.


Best Original Song Winner: Fight for You (from Judas and the Black Messiah) - Music by D'Mile and H.E.R.; lyric by H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas

Based on the life of Fred Hampton and his death at the hands of the FBI, Daniel Kaluuya’s portrayal has already garnered widespread praise. Its end-title song, ‘Fight for You’, combines 60s-inspired Funk and Soul, with hard-hitting lyrics inspired by Hampton’s fight for social change and revolution. H.E.R. spoke about those influences afterwards while thanking her parents, saying “those days of listening to Sly and the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, they really paid off”- and we hear that through her storytelling abilities and those big jubilant opening horns. 

It was one of a number of nominated songs that reflected the themes of racial injustice in the US historically and presently, which gave it significant cultural relevance beyond previous winners in this category. H.E.R. performed the song live at the Oscars, complete with a horn section and backing singers, and with cuts of Fred Hampton’s speeches spread throughout, giving the center stage to his words.


The Academy Awards gives us the opportunity to celebrate music’s vital role in film and storytelling – something particularly evident in both of this year’s winners. The right score isn’t an add-on to the plot, it’s an essential tool in creating believable and emotional worlds for viewers and listeners. It’s a route to escapism. And similarly, an original song can set the tone for a project, which in ‘Fight for You’s case is defiance and hope in the face of horrific injustice. As the film’s director Shaka King sees it, it leaves audiences with “a sense of They can’t stop us.”