For better or worse, this year's Oscar music process is nearing its end.
Thursday night, members of the AMPAS music branch met and watched more than two hours of three-minute film clips featuring the 41 songs deemed eligible for the Best Original Song award. Other branch members watched the same clips on DVDs at home. Each song was scored on a scale of 6-to-10, the scores will soon be tallied, and somewhere between zero and five songs will be nominated.
I've written about my problems with the process (read: Oscar Song Process Out of Tune), and some Academy members have voiced their dissatisfaction as well: "Just seeing a quick little excerpt won’t tell you anything about the journey that music takes you on," composer Hans Zimmer told me last year.
But then, the Oscar music awards have always attracted controversy – and the branch, perhaps to its credit, has been one of the more active Academy branches in trying to fiddle with the process to make it better.
Few of this year's competitors know this any better than composer and songwriter Alan Menken (left), a contender for the song "I See the Light" from "Tangled," and one of the few people who can legitimately say that Oscar rules were changed because of him.
In Menken's case, they were changed because he kept winning: in a seven-year span between 1989 and 1995, he was nominated for a dozen Oscars and won eight of them, all for the music to a string of landmark animated films from Disney: "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "Pocahontas."
In every case, he won one Oscar for Best Original Song and another for Best Original Score – and near the end of that stretch, the Academy's music branch voted to split the score award into two separate awards, one for Original Dramatic Score and one for Original Musical or Comedy Score.
The thinking was clear: if the voters were going to continually give the score award to the music from animated musicals, the branch would create a separate award so that scores not filled with songs could be honored.
"I felt a combination of flattered and disappointed, I guess," Menken told theWrap. "But I’d won so many that for me to be really disappointed was a little bit unseemly. I really had won so many it was crazy, so for me personally it was fine. But when I look at the projects, that's a different thing."
In fact, the category change was short-lived: it lasted for only four years, during which time Menken won once, for "Pocahontas." He was nominated for a song from "Hercules" and the score to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" but lost both times. He was absent from the Oscars for a decade, until he scored three song nominations from the film "Enchanted."
Along with the restoration of a single score category, Menken points out, the Academy also made scores that feature a large number of songs ineligible; the scores for which he won would not now qualify, and he didn't even submit his score for "Tangled" to the Academy, figuring it'd be disqualified.
"If you have songs in your score, they disqualify the underscore from being in consideration," he said. "Which is a drag."
Menken is also wary of the song category, which is why he's only submitted one of the "Tangled" songs to the Academy even though in the past he had three songs nominated from "Enchanted" and "Beauty and the Beast," and two each from "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin."
"It's very flattering to be nominated for three, and it’s happened to me twice," he said. "But it's pretty unlikely you're going to win, especially now. Back when there were hit singles coming out of films, you had a greater chance. With 'Beauty and the Beast' we had three nominations and we won, but that's because one song was really so obvious. Now the function of recorded music in film to the pop market has shifted. And I think we're better off with one."
That one, he added, was the product of three or four attempts at writing a love duet for the two main characters, Rapunzel and the outlaw Flynn who falls in love with her. "The first few tries were almost like an anthem, a big ballad, like 'A Whole New World' [from 'Aladdin']," he said. "And we ended up scaling back, and shifting to something more folk-like and gently classical. That felt better for the moment."
The entire film, he added, was the result of negotiation and compromise with Disney and directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, who came to the project after it had been in development for years. Along the way, they had to figure out how to turn the film "a break-into-song kind of project," and how to add characters that would create an opportunity for a comedic ensemble number.
In the aftermath of "Tangled," Menken says his energies have largely turned back to the stage, where he created "Little Shop of Horrors" in the 1980s, and more recently wrote the music for "Leap of Faith."
"There's no animated musical in the pipeline at Disney," he said, contrasting the current climate with the years that gave him more Oscars than any other living person. "It was fun, but I did six of those in eight years. I don’t think I'd ever want to go back to a period like that."
(Menken photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)