There’s a tension behind the rosy appearance of Oscar contenders in this year’s best song category, which suggest an unusually strong range of styles and approaches.
At the same time, though, there’s also a general feeling that the use-and abuse-of songs in films requires more scrutiny, partially reflected in some rules changes and amendments made by the Academy music branch.
The rules now make explicit that an eligible song must be “written specifically for the film,” and that the song must be “used in the body of the film or as the first song in the end credits.”
The new specifications, while underlining requirements already set down in the body of the rules, are partly a response, say Academy music branch representatives, to complaints that songs were being included in a film’s end credits roll as part of a marketing strategy having little to do with the film itself.
“An Academy Award is not given simply for ‘best song.'” notes music branch governor and composer Charles Bernstein. “It is given to honor an achievement-in this case, the achievement of writing a great song to enhance a piece of film. Placing a song deep in the end credits, after the film is over, is not considered an Academy Award achievement.”
Adds an industry observer: “The in-roads of the record industry are so important to movie music now, that the songs are increasingly used as a marketing tool. While someone like Randy Newman is a dramatist, you have a lot of songwriters writing for films today who aren’t capable of making a dramatic statement about the film. They’re writing pop music, which isn’t the same thing.”
Few big hits
Notably, the vast majority of eligible songs this year — voted on by composers, lyricists, music editors, orchestrators and other members of the branch — are not charted hits. There are exceptions, as with Phil Collins’ infectious tunes for “Tarzan” — which stand on their own as pop standards as well as acting like character soliloquies — or the latest Madonna-Orbitcollaboration “Beautiful Stranger” for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.”
The days of a Mancini “Moon River” or a Bacharach “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” running in theaters and on the radio simultaneously seem to be long gone.
“Pop artists,” says music supervisor and producer Bud Carr, “tend to write their songs for their records, with hopes of a hit, but that’s not what they have in mind when they work on a movie.”
In addition, note observers, today’s dominant film composers tend not to be songwriters, furthering a separation of movie songs from songs with hit potential.
But as this year’s horse race indicates, there’s a possible renaissance of the dramatic film song, exemplified by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson’s inclusion of no less than nine songs by songwriter Aimee Mann in his “Magnolia,” with her yearning ballad, “Save Me,” being positioned by distributor New Line as a contender.
Anderson employs Mann’s songs as a kind of running Greek chorus commenting on or underlining the action.
Anderson has even admitted that he borrowed some of Mann’s lyrics for dialogue, stating in the album’s notes that Mann’s “Deathly” was his screenplay’s mainspring.
Few if any other films push the profile of songs as high as “Magnolia,” unless you include the year’s only genuine musical, “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut,” in which Trey Parker’s and Marc Shaiman’s “Blame Canada” is the contending tune.
In terms of character development, Collins’ “You’ll Be in My Heart” for “Tarzan” operates in the classic mode, essentially speaking sentiments of the characters.
Newman’s “When She Loved Me” takes this one step further, as a kind of aria by a forlorn cowgirl doll recalling the girl who once played with her, but then grew up and forgot her.
“It’s a little weird writing about mortality for four-year-olds in the audience,” says Newman. “This is a pretty heavy emotional moment for a Disney film, maybe on par with the death of Bambi’s mother.” Another use of a dramatic song is as opening statement — employed by Anthony Minghella in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” in which he and lyricist and composer Gabriel Yared devised “Lullaby For Cain” (sung by Sinead O’Connor) as the first sound element we hear in the film.
“I’d always thought of the Ripley story as primal,” says Minghella, “about a man murdering someone he envied and loved, something that’s right at the heart of the fable tradition, like the Cain vs. Abel tale. So we thought in those terms, imagining a lullaby sung by Cain’s mother to her son. It’s deliberately unsettling, immediately establishing the film’s mood and general theme, without telling you too much.”