This year has seen the release of a varied collection of nostalgic films about film making. Damien Chazelle’s Babylon looks at the excesses of 1920s and 30s Hollywood; Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans explores the position of film in the director’s own childhood in the 1960s, and Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light is about a cinema in 1980s England.

These cinematic looks back offer film composers a challenge: how should they musicalise the past of their medium while adhering to the expectations of contemporary audiences? Two of these films’ composers were nominated for Academy Awards for best score: Justin Hurwitz for Babylon and John Williams for The Fabelmans. Neither won, but Hurwitz and Williams take opposing yet equally successful approaches to this challenge.

Jovan Adepo in Babylon. Photo © Paramount Pictures.

Both scores have been met with largely positive critical reception, the music being one of many points of excellence critics have found with The Fabelmans but one of the few they have found with Babylon.

Nostalgia and the score

While both films use music to evoke nostalgia for...