The Unmusical Oscars   Leave a comment

April 21, 2012

Can You Name That Tune?

What the hell is going on in Hollywood? In the music business we used to comment on the increasing number of lawyers and accountants who were creeping (literally and figuratively) into senior roles at medium-to-large record labels. This wasn’t paranoia, because we  knew that tone-deaf ambulance chasers and bean counters were out to get us. Low and behold, with rare exceptions, unmusical lawyers and accountants running record companies became poster-children for the Peter Principle. So now I’m forced to ask the same question about the film industry.

In the recent unexplainable Academy Awards, music in the Best Original Song category was clearly relegated to the status of the crazy aunt in the attic. Of 39 songs under consideration, only two songs received nominations:  “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets, with music and lyrics by Bret “Flight of the Conchords” McKenzie, and “Real in Rio,” from Rio with music by Sergio Mendes and Carlinhos Brown, and lyrics by Siedah Garrett. (By comparison, Best Achievement in Makeup had three nominations, yet as far as I know, post-screening interviews apparently never revealed a film-goer who spent money on a ticket due to the foundation, blush, eyeliner, or lipstick used on the film’s cast.) With only two songs to choose from, voting members of the Academy could ignore the rules about actually listening to music and instead simply flip a coin. Since “Man or Muppet” won the award, the immediate question is, “is this the best we can do”? This is not an attack on McKenzie, or The Muppets, but it is a comment on the directors, producers, and of course, the ambulance chasers and bean counters, who couldn’t work to find more music options for more of the films of 2011.

Consider how far the industry has fallen in the past decade or so:  In 2002 there was “Lose Yourself” (8 mile); “My Heart Will Go On” (Titanic) in 1997; “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” (The Lion King) in 1994; “Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia) in 1993. Need I go on? There are plenty of songwriters (of all levels of quality and all levels of documented success) who would have been willing to submit songs on spec if need be. But apparently, not enough of them were asked.

During my tenure in the music industry, I observed the birth of MTV. That corporate creation developed—for better or worse—a film industry farm team of aspiring film directors, producers, and cinematographers who (in theory) understood the synergistic connection between music and movies. In virtually every case, these music clip directors created two, three, four-minute (and longer) music videos, built on top of good (sometimes great) songs. Let me emphasize that point: the visual elements were built on top of existing music tracks. The Music Came First! Music is what connects us. The emotion we attach to the lyrics and the melody is then often transferred to friends and family.

So the two issues I have with the film industry are [1] why so few films with music of a high enough quality worth submitting for Academy Award consideration (39 songs were submitted this year), and [2] why only two nominations? The Los Angeles Times helps wade through the process:

By this point, there’s been plenty of outrage at the Academy Awards for nominating only two songs, but viewers may have forgotten that the Oscars are generally a bit out of tune when it comes to music. This is a category, after all, that heavily favors songs in animated movies — Randy Newman won last year for his “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” rewrite “We Belong Together” — and just four years ago the field was flooded with three songs from “Enchanted.” At the awards that honored 2006, three songs from “Dreamgirls” were nominated.

Imagine watching 39 four-or-five-minute movie clips back-to-back-to-back. There are far worse ways to spend a few hours, of course, but it’s easy to see which scenes and songs will make an impression. The National’s very adult and melodramatic “Think You Can Wait” from “Win Win” isn’t going to stand much of a chance against the rainbow-colored birds with red-hot rhythm in “Rio.”

The screening process, in fact, likely puts too much of an emphasis on brief, cinematic scenes that dazzle rather than those that gently accentuate the film’s themes. It’s easy to overlook, then, end-of-film songs such as Mary J. Blige’s understated “The Living Proof” from “The Help,” or Chris Cornell’s folksy “The Keeper” from “Machine Gun Preacher.” Even the pretty, vintage strut and light orchestral touches of “Winnie the Pooh’s” “So Long,” performed by Zooey Deschanel’s She & Him, is going to have screening audiences bored once the credits start rolling.

While the L.A. Times does a credible job of explaining the process, i.e., why there were only two nominations, there needs to be more discussion on the lack of quality songs included in the films. And the voting process needs an upgrade. I’m reminded of the 1988 Grammy Awards, when Jethro Tull won a Grammy for “Best Hard Rock/Metal” album. Clearly too many of the voting members that year didn’t know what the category meant, or they had never heard a Jethro Tull album (some Grammy voters actually thought Jethro was the first name and Tull the last name of the leader of the group; in fact it was the name of an 18th century English agriculturalist); or they didn’t bother to listen to all of the nominees to make an informed choice. It was an embarrassing day for the music industry. This year’s treatment of music at the Academy Award ceremony was—in my opinion—equally embarrasing. The audience and fans deserve better.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2012

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