A Chat With Lesley Barber, the Composer of 2016's Best Film Score (and Why it Won't Win an Oscar)

Image via Amazon Studios.
Image via Amazon Studios.

Of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture, I preferred the aching beauty of Moonlight and the bleak intensity of Hell or High Water to the arduous story of a grieving family in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea. But its score, which I’d argue adds more emotional weight to the film than any of its many lauded performances, has become a crucial part of my life—an elegant white noise that provides not just a barrier from distractions, but a hypnotic soundtrack to focused thought. I listen to it almost every day, while working in the office, or reading on the train home.


Unfortunately, you won’t hear Lesley Barber’s name mentioned during Sunday night’s Oscars. Her score to Manchester By the Sea—easily the best of the year—was deemed ineligible for an Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences due to the inclusion of pre-existing music in certain scenes. “The film’s soundtrack,” wrote Variety at the time, “features a number of classical compositions throughout.” But I’d argue that it’s entirely obvious when Barber’s pulsing, mournful strings and mesmerizing multi-track chorales (performed entirely by her daughter) make way for the handful of those “classical compositions” (which include two pieces from Handel’s Messiah and Remo Giazotto’s “Adagio in G Minor”) that kept the Academy from including her. In short, Barber’s work is obviously new, and the other stuff is obviously old.

Though she wasn’t alone in being shut out by the Academy, her disqualification feels a little less justified than, say, Johann Johannsson’s eerie Arrival score, which was was nixed after “the Academy’s music branch ruled unanimously that voters would be influenced by the use of borrowed material.” The piece that bookends the film and immediately provides a sturdy musical backbone to its narrative is an elegiac string composition by Max Richter from 2004. It sounds like piece of film music because Richter himself is a prolific film composer (who has, by the way, done plenty of work for science fiction films). The work is easily confused with Johansson’s. It’s also the most memorable music from the film.

Here’s what Barber told Variety about her disqualification at the time:

“It certainly comes as a disappointment to learn that my score to Manchester by the Sea was deemed ineligible by the Academy. In the making of this film, our director decided early on to use certain pieces of music from the classical repertoire as part of the music blend in the film. While I understand that this might be confusing to Academy members in their consideration of what is mine, it was obviously not the basis upon which music was chosen for the film. While I accept the Academy’s decision, I also support my director’s decision to use these pieces and I’m also very proud of the substantial contribution (referenced correctly in many reviews) that the original score made to the film as well.”

Back in early December—before the Academy broke the bad news—I spoke with Barber over the phone. At the time, I fully expected her to receive an Oscar nomination, and was excited at the prospect of both Barber and Mica Levi (whose eerie, peculiar score for Jackie is my second-favorite of the year) being up for a category traditionally dominated by men. Only two female composers (Rachel Portman and Ann Dudley) have ever won the Oscar for Best Original Score, and those were back in 1996 and 1997, respectively. And while Levi’s score did nab a nomination, I find it hard to believe it has a chance against La La Land. (I requested an interview with Levi for this piece, but was graciously told by her press agent that she wouldn’t be doing any. She did, however, refer to Levi’s nomination as a “beautiful miracle.” I agree.)

“People have an image of what that person in that role looks like,” Barber told me when I brought up the dominance of men in this field. “And I think directors and cinematographers have faced the same unconscious bias.” She went on to explain that, like most jobs in the film industry, you get more work if you’ve done more films, which then becomes a “chicken and the egg” situation. But she has noticed that things have slowly begun changing for the better.


“In other areas like writing and cinematography and show running, they’ve decided that if there’s a list, there has to be diversity,” she said. “And I think now [that same] conversation has started about composing, and once that conversation gets going, visibility will help. This year, when Mica’s name is on the list and my name is on the list, it will only encourage young female composers [to think], you know, wow, I would like to do that, but also, to directors and producers, this is imaginable.”

“It’s really in their best interest,” Barber told me. “It’s going to bring new cinematic language to their films, which is what we’re all looking for.”


After complimenting Levi’s work (she said her score to Jackie, like her own for MBTS, “broke conventions”), Barber left me with some words of advice for young women who aspire to join the two of them in the field. “Familiarize yourself with storytelling and filmmaking,” she instructed. “Watch as many films as you can, and see if that’s where your passion lies. In a way, we’re dramatists. [This job is about] creating emotional connection in the right way. That’s a big part of it, and the other part is learning how to communicate about your ideas. Then creating your own voice. You’re a dramatist, and that’s what makes a great filmmaker, a film composer.”

“There is something unique” about composing for film, she told me. And there’s something truly special about Barber’s music. You can listen to her score for Manchester By the Sea below.


Staff Writer, Jezebel | Man


Ivan's bloody nipple

Since Academy appears to have actual standards for what can be nominated in which category, I’d be curious to know how Viola Davis’ role in Fences become “supporting”.