2015 was a great year for unconventional film soundtracks. Disasterpiece’s 80’s horror-influenced score for It Follows, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s sparse compositions for Ex Machina, and Junkie XL’s adrenaline-soaked noisewall for Mad Max: Fury Road offer beautiful, progressive examples of what constitutes a soundtrack.

Still, it’s tough for composers—especially experimental ones—to break into the big awards categories at the end of the year, given that there are just five spots for Best Original Score at the Oscars. This year’s category, which will be decided at Sunday’s 88th Academy Awards, is who’s-who of established names: John Williams (50 nominations, five wins), Thomas Newman (13 nominations), Ennio Morricone (six nominations, one Honorary Oscar), and the Coen brothers’ frequent collaborator Carter Burwell. But only one nominee represents the up-and-coming composers: Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson, who wrote the score for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario.

A Standout Action Film Score

These days, action-heavy projects like Sicario tend to hew to the standard set by Hans Zimmer’s incessantly pounding Inception score—especially in trailers. That’s something Jóhannsson is clear he wanted to avoid. “I didn’t want to write standard thriller music,” he says, “and I knew Denis wasn’t interested in that.” So the composer set out to create a score that sounded like it “came from the earth … music that is somehow subterranean.”

With a descending sonic theme, Sicario moved sharply away from Zimmeresque organ-rattling bass. It’s a slow, methodical path into hell, made all the more unnerving by its dronelike quality; sound is unceasing, like never-ending cycle of conflict the film depicts. “‘The Beast,’ was the first piece I wrote for the film,” he says, “and it very much became the template for the music in the film.” The motif in question traces the emotional journey of Emily Blunt’s protagonist, in parallel with the gravity of Roger Deakins’ cinematography—whether capturing a convoy of trucks cruising downhill in Juarez or a team of soldiers descending into a warren of tunnels.

Staying In The Club

Jóhannsson has worked as a film composer since 2000, in addition to his career as an avant-garde electronic musician, but broke through with last year’s Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated score for The Theory Of Everything. Composers who snag a big-time nomination generally break down into two categories: those who have one stellar work that awards voters notice (e.g., Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and those who join the stable of reliable composers. Since 2000, 15 men have been nominated multiple times. (As with many other Oscar categories, such as Best Cinematography, the Best Original Score nominees are overwhelmingly male, and those men are overwhelmingly white.) Jóhannsson, with this second nomination, seems to have cemented his position in the latter category.

A few factors helped him along the way. Sicario has been a critical darling since its premier at Cannes last spring, and continued to gain buzz at September’s Toronto International Film Festival. And it made back its production cost with its domestic box-office take with plenty of time for an awards campaign bump. (Not to mention it’s the kind of crime story everyone really wanted from True Detective season two.)

Additionally, Jóhannsson’s collaborative relationship with Villeneuve made him more likely to be a repeat nominee. The director earned a Best Foreign Film nomination for Incendies in 2010, and has broken into American cinema with an acclaimed trifecta: 2013’s Prisoners (Oscar nominated for Roger Deakins’ cinematography) and Enemy (a cult favorite for its bizarre ending), and now Sicario (which also snagged another nomination for Deakins). If that’s not enough to demonstrate the growing spotlight around him, Villeneuve will be directing the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. Not only is Jóhannsson’s work standing out, but he’s in the right circle to continue scoring films that will attract the attention of critics and awards voters.

Expanding Collaboration

Jóhannsson and Villeneuve have already started their third collaboration, the science-fiction drama Story Of Your Life, based on Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning novella. Prisoners took place in a small town, and Sicario widened to encompass the conflict across a dangerous international border; Story represents an even wider expansion of scope and ambition. Jóhannsson said he was being working on the score all summer during principal photography, and calls the music “very different from the other two” films he’s done with Villeneuve: “I’m working with a lot of vocalists, with human breath and wind instruments.”

It may not be probable that a relative newcomer like Jóhannsson will end up with an Oscar, especially in a year with new scores from titans like Williams, Newman, and Morricone. But the Icelandic composer’s second nomination means he’s now a reliable nominee. Whenever he writes the score for a Denis Villeneuve film, soundtrack enthusiasts and fellow composers in the Academy will perk up and pay attention. Alternative composers already have one winner to point to in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who won in 2013 for The Social Network; if Jóhannsson continues his exemplary work, he might just open the door for musicians like Junkie XL and Disasterpiece to be considered in the future.


Sicario Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson Is the Next Big Thing in Film Music