Tunesmiths teeter between safe and daring

Nominee Warren has three songs up for consideration

Oscar’s best song picks tend to play it safe, says the old saw. Traditional songwriters, popular ballads, middle-of-the-road recording personalities tend to receive the noms, year after year, at the expense of more cutting-edge work.

Critics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s music branch like to support their argument by pointing out the failure to nominate the title song from “Super Fly” in 1972 or any of the Beatles tunes from “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) or “Help” (1965).

That may no longer be true, says veteran observer Leonard Maltin.

Dispensing ‘Blame’

“They nominated ‘Blame Canada,'” he points out, referring to the raucous political ditty from 1999’s outrageous “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” “So that does absolve them, at least temporarily, of accusations of stodginess, or unwillingness, to keep themselves open.”

Will the music branch demonstrate any appreciable shift toward the more contemporary material appearing in this year’s crop of films? That depends on your definition of “contemporary.”

The most-talked-about songs this year are the result of filmmakers coaxing two top artists into writing original tunes for their movies: Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” for “Wonder Boys” and Garth Brooks’ “When You Come Back to Me Again” (co-written with Jenny Yates) for “Frequency.”

Limited editions

Previously, Dylan’s best-known movie song was “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” from Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (and it wasn’t nominated, although it’s now a standard). Brooks has never penned a movie tune –in fact, this is his first new song in over three years — and there has to date been no commercial release of the tune.

Three other famous singer-songwriters are in the running: Sting, for “My Funny Friend and Me” (co-written by David Hartley) from Disney’s “The Emperor’s New Groove”; Bjork, for “I’ve Seen It All,” the pivotal song in the “Dancer in the Dark” score; and Elton John, for “Someday out of the Blue” (lyrics by Tim Rice) from “The Road to El Dorado.” In the latter’s case, the animated film’s poor reception may cause many music branch members to pass on the duo (past winners for “The Lion King”).

“Having a pedigree helps,” notes Maltin. “Favor is certainly shown, and attention is paid, to prominent songwriters, especially those who have been honored by Oscar before.”

So don’t count out five-time Oscar nominee Diane Warren, who has three up for consideration. Her strongest candidate is probably “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” a danceable pop tune from “Coyote Ugly” that was a hit for LeAnn Rimes. “Need to Be Next to You,” from “Bounce,” and “I Don’t Know How I Got By,” from “The Family Man,” would seem to be longer shots.

Nor can prognosticators rule out 13-time nominee Randy Newman, for the amusing “A Fool in Love” from “Meet the Parents” (whose opening bars are a clever satire on the corporate logos of Universal and DreamWorks, which released the film). Or Oscar winner James Horner (“Titanic”), whose “Where Are You Christmas?” (co-written by lyricist Will Jennings and singer Mariah Carey before she dropped out of the project) is the centerpiece of a touching moment in “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Hip-hop pop

Chart-topping songs could also figure in this year’s derby. Janet Jackson sang “Doesn’t Really Matter” (co-written with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) from “The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,” and Aaliyah sang “Try Again” (written by Tim Mosley and Stephen Garrett) for “Romeo Must Die.”

Both went to No. 1 on the pop charts, but both sport a hip-hop beat that may not be listener-friendly to older members of the music branch, who favor more traditional arrangements.

And the Grammy-nominated “Independent Women,” sung by Destiny’s Child in “Charlie’s Angels,” went to No. 1 but may be the longest shot of all.

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