Song competish brims with pop power

Big acts with well-tailored tracks vie for spots

Ask some music executives at studios and they will say that while the moviegoing audience is fully aware of which pop act warbling on a film’s soundtrack, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences aren’t.

It’s a generational thing, some say, reflecting the older age of an Acad voter vs. younger record and movie ticket buyers.

“Academy voters tend not to be so single- or pop music-oriented, not like kids are,” suggests Disney senior veep of music Glen Lajeski.

That may be, but recent Oscar history indicates that songs written by and/or fronted by pop or rock artists have performed remarkably well with the Academy. In nearly every year since 1980, one or more songs fronted by big-selling artists have either been nominated or won. Such a trend augurs particularly well for several songs that could end up in contention in the category.

Not surprisingly, like the picture race, the song competition is a case of anyone’s guess. Like last year’s list of nominees, this year’s possibilities are dominated by pop artists who either have the song in radio or video airplay, or already have a major presence care of their albums and singles.

Bob Dylan’s win for “Things Have Changed” (for “Wonder Boys”) typified last year’s group, which included Bjork singing “I’ve Seen It All” (“Dancer in the Dark”) and Sting’s “My Funny Friend and Me” (“The Emperor’s New Groove”). The latter two were examples of the musicians working on the film projects for over a year, and crafting tunes that fit the Academy’s music branch rules for a song — which require that it be written for the film in mind.

The pop trend is reflected in the lineup of Golden Globes nominees, dominated by vet stars Paul McCartney (“Vanilla Sky”) and Sting (“Until …” from “Kate & Leopold”) as well as superstars from world music (Enya’s “May It Be,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”) and country pop (Faith Hill singing Diane Warren’s “Pearl Harbor” ballad “There You’ll Be”). And like last year’s competition, almost all are cases of performers writing their own tunes.

Add to those Charlotte Church’s rendering of James Horner’s “All Love Can Be” (“A Beautiful Mind”), Sheryl Crow’s “Safe and Sound” (“K-PAX”), Patrick Cassidy’s widely heard operatic aria, “Vide Cor Meum” (“Hannibal”) and Sean Colvin singing Jeff Franzel and Tom Kimmel’s “When You Know” (“Serendipity”) and the potential Oscar field resembles something that would be quite at home at the Grammys.

Despite appearances, Miramax music department head Randy Spendlove argues, “We’re seeing less use of pop tunes for commercial use that we did a few years ago, when it seemed like every other movie was stuffed with what sometimes sounded like crossover deals.”

Finding those songs that actually work inside the movie and also enjoy an independent life as a recorded entity are rare, he notes, “but when you have something like Gloria Estefan’s ‘Music of My Heart,’ which supported ‘Music of the Heart’ and also took off as a single, then you can have a two-way support of the movie and the song.”

In several cases with the Oscar nom hopefuls, not even videos have been produced. This is true of McCartney’s “Vanilla Sky,” which was a result of writer-director Cameron Crowe and music producer and supervisor Danny Bramson asking the ex-Beatle to try his hand at devising a tune for the time-bending drama of identity and love.

“No big promo plans are in the works, like a video,” notes Paramount music chief Burt Berman. “Sometimes our business gets so crass — ‘We need a hit song, blah, blah, blah’ — but this wasn’t like that at all.”

“There’s a lot of pressure you feel to make a song help promote a film,” says Anita Camarata, who oversees MGM’s music operations, “but in the end you find that sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Camarata found that Cassidy’s “Vide Cor Meum” has had — from MGM’s end — an unexpected life of its own, especially as a song used as a kind of memoriam linked with the Sept. 11 tragedy, such as during the Emmys kudocast.

Similarly, Enya’s music has been a presence around Sept. 11 memorial images. And with her year-old album, “A Day Without Rain,” still on the charts, New Line exec veep of music Paul Broucek found that “we’re competing a bit with our own success” having Enya record “May It Be.”

Holding off the release of the single until January, Broucek says, avoided the traditionally poor holiday period for album and singles releases while giving “The Lord of the Rings” another marketing angle.

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