Friday, January 17, 2014

The Nuttiness of Best Original Song

If you keep up with the Academy Awards frequently, then you'll know that the Best Original Song category isn't quite what it used to be. Sure, it's always been a little bit insane, a place where movies that otherwise would not be considered Oscar contenders - Ghostbusters, The Omen, and Armageddon are a few examples - can become nominees, even winners. But in recent years - let's say the past 15 - the category has become more and more of an odd dumping ground, in some years barely even justifying its existence (case in point: 2011, when there were two - two! - nominees).

Bret McKenzie, 2011 winner for "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets

There's a reason for this, of course. Nowadays, more films utilize pre-existing songs - namely pop hits - for key musical moments, most likely because it's cheaper and easier to buy the rights to a song than it is to pay someone to write brand-new material. There are still movies that do use mostly newly-written songs, with Disney leading the way on that front. But the truth is there just aren't that many movies that bother to use original material.

However, that's not to say that the category is useless. The problem with the category itself isn't that it doesn't have enough options - indeed, there were 75 eligible songs this year - but rather that the songs that earn nominations are usually a bizarre hodgepodge of things that no one expected. This branch usually plays it safe, yes, meaning that original songs from musicals often do well here, as do mid-tempo songs by well-known artists. But there are times when it doesn't: in the past 15 years, there have been two rap songs that were winners ("Lose Yourself" from 8 Mile and "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from Hustle & Flow), as well as two foreign language songs ("Al Otro Lado Del Rio" from The Motorcycle Diaries and "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire). Then there are the out-of-left-field choices, like the nomination for "Loin de Paname" from Paris 36 in 2009 or "I Need to Wake Up" from An Inconvenient Truth winning in 2006.

When you look back at the history of this category, especially in recent years, one thing becomes certain: perhaps more than any other branch of the Academy, the voters in the music categories operate by their own set of logic. They'll pick some great songs ("Falling Slowly" from Once winning in 2007), but then ignoring others ("The Wrestler," Bruce Springsteen's song from The Wrestler, failed to be nominated in 2008). And, in a way, this year is a perfect example of Original Song Logic.

First off, there's "Alone Yet Not Alone," from the film Alone Yet Not Alone. This is an example of the way-out-of-left-field nomination, as the film itself - from a small, Christian-based company - only received a one-week qualifying run back in October. The most likely explanation for its inclusion is that the song's composer, Bruce Broughton, is a former member of the Academy's Board of Governors, which probably appealed to a significant portion of the music branch. On top of that, it's a very maudlin, dull song - right in the safe zone.

Other "safe" choices are "Let It Go" from Frozen and "Ordinary Love" from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Disney is no stranger to this category - since 1989 Disney films have been nominated, by my count, 27 times - and "Let It Go" is such a showstopping number that there was never any doubt that it would be nominated (and most likely win). U2, meanwhile, has been previously nominated as well, for "The Hands That Built America" from 2002's Gangs of New York. Neither of these songs are particularly challenging, and both fit well within the context of their respective films.

"Happy," from Despicable Me 2, is a bit of an odd choice in just how much of a pop song it is. That sounds a little disingenuous, since the history of this category is filled with pop songs that would go on to major radio success. However, that hasn't necessarily the direction that the music branch has gone in in recent years. That being said, it does seem appropriate for Pharrell Williams' year of domination that he become an Oscar nominee as well.

Finally, there's "The Moon Song," from Her. I was genuinely surprised (in a good way) at the number of nominations the film was able to procure, especially this gentle, loose song by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Spike Jonze, the film's writer/director. There's really a lot that I personally love about this song, both by itself and how perfectly it fits in context in the film. Yet it's an odd choice because of how counter-intuitive it seems; it just doesn't seem like the kind of song that gets nominated for an Academy Award.

Which, when you think about it, may just make it the perfect example of an Academy-Award-nominated song.

What do you think of this year's nominees and the category itself?

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