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Best Oscar Songs: Time to Turn Off the Music?

I was having a nice chat with my pal Aeon Skoble, who wrote to me this morning about the "Best Song" winner in last night's Oscar telecast. That song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," is not exactly in the class of some of the songs I highlighted over the past three weeks in my tribute to "Best Oscar Songs." In fact, I'd dare say that some of the composers of those past Oscar winners are probably spinning in their graves. Swiftly.

As Aeon put it, the newest song was "Utter crap." He continues: "Not that I was especially impressed with the other two nominees either, but really, what crap." He made a more general point that I think should be addressed:

Actually, "best song" is, IMO, a non-category in the first place and ought to be abolished. 95% of the time, it's a song that plays over the closing credits and has nothing whatsoever to do with the film. The other 5% of the time, it's in the film, but is played over some montage (think the obligatory song in every episode of Baywatch) while someone thinks about something or a couple frolics. The validity of this category seems to me to be a throwback to the days when there were lots of musicals -- in that case, you'd have to be able to award the best song, a song that's actually part of the movie. But that's almost never the case anymore. That's my 2c on that.

I pointed out to Aeon that years ago, film scores were much more integrated with the film than what we see and hear today. And many of the songs selected in the second half of the 20th century were from non-musicals. But, again, those songs were integrated into the larger film score, which itself was integral to the story being told. Often, the "Best Song" nominee offered words for a musical theme that was prevalent throughout a movie.

For example, listen to the title song for Henry Mancini's magnificent score for "Two for the Road," or the famous song from Johnny Mandel's luscious score for "The Sandpiper." When words were added to that Mandel love theme, the song became "The Shadow of Your Smile." I'd say the same about "My Heart will Go On," which featured words that were provided for the omnipresent love theme, composed by James Horner, for the film "Titanic." That love theme is, indeed, heard throughout the entire film; the song is integrated with the score, and expressive of the story.

And this is what is all too often missing from "Best Song" nominations in recent years: In my view, the category remains valid, but it has become a lost art.

Aeon pointed out in reply "that the issue of whether the song is integrated into the score is relevant." He certainly agrees "that score is a key component of a film, and it's totally appropriate for the Academy to recognize and reward that." Commenting on my recent "Best Song" tribute, Aeon states further:

I noticed from the links you provided that back in the day, they gave separate awards for score of a regular film versus scores for musicals. That makes sense, and I guess now there aren't enough musicals to bother having two categories for. But this just highlights the gratutitous nature of most "movie songs"—and I say that even about movies I like, LOTR ["Lord of the Rings"] for instance. Just playing a song over the closing credits doesn't make it part of the film. Seems to me that the category makes more sense for something like "The Sound of Music" than for "Titanic."

On that particular point, as I say above, I think "My Heart Will Go On" was fully consistent with what I have in mind; it may have been played over the credits, but it was, in fact, the omnipresent "love theme" of "Titanic," with lyrics relevant and appropriate to the tragic story. Of course, songs from "The Sound of Music" would not qualify, unless they were original with the film version (rather than first performed on the Broadway stage). That's one of the reasons that the composers and lyricists from Broadway musicals often add new songs for the film version. (The song "Funny Girl," heard in the film of the same name, but not in the original Broadway musical, is one example of this.)

Anyway, I'd love to hear more on this from Aeon and others; since I don't open up my own song choices for "Song of the Day" to further debate or discussion, now is your chance to get in some thoughts about this particular topic.

Comments welcome.

Comments

Chris, your example of "My Heart Will Go On" is great because it highlights my point by being the exception to the rule: the final song is built on themes which were already part of the score. Same thing with nominated songs from "Evita" (a musical) and "That Thing You Do" (a movie about a rock band). Contrast that with "Raindrops Keep Fallin on My Head" as used in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Terrific movie, and the song is fine, but they have nothing to do with each other, and the lyrics of song don't refer in any way to the narrative of the film. Or Springsteen's song "Streets of Philadelphia." Looking over the history here, I see that many recent winners have been songs from Disney films which are in fact musicals -- Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, etc. -- which is fine, but look at the non-winning nominees in any of those years, and you'll see that most of them are either the background to the non-sequitur montage or played over the closing credits (or, as with James Bond films, the opening credits). My suggestion: keep the best score category, and restrict the best song category to songs in musicals, where there's some relevance, not rewarding the Baywatch-style montage or the closing-credits trick.

While I'm Oscar-ranting, here's another one: how is it the "best achievement in costume design" to faithfully reproduce period garb the look of which is well documented? Shouldn't this award always go to a fantasy film, or an ancient setting where details may be sparse?

There was a song in Brokeback which did not get nominated. I think Aeon's comments are very good and are the way the Academy should think about this category.

You make me think of Audrey Hepburn singing "Moon River" in Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was also fully integrated into the score, and, more recently, the terrific r&b songs in The Commitments which were integrated into the movie as overdubs and mimed performances. Most modern movies seem so afraid of the "musical" stamp they retreat to the as-seen-on-TV method of having half a song play while you see musical montages (which drives me nuts when it seems to be the fadeout to _every_ current TV drama). Or maybe that's possibly the influence of MTV....Other songs-in-movies that were well-integrated, to me, were in My Best Friend's Wedding and especially Magnolia, which was partly based on Aimee Mann's songs.

The two movies with the best most intergrated music were Footloose and Saturday Night Fever. Footloose the songs advanced the plot and so did Saturday Night Fever. I think this is also true of Disney produced musicals like Beauty and Alladin. The songs that frequently end up being nominated play only a small part in the movie. Am I correct that no song from Footloose and Saturday Night Fever even got nominated. Barbara Cook observed in liner notes of one of her albums that she thought the best movie musical work was being done in cartoons.

The disney musicals can be very fun

Little Town-Beauty and The Beast

Cheers,
Nick

Well, if they had nominated Ray or Walk the Line for "Best Song", it at least would have made sense, because those movies ARE about the music that is played in them. I think this is even more integration than just a score to underline the movie (btw. Star Wars is a good example in which the score is integrated wonderfully).

Max,
did you read Arthur Silber's blog at Light Of Reason?

Your name looks similiar to a fellow I saw comment there once.

He has a new blog up at powerofnarrative.blogspot.com in case you didn't know

Cheers,
Nick

Thanks Nick, I didn't know. I hope he is doing well, because the last I have read of him didn't promise much good.

I will check it out and yes (as you might have guessed up to now), I am the same :)

I absolutely agree that the "Best Original Song" category should be eliminated for the reasons Aeon and Chris give above. Interestingly, "It's Hard Out There For A Pimp" was actually integrated into "Hustle & Flow," but to say it is "utter crap" is insulting to crap!

I can only hope that maybe Academy members thought they would have some fun and give an award to the most godawful "song" they could find in a movie, realizing that this category has become a joke, but that's maybe giving them too much credit as I have read a number of comments from people praising this "song."

I'm inclined to believe that most members of the AMPAS don't know squat about music, as the 13 minutes of tuneless ultra-minalmalist music in Brokeback Mountain also won the Oscar over 2 fine scores from veteran composer John Williams, including the superb "Munich" score which would have been my choice.

I screwed up on the Beauty and the Beast song

Belle is the actual title

and oh

Max,
I thought you were the same! hehe
I even recall that the discussion was on gay marriage and glad that I tipped you off to his blog!

He's not doing super well economically and we haven't corresponded via email in awhile so I am happy to send another reader!

Cheers,
Nick

Chris and Aeon:
This is a topic I'd never considered before--although the Pimp "song" actually meets Aeon's criteria for a true movie "song" that is more than incidental to the film. In fact, out of the nominated songs this year, I believe that was the only one that actually met this criteria--other than the basic criteria of being an actual song, as in melodic.

But weren't those shiny "grills" the Mafia 6 sported charming? :-/

Do you really think people will be playing this year's winner rather then White Christmas, The Way You Look Tonight, or My Heart Will Go On.

Interesting discussion on best song at the Oscars this year. From what I heard, the nominees were weak this time around. For a song to be Oscar worthy, my criteria would be, if I hear the title of the song can I hum a few bars?

I'd have to agree with Barbara Cook regarding cartoons having the best musical scores in recent years. My favorite was the Robin Williams [on Oscar night] performance of "Blame Canada". I have to admit that I can sing all the songs from "South Park" the Movie. They make me laugh! [Yeah, you can quit rolling yours eye now;)]

My other all-time favorite song that doesn't meet the proper Oscar criteria, was the song over the closing credits of "The Crying Game". It was Lyle Lovett's rendition of "Stand by Your Man". It was the perfect punctuation to a terrific movie.

Excuse my delay, folks. But I have a few thoughts in response to the various comments here.

First, let me take this opportunity to post comments made by Skip Oliva in a personal email to me; Skip gave me permission to reproduce those comments here:

Since I enjoy researching odd rules, I looked up the AMPAS rules on the Best Original Song Oscar. Here's the only guideline provided: "An original song consists of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the film. There must be a clearly audible, intelligible, substantive rendition (not necessarily visually presented) of both lyric and melody, used in the body of the film or as the first music cue in the end credits." As with most Oscars, the nominations are determined by the specialists, in this case the Music Branch, but the final voting is done by the entire AMPAS membership.

I think these are fair criteria, even if it allows for the kind of "opening-credit" or "end-credit" stamp that Aeon complains about.

I have to say, however, that I don't think the category should be eliminated; if they can't find enough nominees, they should simply not award that category in any given year.

I also cannot imagine restricting the award just to 'musical' films. My own stricter criteria would demand, however, that the music offered up for the "Best Song" category be integrated into the film score as such. It cannot be a mere "add-on," but must be integrated with the score and story in some way.

On that measure, I can't see any reason to eliminate, say, a song like "Goldfinger" from contention in the "Best Song" category. I cannot even think of that James Bond film, my favorite in the series, without singing (out loud or in my mind) with a Shirley Bassey flair: "Goldfingerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr" ...

I mean, come on! :) And if you look at all those early Bond songs, you'll also see that they were fully integrated with the musical motif of the Bond theme, first stated in "Dr. No"... listen to "From Russia with Love," or "Thunderball," or "You Only Live Twice," and you'll see what I mean from the very first chords of the title songs. (And, yes, as Moi suggests, I cannot even think of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," without hearing "Moon River" in my mind...)

Funny you should bring up "Raindrops Keep Fallin on My Head," Aeon. That year, I would not have given the Oscar to "Raindrops." In fact, that year, I would have given the Oscar to one of the greatest songs ever written, which was nominated, but which lost out to "Raindrops," and I'm talking about the Michel Legrand-Alan & Marilyn Bergman classic, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?," which just so happened to have been the very first song I selected for my "Song of the Day" listings, way back on 1 September 2004. It's from the film "The Happy Ending." I suspect that Legrand lost the award not only because of the popularity of "Raindrops," but also because he snagged the Oscar the previous year for his classic "Windmills of Your Mind." These were great film songs, which I forever associate with the films from which they came ("Windmills," of course, is from "The Thomas Crown Affair").

Good comments, btw, Aeon, on the costume design... while something can be said for those who faithfully reproduce period garb, the fantasy film and ancient settings will always get my vote!

Chris G, I think they decided against nominating the "Brokeback" song because it seems that it was not featured long enough or prominently enough in the film. Ironically, Chris, not a single song from "Saturday Night Fever" was nominated; some were recorded prior to the movie, but virtually all of the Bee Gees contributions were original to the film. And one can say that so many of those lyrics were, indeed, fully integrated with the story of Brooklyn boy, Tony Manero (played by John Travolta). (I should note, however, that two songs were nominated from "Footloose": the title track and "Let's Hear it for the Boy"; see here.)

Max, the material in "Ray" and "Walk the Line" is, of course, terrific. But unless that material was original with those films, it would not have been nominated, and most of that material was previously recorded by Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, respectively. I agree with you 1000% that the "Star Wars" films have magnificently integrated scores, all written by the great John Williams. And Mark knows well that I am a great fan of Williams. I've yet to see either "Munich" or "Memoirs of a Geisha," but the score material I've heard from each film has been terrific, and Itzhak Perlman's performance of snippets from those scores at the Oscars was wonderful.

(Max and Nick: Yes, Arthur's blog is a terrific, thought-provoking site. Definitely check it out regularly!)

Having seen "Hustle and Flow," I agree with Peri that "Pimp" probably does meet the criteria; the problem for me, and for cinema, I think, is that there are few high quality songs coming out of film today; compare "Pimp" with most of the songs I cited in my nearly three-week tribute to Oscar songs, and you'll see what I mean (Chris G. suggests the same thing in his March 8th post).

And I agree with Robin and Chris about cartoons and music. :)

I was always struck by the passion that oozed from Arthur's writing when I read him at Light Of Reason.It would command my attention even when I didn't agree.

and oh...am I the only one on here who vouches for Disney musicals?

I was reintroduced to them by close friends.

I know you like em Chris! lol

but anyone else?

Cheers,
Nick

Yes, I like them, but I can't watch Bambi 2, because the first one already shuck me in my youth :)

Yes, with all his personal problems, he has a magnificient collection of writings by himself that are truly worth the look. I never ever heared of Alice before he started his Roots of Horrors series.

Chris:
Thanks for the clarification on the rules for "Best Song."

I was not impressed with any of the nominated songs this year--but the "Pimp" song was particularly terrible.

I had no idea that "What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life" was from a movie. That's one of my favorite love songs. And as much as I love the songwriting of Burt Bacharach, "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," was not one of his finest moments.

Did Harry Nilsson win anything for his work on "Midnight Cowboy?" Or did he just record "Everybody's Talkin' At Me?"

The song Everybody's Talking At Me was not originial with Midnight Cowboy. It became a hit after the movie was released.

Re "Midnight Cowboy": According to this source, which I frequently consult, the year "MC" won the "Best Picture," it had no nominations in the film score or song categories. If you take a look there, you'll also see that the score categories were separated into two: for musical and nonmusical films. Quite a change since that time: There aren't enough musicals out there today to justify a separate "musical score" category.

And I'm with you, Peri: "What are you doing the rest of your life?" is, perhaps, one of the most romantic songs ever written. I have several great recordings of it, including one by Carmen McRae, another by Barbra Streisand, and a luscious one, rich with Michel Legrand's orchestral arrangement (for which he won a Grammy), featuring Sarah Vaughan.

Max,
I watched the Disney movies when I was a kid but close friends reintroduced me to them in my teen years.

I am especially enchanted by Belle from Beauty and The Beast but The Little Mermaid has some good tunes too.

I had never heard of Alice Miller before Arthur's blog too and it's a shame that he has so many personal problems ) :

Max,
I watched the Disney movies when I was a kid but close friends reintroduced me to them in my teen years.

I am especially enchanted by Belle from Beauty and The Beast but The Little Mermaid has some good tunes too.

I had never heard of Alice Miller before Arthur's blog too and it's a shame that he has so many personal problems ) :

Yes, the little Mermaid, that were classical Disney movies at its best, although I must say that I can only half-heartedly remember The Belle and the Beast. On the other side, I have always loved the Jungle Boo, because it has some really nice feel-good tunes.
However, I don't know if they are the same in the US as they are in Germany.

Max,
I have no idea since my only exposure has been to the U.S. versions.

I recall listening to some tunes from Aladdin that were very well done.

I have the sound from a good Jungle Book one in my head but I can't pin down the title.

bear necessity....lol

something along those lines

Cheers,
Nick

Chris--thanks for the link to the site! My, how times have changed! I was very surprised to learn that MC didn't have any nominations for score or song...MC's score was quite haunting. My throat has always gotten tight when hearing a few bars--even before I'd seen the movie! I remember frequently hearing the theme song played on my parents' radio station when I was a child, and I was always very moved by it. There is such longing and sadness in it. Even to my child's mind, the music seemed so real and true and beautifully sad. Then again, I was kind of a weird kid. My first favorite songs were "My World is Blue," and Peggy Lee's "Is that All There Is," which tells you something. ;-)

I've discovered that Tale As Old As Time from Beauty And The Beast is an incredibly beautiful piece of music.

anyone else share that view?

Cheers,
Nick

I remember hearing at the time MC came out that Everybody's Talking at Me was already out when the movie was released. I believe Beauty,Little, and Alladin had more than one song nominated in their separt years.

I'm way behind in my replies here, so thanks to everyone who commented. Meanwhile, it might be a comment on my age, but if you really want to hear songs from "classical Disney movies," Nick, dig deep... go back to the days of "Snow White," and "Dumbo," and "Sleeping Beauty," and "Pinocchio," and... you get the picture. :) Great stuff therein.

Peri... it's clear your adult mind had a head start in that "child's mind" of yours. Lovely stuff you point to...

Chris