The most bizarre category in recent Oscar history has to be “Best Original Song.” Two years ago, despite being the worst song on the list, “It’s Hard Out There For A Pimp” walked away with the Golden statuette. Last year, in what can only be described as part of the Academy’s backwards effort to try and express to Al Gore how sad they were that he never got to be president, Melissa Etheridge’s lukewarm “I Need To Wake Up” won the Oscar despite being up against a clever piece from Randy Newman and three far superior songs from Dreamgirls.
This year music played interesting roles in film. Across the Universe did for The Beatles what “Mama Mia” did for Abba. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a matter of personal taste I suppose, but if you’re complaining that none of those songs were nominated, take heart. It wasn’t because the Academy hates John, Paul, George and Ringo, but because those songs weren’t originally written for that story, hence their exclusion from the “Original Song” category.
The three movies that did land nominations also all had unique ties to music. Once is a film about a pair of musicians so it only makes sense that it has songs. Less a musical and more a drama about musical people, it’s chock full of memorable numbers. ”Falling Slowly”, the song at the core of the film, is a sweet, simple, guitar strumming duet. To boot, it was written by the duo who both sang the song for the movie and, for good measure, starred in the movie. That doesn’t necessarily make the song any better, but it’s the kind of cinematic synergy that the Academy might give extra credit.
Another film that was all about the music was August Rush. Again, not so much a musical as a film about people with close ties to music, it was also chock full of a cast singing songs. Sure, it’s kinda cool to hear Jonathan Rhys Meyers singing his own character’s numbers, but that’s not quite good enough for an award. One song from the film did make the cut. ”Raise It Up” is the sort of feel good ensemble number that makes for a special music moment during the awards show but doesn’t really deserve a chance at the award. Then again, luke-warm feel good was the order of business last year, so anything could happen.
My favorite musical of the year, and just about the only true original musical to make the rounds, was Disney’s brilliant send-up of it’s own fairytale fantasy films, Enchanted. Three songs from that movie made the list. Music and lyric team Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz have a long and well-deserved history with Oscar. In the Original Song category alone, Menken has been nominated ten times and won six. Schwartz has been nominated twice, winning both times. The last time they teamed up and were nominated they won (“Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas.
The three nominated songs represent the entire spectrum of the story, from silly to weighty. ”Happy Working Song” pokes merciless fun at all those Disney Princesses and nannies who have spent decades insisting that singing while working somehow makes it entertainment instead of drudgery. The lyrics are pure genius, but clever isn’t something the Academy likes to reward.
Slightly more serious but still upbeat, ”That’s How You Know” was the first time in a long time that the movies have seen a massive song and dance number that wasn’t shamelessly ripped from Broadway. The lyrics aren’t as self-deprecating as “Happy Working Song” but they’re still unmistakably Disney-esque. As performed in the movie, it’s easily my favorite to win.
It wouldn’t be a Disney musical without some sappily performed romantic number, and that’s one cue Enchanted doesn’t miss. ”So Close” is solid poetry, if not a bit on the schmaltzy side, and the music is Menken gold. Of course, it works better in the movie than as a stand-alone song, but it’s not unworthy of its nomination.
Will the Academy continue its trend of handing the Oscar to the worst possible contender? If so, August Rush may just walk away with one award this year. But, if the voters have pulled their heads out of their – er – headphones, and look to the better nominations, Enchanted will get its due.