Analysis: Too many songs qualified for the Best Original Song Oscar, and not enough of them are good
The list of contenders in the Oscars' Best Original Song category is bigger than ever. But is it better than ever?
That, at least, is my conclusion after undertaking my annual quest to locate, listen to and write about every song deemed eligible for an Academy Award.
While 2012 may have produced more qualifying songs than any year since the Academy began announcing the contenders, it didn't produce anything as touching as 2007's winner "Falling Slowly" (left) from "Once," or as eloquent as 2009's "The Weary Kind (Theme From Crazy Heart)," or even as fun as last year's "Man or Muppet."
(And I'm not even going to bring up "The Way You Look Tonight" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "Moon River," because that just wouldn't be fair.)
The 75 qualifying songs from 2012 are almost double the previous year's 39 contenders. The field also contains a dozen more songs than the 63 that qualified in 2009, which until now had the biggest field of any in the eight years in which the Academy has been announcing the list of eligible songs.
A field of 75 songs means that every conscientious music-branch voter must watch four-and-a-half hours of clips before casting his or her ballot. That's too many songs, and too many entries that really have no chance. The branch can make some surprising choices, but most of the surprises come with what they don't nominate, not what they do; songs from small, unexpected movies are rare, and the only ones that have broken through in recent years — "August Rush," "Country Strong,' "Paris 36" — are from films that show the songs being performed onscreen.
Since 2009 at TheWrap, I've done my own simulation of the Oscar song process, acquiring all the contenders and scoring them on the same 6-to-10 scale that Oscar voters were asked to use. But the AMPAS process has been overhauled this year, with the scores abolished and voters simply asked to choose and vote for their five favorite songs.
So rather than scoring all the songs, I've simply rounded them up and listened to them – and here's my take:
Writing a new song for an existing musical can be an easy way to get an Oscar nod. It worked for "Evita," for "Chicago," for "Phantom of the Opera" and three times for "Dreamgirls" (though only the "Evita" song won).
And now "Les Miserables" is going down the same road with "Suddenly," the one new addition to the show and the closest thing to a category favorite. To my mind, the song does not show Hugh Jackman's voice to its best advantage — he's breathy and quavery, and the song feels thin and undernourished, though it's a likely nominee.
Another potential front-runner, though it's going against history, is Adele's "Skyfall." The latest in a long line of Bond film songs, it is also the latest in a long line of Oscar futility: Of all the songs in the 23-film series, only three have received nominations, none have won and none have been nominated since "For Your Eyes Only" in 1981.
But "Skyfall" has a strong chance to end that losing streak, and it deserves to do just that. As befits the sometimes-retro feel of the movie, it's a classic Bond song, big and brassy and borrowing just enough from Monty Norman's original theme to give it that 007 kick. Adele is a worthy successor to Shirley Bassey, the queen of Bond theme singers.
The former Crowded House frontman Neil Finn becomes the first man to sing an end-credits song to one of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies with "Song of the Lonely Mountain" from "The Hobbit." It makes sense to have a male voice at the end of "The Hobbit," since the film hardly has any women in it — and the best part of Finn's solemn, yearning and suitably majestic ballad is the male chorus and the clanging anvil keeping time in appropriately dwarfish fashion.
Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is a significant change for the director who usually sets his films to preexisting music. The violent slavery-era Spaghetti Western leads all films with four entries.
The Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton duet "Freedom" sits in a slinky mid-tempo groove and contains an echo of classic slavery-era gospel songs; it's one of the more substantial of the entries. Rick Ross' "100 Black Coffins" (which was written by the movie's star, Jamie Foxx) might be truest to the movie's tone, because it's the rudest and toughest of the bunch, a rap that could conceivably capitalize on affection for the film and the Academy's occasional embrace of rap.
"Ancora qui," a moody Italian-language ballad sung by Elisa Toffoli, is the least characteristic song of the four, and the least impactful in context — but it'd also be the most emotionally satisfying nomination, since the song was co-authored by Italian movie-music legend Ennio Morricone, who never won an Oscar until he was given an honorary award in 2006.
John Legend's "Who Did That to You," meanwhile, might be the strongest of the "Django" entries, a slinky and sharp and soulful track that also serves as a summation of the title character's journey. If one of the movie's songs is nominated — and I think one will be — this could well be the one.
Animated movies are often well-represented, with Disney enjoying an unprecedented late-'80s-early '90s streak where "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" got two nominations each, "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" got three each.
The Disney-affiliated Pixar received six nominations for its first 12 films, and 2012's "Brave" stands a good chance of increasing the count with its two entries. "Learn Me Right," written by Mumford & Sons and performed by that band with Birdy, follows the Mumford template: It's folk-based and rousing, and before it ends you just know the whole thing will be whipped into an acoustic frenzy.
"Touch the Sky," which receives a more prominent place within the film, follows the same rousing-folksy pattern, with Scottish singer Julie Fowlis tying into the film's setting. The lyric is on the too-obvious side, but the song is used during a crucial sequence, which could help its chances. The video is a non-film version:
Other animated contenders include "Still Dream" from "Rise of the Guardians," a big, classy and formal song by soprano Renee Fleming. It doesn't have the sense of fun to be found in the movie, and while the performance is undeniably impressive, I found the song largely uninvolving.
"Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" qualified a trio of songs, all of which are spirited and none of which are likely to stand out. "Let It Grow" is bouncy and celebratory but not particularly memorable; "Thneedville" is more of the same, another unsubtle eco-anthem that's more annoying than appealing; and "How Bad Can I Be?" mixes thudding chants with Ed Helms' raps, but its novelty value wears out pretty quickly.
"Ice Age: Continental Drift" qualified two songs. Keke Palmer's "We Are" is another unrelenting uptempo ode to family values. "Master of the Seas" is relatively insufferable; if Gilbert and Sullivan wrote one of their patter songs for an animated movie, it have some similarities to this number… but it'd be a lot better.
"Love Always Comes as a Surprise" from "Madagascar 3" comes from Peter Asher, who abandoned his performing career (as half of Peter and Gordon) in the '60s and became well-known as a producer and manager. The song has attractive textures, a lilting melody and nice French and circus-music touches; it does not, however, suggest that Asher made a mistake when he stopped singing and started producing.
Energetic, bouncy and charming, Karen O's "Frankenweenie" track "Strange Love" is the most playful of the animated songs. To its credit, it adds just enough odd touches in the arrangement to convey some of the twisted sensibility of Tim Burton's movie.
"When Can I See You Again" from Owl City has the advantage of being from a well-liked movie, "Wreck-It Ralph," where it lends an appropriately '80s new wave feel to the end credits. Of course, '80s new wave hasn't aged particularly well and was never an AMPAS favorite, but this and "Strange Love" are the most fun of the animated-film entries.
You don't have to be in English to be nominated — in recent years, songs from "The Motorcycle Diaries," "The Chorus" and "The Triplets of Belleville" have proven that. "Pi's Lullaby," the gently dramatic opening song from "Life of Pi," probably has the best shot to add to that number, its chances helped by the fact that it underscores a gorgeous scene-setting sequence.
"Delhi Safari" is another number set in India, from the animated film of the same name. The sprightly ditty kicks things up a notch when heavier percussion comes in near the end of the song, but it almost certainly needs a higher-profile movie to catch voters' attention. The spirited "Hashishet Albi" may have a better shot, since it is used in a showcase musical scene from 2011's Lebanese Oscar entry, "Where Do We Go Now?"
Will Ferrell's mock Mexican melodrama, "Casa de mi Padre," submitted three songs — one by Ferrell and others, one by Christina Aguilera and one by Cecilia Noel. The Ferrell tune, "Yo No Se," is a joke song, dependent on the incongruity of its star singing in fractured Spanish. It's mildly funny, though joke songs typically don't do all that well. Last year's winner, "Man or Muppet," was an exception.
Aguilera and Noel both play things relatively straight, Aguilera with the dramatic and overblown "Casa de mi Padre," and Noel with the even more melodramatic "Del Cielo."
"Jose's Martyrdom," from the Mexican historical drama "For Greater Glory," is big and dramatic and solemn, with music by James Horner. In short, it's the kind of thing that "Casa de mi Padre" makes fun of.
And while we're talking about big and dramatic and solemn, the Italian-language "Luca Nacosta," from "Hidden Moon," fairly oozes high purpose. If the movie had been a hit, it's the kind of song that could find its way into a Three Tenors-style repertoire of high-minded, pseudo-classical melodrama, and on those terms it's pretty persuasive.
DO IT ONSCREEN
If there's been one lesson of the system put in place by the music branch several years ago, it's this: Songs have a better chance of being nominated if they're performed onscreen. More than half the nominees in recent years have been of that ilk, and so are lots of this year's submissions.
"One Wing," for instance, is a pop-soul confection from "Sparkle" performed by Jordin Sparks, a graduate of the TV-singing-competition school that insists that it's always so much more dramatic to sing three or four notes when one would suffice. The song itself isn't anything special, but she sings the heck out of it, in a way that her late "Sparkle" costar Whitney Houston might have gotten away with once in a while.
The regrettable film version of the jukebox musical "Rock of Ages" has a new song of its own, a wan piece of '80s-style pop-funk called "Undercover Love" sung by the film's star, Diego Boneta. I've gone on record saying that most of the movie's rock songs and power ballads don't exactly deserve their iconic status, but by comparison this one makes them all seem like classics.
"Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best," a low-budget indie about a sad-sack, low-fi pop band, qualified three songs. "278 (Airport)" (video below) is a videogame-era chronicle of life on the road, a catchy ditty whose impact might be a bit diminished if voters are bothered by how its hook borrows awfully liberally from the Guess Who's 1969 hit "These Eyes." "Come On Girl" is cheesy, bouncy pop, and I doubt its artists would think of "cheesy" as a criticism. "Someday" is marginally less bouncy and less catchy, a slight statement of purpose.
Another movie with three entries is the Dolly Parton/Queen Latifah gospel-music drama "Joyful Noise." Parton's gentle country ballad of devotion, "From Here to the Moon and Back," is the most affecting of the lot, with a touching moment in which Parton is joined by notable non-singer Kris Kristofferson. In "He's Everything," the He in question is God, and the song is a typically spirited gospel rave-up, blustery and blunt. "I'm Yours" is meant to represent the more modern side of the choir, though its idea of modern seems to be taking the funky rhythms and dynamics from a 1980s Michael Jackson track.
And one of the most eye-catching onscreen performances belongs to Matthew McConaughey in "Magic Mike," when he sings "Ladies of Tampa" as a prelude to his striptease. Much as I love the idea of a shirtless McConaughey sitting on the edge of the Oscars stage, the number has a ramshackle, slapdash sound, as if he's making it up off the top of his head. Besides, McConaughey has lost so much weight for "The Dallas Buyer's Club" that he's probably not in prime shirtless shape.
WHAT'S UP, DOC
Nine of the entries are from documentaries, a genre that produced the Oscar winner "I Need to Wake Up" from "An Inconvenient Truth" six years ago. The trouble with doc songs, though, is that they often state their films theses a little too bluntly and stridently — I'd argue that Melissa Ethridge's Oscar-winner did just that, though obviously the stridency didn't hurt with voters who wanted to recognize that film.
Of this year's doc qualifiers, Peter Navarro's acoustic title track from "Death by China" falls into that category; its country-folk lilt is appealing, but the lyrics traffic in ham-fisted overstatement: "The CEOs get richer/And our jobs all move offshore… "
"Before My Time" from "Chasing Ice" is a soft jazz-pop ballad from composer J. Ralph; every time I hear it I can't help but think of the instrumental "Closing Time" from Tom Waits' first album. Scarlett Johansson, who has recorded an album of Waits' songs, isn't a great vocalist but she's at home on the song, and Joshua Bell adds evocative accompaniment.
Bill Carter's "Anything Made of Paper" from the miscarriage-of-justice doc "West of Memphis" is subtler, more impressionistic and more persuasive, though it lapses into stridency at times. Moving more into country, Clint Black's "She Won't Let Go" adds some pro-forma family-and-country homilies to the POW/MIA doc "Until They Are Home." "Protect the King," meanwhile, is John Forte's end-credits rap from "Brooklyn Castle," straightforward and a little mundane.
Four of the doc songs are from films about performing arts rather than political issues. Alexander Rosenbloom is one of the subjects of the performing-arts-school doc "Fame High," and his "You Don't Have to Be a Star" is understated, sweet and unpretentious.
The Crystal Method's "I'm Not Leaving" from "Re: Generation," a doc about music producers and DJs, mixes some Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder influences into a propulsive dance track. The song is an intriguing sonic assemblage, but maybe too groove-based to appeal to the branch's veteran songwriters and composers.
Then there's "Wide Awake," a new song from the Katy Perry concert movie "Katy Perry: Part of Me." A power ballad that's supposed to represent the newly mature Perry, it's a big, bright and earnest breakup song stuck in the movie's end credits, not the best place to secure Academy attention.
The doc song with the best chance of landing a nomination is undoubtedly "Still Alive," a self-portrait of sorts from the Oscar-winning singer-songwriter who serves as the subject of "Paul Williams Still Alive." From an elegant and touching opening verse, the song slips into schmaltz on more than one occasion — but Williams followers learned long ago that this is a guy who always walked the line between touching and sappy.
WINNERS, NOMINEES AND A HOST
The most recent past winner in the running is Glen Hansard, who with Markéta Irglová took home the Oscar five years ago for "Falling Slowly" and returns to the competition with "This Gift" from "The Odd Life of Timothy Green." The song doesn't have the emotional clout of its Oscar-winning predecessor, but it's a typical Hansard composition, a gentle and lovely mid-tempo number that rises to a rousing climax.
T Bone Burnett won an Oscar for "The Weary Kind" and was nominated for "Cold Mountain," and he's represented as producer of the Arcade Fire song "Abraham's Daughter" from "The Hunger Games." A menacing slow-burn chant with lead vocals from the band's female singer, Régine Chassagne, the song is appropriately foreboding but may be too much of a mood piece to impress voters.
Former nominee Jon Bon Jovi, meanwhile, trots out his quiet and plaintive side on "Not Running Anymore" from "Stand Up Guys" — though to be honest, in this case plaintive comes across as kind of whiny.
"Everybody Needs a Best Friend," from "Ted," has the potential to bring an Academy Award to the guy who's hosting the Oscar show, because it was co-written by this year's emcee, "Ted" writer-director Seth MacFarlane. The guy is a noted Sinatra aficionado, and it shows in this swinging if formulaic big band number about friendship, ably handled by Norah Jones.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Of the two songs from "Snow White and the Huntsman," Florence + the Machine's "Breath of Life" is dramatic and driving, probably the most impressive of the modern-rock songs in contention (though its position in the end credits won't help it). Ionna Gika's "Gone" is a curious, ghostly number that was made to sound like an ancient spell; it works wonderfully, though it plays more like a fragment than a full-fledged song.
The British singer-songwriter Badly Drawn Boy, who should have been recognized for his music to "About a Boy," offers the hushed, lovely "Let It Rain" in "Being Flynn."
The L.A. band the Milk Carton Kids do an indie-rock version of the Everly Brothers with their close-knit harmonies on "Snake Eyes" from "Promised Land," and the result is entrancing. (And that film's director, Gus van Sant, helped Elliott Smith get a nomination for "Good Will Hunting" 16 years ago, so who knows?)
While the most startling musical moment in "Lawless" came when bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley sang the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat," Emmylou Harris joins the movie's house band, the Bootleggers, for a beautiful and bracing acoustic reverie, "Cosmonaut."
Keith Urban's "For You," a Golden Globe and Critics' Choice Movie Award nominee from "Act of Valor," is a big, bold and brawny country anthem, appropriate and unsubtle.
Rufus Wainwright's "Metaphorical Blanket" is a languid ballad whose simple melody is at odds with rhetorical knots that Wainwright ties with the lyrics, which include constructions like, " … even though you have to throw the metaphorical blanket over the symbolical fire of my all-too practical heart." It's whiny, but in a clever way.
"Razors Out" is hard rock with an industrial edge. Stark and simple and brutal like the movie it comes from, "The Raid: Redemption," it's more of a fierce riff and some jagged mechanical textures than a fleshed-out song.
Director Whit Stillman's dance scene in "Damsels in Distress" is set to "The Sambola! International Dance Craze," whose title is more wishful thinking than truth in advertising. The song is a Latin-flavored dance tune that couldn't get much more simplistic, or much catchier.
Just as Chris Colfer's movie "Struck by Lightning" is a surprisingly funny and heartfelt gem, so its song, Michael Van London's "Feel Love," has more drive and punch than man of its competitors. It's a pop-rock tune that's tough instead of sugary.
"Never Had," sung by actor Oscar Isaac in the film "10 Years," is a fairly effective, understated song of lost love; it manages to stand out because it's genuinely touching.
"Voodoo," from a movie called "Halloween Party," is pretty much a blues-rock riff on "I Put a Spell on You," but it's a tough and persuasive one.
"When I Grow Up" from "Losing Control" is a bouncy ditty from Eleisha Eagle, who sings like a little girl and treads the line between catchy and insufferable. I tend toward the first of those, but I doubt that Oscar voters will agree with me.
And while screenwriter-turned-director Mitch Glazer's "Virginia" didn't fare well, the song "Kiss Me Goodbye" is one of the better entries among the songs that don't really have a chance. It's an echoey big ballad, an effective descendant and inheritor of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, as filtered through more recent devotees like the Raveonettes.
THE REST OF THE REST
A couple of indie-rock divas are also represented in this year's mix, though neither with her best work. Fiona Apple's "Dull Tool," which plays under a number of scenes late in "This Is 40," is kinetic and jagged and profane and driving … and also a little one-dimensional. Liz Phair's "Dotted Like" from "People Like Us" takes the opposite tack musically with a slow, lulling pace and, again, not enough variation or development.
"The Baddest Man Alive," a collaboration between the Black Keys and rapper RZA from "The Man With the Iron Fists," is a snarling rock chant, tough but too simple, and unlikely to win much favor from Academy voters. But the video's entertaining:
Lawrence Kasdan's "Darling Companion" disappeared quickly from theaters, and its end-credits song, "When You Comin' Home," is forgettable as well, a rollicking, sprightly country sing-along that is cute but slight.
From "Least Among Saints," Charlie Hirsch's "Beaten Up and Broken Down" is an initially acoustic ballad that builds into something bigger and bolder — but the moody love song grows less interesting as the arrangement gets bigger and the cliches mount.
"Ain't No Train" from "Downtown Express" isn't as gritty or driving as most good train songs; it chugs along to a fairly layered, intricate arrangement of strings and vocalists making "ch-ch-ch-ch" sounds. It's intriguing, but not really propulsive enough to get you to the station in style.
Ryan Miller's "Big Machine," from "Safety Not Guaranteed," is an lilting midtempo pop rock song of no real distinction, except when it sounds like Fleetwood Mac's "Sentimental Lady."
"By the Light of the Moon" from the Christian drama "Crossroad" is stately but slight, a simple and elegant but awfully cliched middle-of-the-road love ballad.
"California Solo," the wistful title track from the movie of the same name, comes in a rock 'n' roll version, and a solo version by actor Robert Carlyle; neither stand out much. Sunny Levine's "No Other Plans" from "Celeste and Jesse Forever" is a slow but tense falsetto-driven pop rock track, moody but monotonous. Beck channels a touch of early '70s Neil Young on "Looking for a Sign" from "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," but his mournful track is also dull.
Finally, two of the strangest entries come from one of the strangest movies, the Indian-made horror film "Saint Dracula." "I Be Here" is an overdone duet between equally florid male and female singers – but it's a model of restraint and coherence when compared to "I Have Secrets," an exercise in demented melodrama that sails right past excess into nearly sublime silliness. It's not good, but it sure is impressive.