Re­cur­ring themes in the Academy’s best-song choices

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Rob Gar­ratt

La La Land goes into Sun­day’s Oscar cer­e­mony with 14 nom­i­na­tions, a his­toric haul equalled only by All About Eve ( in 1951) and Ti­tanic (in 1998).

Per­haps its most de­serv­ing vic­tory would be for Best Orig­i­nal Song. The film is a mu­si­cal, so mu­sic is ob­vi­ously at its heart, and Justin Hur­witz’s score snagged two of the five song nom­i­na­tions – for City of Stars and Au­di­tion ( The Fools Who Dream).

It is worth re­mem­ber­ing, how­ever, that the Academy has no­to­ri­ously er­ratic taste, es­pe­cially when it comes to mu­sic. A brief sur­vey of past win­ners re­veals lit­tle ev­i­dence of a for­mula for suc­cess. That said, win­ners do tend to fall into a few dis­tinct camps.

The rock vet­eran, for ex­am­ple. The defin­ing star turn came in 1994 with Bruce Spring­steen’s Streets of Philadel­phia, from Aids drama Philadel­phia. Bob Dy­lan took home the stat­uette in 2001 for the re­strained, con­tem­pla­tive Things Have Changed, from the Michael Douglas movie Won­der Boys.

In 1995, El­ton John earned a de­served win with Can You Feel the Love Tonight, one of three Best Orig­i­nal Song nom­i­nees from Dis­ney’s The Lion King.

El­ton’s win high­lights a cross­over into an­other re­cur­ring theme for win­ning songs – the Academy’s soft spot for an­i­ma­tion. In the ab­sence of an­other knock­out con­tender, the award of­ten de­faults to the lat­est Dis­ney or Pixar movie. Randy New­man won in 2002 and 2011, for Mon­sters, Inc. ( If I Didn’t Have You) and Toy Story 3 ( We Be­long To­gether), while Kiwi comic Bret McKen­zie (of Flight of the Con­chords fame) won in 2012 for Man or Mup­pet, from The Mup­pets (OK, that’s not an an­i­ma­tion but pup­pets are a closely re­lated genre).

In 2014, the epic Let It Go from Frozen – cred­ited to hus­ban­dand-wife song­writ­ing team Kristen An­der­son- Lopez and Robert Lopez – con­tro­ver­sially beat Phar­rell Wil­liams’s Happy (from De­spi­ca­ble Me 2). The prece­dent for an­i­mated suc­cess in the mod­ern era was set in 1990 with a win for Un­der the Sea, from The Lit­tle Mer­maid. Fur­ther wins for Dis­ney’s res­i­dent song­smith Alan Menken fol­lowed in 1992 with Beauty and the Beast; a year later with Aladdin’s A Whole New World; and in 1996 with Col­ors of the Wind from Poc­a­hon­tas.

An­i­ma­tions won six out of 10 Best Orig­i­nal Song gongs in the 1990s.

It’s hard not to see this trend as a re­buke to a run of cyn­i­cal pop tie-in win­ners in the 1980s, dur­ing which A-list stars dialled in one-off sin­gles, of­ten barely re­lated to the film, as a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial mar­ket­ing tool.

Irene Cara won twice with the theme to Fame ( in 1981) and Flash­dance... What a Feel­ing (in 1984), set­ting off a golden era of per­fect pop win­ners be­tween 1984 and 1988: Ste­vie Won­der’s I Just Called to Say I Love You (from The Woman in Red), Lionel Richie’s Say You, Say Me ( White Nights), Ber­lin’s Top Gun theme Take My Breath Away and Dirty Danc­ing’s (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, sung by Bill Med­ley and Jen­nifer Warnes.

Some might ar­gue the celebrity tie-in be­gan ear­lier, per­haps in 1972 with Is­sac Hayes’s mas­ter­ful funk Theme from Shaft – ar­guably the great­est film score ever – or with Bar­bra Streisand’s wins for The Way We Were (1974) or, from A Star is Born, Ever­green ( 1977). But in both cases the part­ner­ship was a holis­ti­cally col­lab­o­ra­tive, artis­tic ef­fort – Hayes’s Shaft score was in­te­gral to the movie’s con­cep­tion and ap­peal, while Streisand was the star of both pic­tures she won for.

Babs might have in­spired Ma- donna’s cred­i­bil­ity-re­viv­ing turn in Evita, which pro­duced 1997 win­ner You Must Love Me. The same in­te­gral role was played by Eminem in the drama 8 Mile. Iron­i­cally, when his Lose Your­self won in 2003, it meant the first hip- hop song to be recog­nised came from a white rap­per.

The Bond movies are the fran­chise that per­haps has done more than any other to nur­ture the idea of a celebrity-song tie-in. For the third film in the se­ries, 1964’ s Goldfin­ger, pro­duc­ers called on the ser­vices of Shirley Bassey and the rest is his­tory.

Yet it would be nearly five decades be­fore 007 bagged his first Best Orig­i­nal Song Oscar, in 2013, for Adele’s Sky­fall. Sam Smith some­how re­peated the feat three years later with the de­riv­a­tive Writ­ing on the Wall from Spec­tre.

There is a the­ory that these retro- sound­ing Bond songs unite weary Academy vot­ers by ap­peal­ing to the for­got­ten grandeur of movie-themes past. Hol­ly­wood’s hey­day for orig­i­nal mu­sic was long ago, when the stu­dio sys­tem ruled and the mu­si­cal was still a vi­brant art form, rather than a kooky novelty.

This was the era of clas­sics such as Fred As­taire singing The Way You Look Tonight, from 1936’s Swing Time, and The Wiz­ard of Oz’s Some­where Over the Rain­bow (1939).

A lit­tle later, there were win­ners such as Moon River, which first ap­peared in the 1961 film Break­fast at Tif­fany’s, and Burt Bacharach & Hal David’s stan­dard Rain­drops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, from Butch Cas­sidy and the Sun­dance Kid (1969).

All of this bodes well for La La Land, which is a love let­ter to Hol­ly­wood’s golden age, com­plete with a twee, nos­tal­gic score at its over­flow­ing, ro­man­ti­cised heart.


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