Disney song dynasty challenged

When Elton John and Tim Rice took home an Academy Award in 1994 for best song for their “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from “The Lion King,” it was one of three songs from the Walt Disney animated hit that had been nominated by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

It was also the fifth win of six nominations for the studio, which practically had a lock each year on nabbing the best song Oscar.

Last year, many observers expected Bryan Adams’ lilting ballad “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” from “Don Juan De Marco” to take home the song trophy.

But the pop hit, which many felt was destined to become a standard, thereby meeting one of the criteria for getting the votes that lead to a trophy, was edged out by “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas.”

Yet, if the nominees and winner of the recent Golden Globes are any indication, and because the competition for best song this year is so fierce, the 69th annual Academy Awards may be the year where the Disney magic is not sufficient to land the winning song.

Or at least not rule the best song roost.

Typically, the studio’s animated offerings present the greatest hurdle to challengers, as the tune is often worked into the film in several places, such as under the beginning and end credits and during a pivotal scene that’s likely to be recalled by audiences.

“Animation has a particular advantage, as it allows the songs to be incorporated into the action of the film,” says Chris Montan, who guides Disney’s animated pic song placement efforts and has a production deal with the studio. “Sometimes you can have a big hit. But if it feels to the Academy voters that it is a marketing (ploy) and doesn’t really fit, they’ll reject it.”

“However, Disney’s success also very much depends on who we are in business with, and fortunately we’ve had some great associations with writers and performers over the years.”

However, the studio’s one animated pic for 1996, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” may have spawned a $350 million worldwide box office hit, but it lacked a soaring ballad that could have endeared itself to the Academy’s aging voters.

The pic, which spawned the tune “Someday” sung by All-4-One, may have spent nearly four months on the pop sales chart since its August release, but the song never topped the listing or was so remarkable that it is likely to be recalled by voters.

And last year’s move by the Academy to break the original score category in two, into original musical or comedy score and original dramatic score, may go far toward loosening Disney’s grip on those categories as well.

Insiders note that Disney’s animated offerings have replaced the film musical, an aspect of the industry fondly missed by many of the Acad’s older music branch members.

But they also note that as good as a song in an animated pic may be, “It sometimes doesn’t quite have the same jolt as a live-action performance,” offers Gary LeMel, president of Warner Bros. Music and Warner Sunset Records. “A film often gets the (best song) vote when the full Academy sees something that in their minds screams music.”

Which is why “Evita” and Madonna’s perf of the new Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice tune written for it, “You Must Love Me,” or the title song of “That Thing You Do” may be this year’s only serious contenders for a best song Oscar, given the competition and the Acad’s demographic.

“Evita” picked up the original song Golden Globe Sunday, perhaps proving that Weber and Rice still have the cachet.

Insiders note that while “That Thing” best exemplifies the use of music as the pic’s story driver and appeals to a wide demographic, if it also succeeds, if just for a moment, in convincing Acad members that the tune was actually a hit during the film’s release period, it has done its job and is worthy of a nom.

But the plethora of tunes on the market during the past year – including Columbia’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” which boasts “I Finally Found Someone,” a Barbra Streisand/Bryan Adams duet written with Marvin Hamlisch and R.J. (Mutt) Lange, all previous nominees and well-known artists among the Acad set, and Kenny Loggins’ “For the First Time” from “One Fine Day” – suggests Disney will have a tough time getting a slot.

“Music branch members tend to look at the art of a song,” says Glen Brunman, chief of Sony Music Soundtracks. “They look at how well it resonates in the film, or how well it represents it.”

The best song contender will likely come from Disney’s sister studio’s live action offerings, such as Touchstone’s “Up Close and Personal,” which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford, and sported the Celine Dion-sung nugget “Because You Loved Me.”

Because of the Acad’s criteria that a tune must be specifically created for the film, “Phenomenon,” which boasts the Eric Clapton-sung track “Change the World,” might have been a shoo-in for the studio. But the tune is ineligible.

Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” was a pop chart hit created for the film by Diane Warren that had standard written all over it. It also had the benefit of an extensive marketing campaign during which the song was used in every theater trailer and TV spot for the film.

As a result, the tune was a chart topper of epic proportions that helped fuel Dion’s rise into the pop music stratosphere. It also made other studios take note of the rewards of the use of a pic’s tune to help market a film.

Music branchers note that the lack of a significant challenger from a Disney animated pic also creates an even playing field for those music mavens who toil each year to land in a soundtrack that has a shot at commercial (i.e., chart-topping) success and one that can find favor with Academy voters.

Many admit it’s a tough task, as many of the Acad’s voters more fondly remember songs like the 1976 song winner “Evergreen,” the Barbra Streisand/Paul Williams ballad from “A Star Is Born,” than Van Halen’s “Humans Being” from Warner Bros.’ “Twister,” which may have helped advance the story but was not hummable enough for voters.

“The tune has to be uplifting and used beautifully in the film,” says LeMel, “like (R. Kelly’s) ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ in ‘Space Jam.’ Even though the song may be a great song, rock (tracks) typically don’t register with the Academy.”

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