The Oscar song category has its biggest hits in years, but questions from a recent controversy hang in the air
Thursday night’s Oscar Concert, the Academy’s first Oscar-week showcase for nominated music, comes at a great time for the AMPAS Music Branch. And it comes at a tough time for the branch.
It’s a great time because the Oscar-nominated scores include innovative work by fresh new voices as well as artful scores by some of the most celebrated composers in the field; because three of the four nominated songs are big hits, and all are being performed on the Oscar show; and because the Academy’s Board of Governors has approved this Oscar-week concert to showcase the work deemed best by the branch.
And it’s a tough time because most of the recent Oscar-music headlines had to do with the fact that the fifth Best Original Song nominee, “Alone Yet Not Alone,” had its nomination rescinded because former branch governor Bruce Broughton had engaged in what the board determined was inappropriate campaigning.
In that charged atmosphere, with the branch celebrating its high-profile nominees while others in and outside the Academy wonder if the song mess will have reverberations for AMPAS and for the branch, the first Oscar Concert will take place at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus on Thursday.
The Music Branch may be ready to forget about the controversy and simply celebrate the work on Thursday night, or they may feel the shadow hanging over them – we don’t know for sure, because Charles Fox, the Music Branch governor of the Academy who was one of the key proponents of the concert, originally agreed to speak to TheWrap for this article, but then cancelled because, AMPAS said, he was wrapped up in rehearsals.
The concert, which was nearly sold out as of Thursday morning, will be hosted by hip-hop artist and actor Common, and will feature suites from the five nominated scores, as well as onstage Q&As and performances of the nominated songs.
The nominated composers are three first-time nominees, Steven Price (“Gravity”), Arcade Fire’s William Butler and Owen Pallett (“Her”), plus six-time nominee Alexander Desplat (“Philomena”), 12-time nominee Thomas Newman (“Saving Mr. Banks”) and 49-time nominee John Williams (“The Book Thief”).
And no, that 49 is not a typo – Williams is the most nominated living person.
Each will have a brief onstage discussion with Elvis Mitchell before conducting a suite from the nominated score.
The concert will also include performances of the nominated songs: “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2” and “The Moon Song” from “Her.” But because all four will be performed on the Oscar show in versions by their original performers – only the second time in five years that all the nominated songs will get Oscar-show performances – the idea is to do different performances at Royce Hall.
So in the case of “Let It Go,” the writers of the song, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, will do it themselves rather than showcasing a performance by Broadway star Idina Menzel, who did the song in the movie and will do it on the Oscars.
But the songwriter of “Happy,” Pharrell Williams, is also its performer, and he's booked to do it on the Oscars. So Williams has enlisted singer Jill Scott to give it a different spin at the concert.
The Academy has not announced what they’ll do with the other two songs. U2 wrote and recorded “Ordinary Love,” and singer Bono told TheWrap that the Oscars will be the first full-band performance the song, though they did an acoustic version on Jimmy Fallon’s first Tonight Show.
And Karen O co-wrote “The Moon Song” from “Her” with director Spike Jonze, and is performing it on the Oscars.
However they’re performed and whoever performs them, the songs are as high-profile and popular as any group of Oscar songs in years. “Happy” is currently No. 1 song on the iTunes song chart, while the “Frozen” soundtrack is No. 1 on the album chart.
U2, meanwhile, continue to be one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, while Karen O became an indie-rock queen through her work in the band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The lineup isn’t quite as impressive as it was almost 30 years ago, in the legendary song category of 1984, when all five nominees – “Footloose,” “Against All Odds,” “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” “Ghostbusters” and the winner, “I Just Called To Say I Love You” – were No, 1 hits.
But it’s a formidable and competitive slate, with “Let It Go” starting as a clear frontrunner but “Happy” and “Ordinary Love” mounting furious campaigns in the final weeks of voting.
At the same time, though, the fact that there’s no fifth nominee, and the reasons why, still have the potential to affect the Academy and the branch.
Some governors have long muttered about Music Branch cronyism, with the board voting to rescind Bruce Broughton’s nomination even after a branch committee ruled that his campaigning was appropriate.
It’s likely that the board will revisit the matter in the aftermath of the Oscars, when the governors conduct their annual review of the show and the campaigns. That could lead to new regulations governing campaigning in all categories, or to a hard look at the often-controversial song category.
That category, after all, prompts regular complaints about oversights and omissions, even as it has resulted in such worthy and sometimes daring Oscar winners as Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow,” Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ “The Way You Look Tonight,” Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s “Falling Slowly.”
But Thursday night isn't really the time to worry about what may come. For a couple of hours, the Music Branch will be singing a happy tune.