Power of pop

Jagger, Wyclef, Robertson throw hats into song derby

With the depth and diversity of the music, penned by some of the music industry’s most successful creative talents, there’s likely to be much hand-wringing by Oscar voters this season as they decide the nominations for original song.

The class of 2004 could draw from Dave Stewart and Mick Jagger, Jon Brion, Wyclef Jean, Glen Ballard, Robbie Robertson, Trey Parker, songwriter Grayson Capps and rockers Wilco, among others. Other potential contenders include perennials Alan Menken, Alan Silvestri and Thomas Newman.

While each of the songwriters professes to have an emotional connection to their work partly as a result of the time spent bringing the music to life, artists Jean and Capps are in the unique position of being connected to their respective songs through a personal experience.

During a recent humanitarian visit to Haiti, Jean befriended a homeless teenager whom he invited to join his tour group while they visited with local businessmen and dignitaries. As Jean sat down to record “Million Voices” for “Hotel Rwanda,” he learned in a phone call the boy had been killed two days earlier.

“I really had to dig deep that day,” recalls Jean. “The news hit us hard. But it provided an energy that I think is captured on the record. After we recorded the choir, I just couldn’t listen to it. It took me a few days to get back to it.”

Capps’ “Lorraine’s Song (My Heart Was a Lonely Hunter),” which appears in “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” has a special resonance for the New Orleans-based artist. The film, a story of a headstrong young woman who returns to the Big Easy after the death of her estranged mother, is based on the unpublished novel “Off East Magazine Street,” penned by Capps’ father, Ronald.

The elder Capps based the book on observations during frequent visits to the vibrant artists scene in which his son thrived in old New Orleans. Grayson Capps knew the young woman on which the character is based, played in the film by Scarlett Johansson. Capps says he also relates to Bobby Long, the hard-drinking character played by John Travolta.

“There also are a lot of parallels I share with the Bobby Long character,” says Capps. “But it was tough coming up with just the right song to explain them.”

He credits director Shainee Gabel with pulling just the right tune out of him. “It was frustrating at times. I think I was trying to be too detailed.”

Stewart, who sold over 40 million albums in a 25-year career as part of the Eurythmics duo with Annie Lennox, says he’s surprised by the industry buzz his work with Jagger is generating. The duo’s song, “Old Habits Die Hard,” featuring Jagger’s unmistakable vocals, is woven throughout “Alfie,” as well as five other tunes crafted by the pair.

Stewart was initially reluctant when approached about doing the music. “I was a bit wary at first,” he recalls. “In Britain, (the original version with Michael Caine) is a classic. I also kept thinking how do you create music that tells a story when there is so much dialogue, then the narrative by the character, and then more dialogue. Where would the music fit in? How could we make it not seem trite? Plus, how do we make Alfie likable, since he’s such a cad? These were concerns I probably wouldn’t have had if it were another film.”

Stewart says he and Jagger would watch the rough scenes and create something for that scene. They would also videotape their sessions, so if they nailed something, they could go back and see exactly what was said and in what context. “Us watching ourselves, watching the film. It gave us a three-dimensional feel,” says Stewart.

He says things “progressed nicely and got exciting as we made decisions on music and musicians. No silly noodling on a computer for hours. We played as a band and it sounded great.”

Glen Ballard is best known for his five Grammys, and his songwriting and producing behind the sales of nearly 150 million records for an array of recording artists.

His first foray into creating a song specifically for a film has garnered much attention. The collaboration with composer Alan Silvestri on the lead track “Believe,” from “The Polar Express,” is part of an aggressive campaign Warner Bros. has organized for the Robert Zemeckis-directed animated film.

Josh Groban was chosen to perform the track because “the voice needed sufficient gravitas and range to handle the big melody,” says Ballard, who noted that Groban was the first choice.

A fan of the book by Chris Van Allsburg and having worked on the project for three years, Ballard knew the material intimately. “I think that helped us create a powerful song that was both a metaphor for what the film was saying, and musically incorporated something for everyone,” he says.

When Robbie Robertson first saw a rough cut of “Ladder 49,” he says he was emotionally moved. “These guys are our heroes, and I thought, How can I do something that honors them and stay relevant to the film?”

The result, “Shine Your Light,” is Robertson’s first attempt at creating a song for a film. “I wanted it to be so much more than just a song,” says Robertson. “It needed to sum everything up, without the character’s words having to do it.”

Jon Brion says the quirky aspect of “I Heart Huckabees” allowed him more latitude to write the film’s lead track, “Knock Yourself Out.” “It gave me a stylistic blueprint to create a bouncy little ditty as opposed to a serious (ballad),” he says. “Plus, it has a certain economy that I like. In just two minutes it manages to convey what the (Jason Schwartzman) character is feeling, and is an encapsulation of what the film is about.”

Brion, who has penned the score for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” notes that when he gets called to do music for a film, it is “usually when the director wants something different, left-field and unpredictable; something they haven’t thought of before. As a result, I get a lot more latitude than most composers.”

Here are some of this year’s songs panning for gold:

Film: Alfie
Song Title: “Old Habits Die Hard”
Songwriter and Performer: Dave Stewart, Mick Jagger; Jagger
How Used: To sum up Alfie character’s thoughts.
Oscar pedigree: None
Quote: “Mick nailed it. He made a cad likable,” says Stewart.

Film: Polar Express
Song Title: “Believe”
Songwriter and Performer: Glen Ballard, Alan Silvestri; Josh Groban
How Used: End titles; throughout
Oscar pedigree: One score nom (Silvestri)
Quote: “A powerful song that was both a metaphor for what the film was saying, and musically incorporated something for everyone,” says Ballard.

Film: I Heart Huckabees
Song Title: “Knock Yourself Out”
Songwriter and Performer: Jon Brion
How Used: Jason Schwartzman encounters the existential detectives.Oscar pedigree: None
Quote: “…a bouncy little ditty as opposed to a serious (ballad),” says Brion

Film: Hotel Rwanda
Song Title: “Million Voices”
Songwriter and Performer: Wyclef Jean, Jerry Duplessis, Andrea Guerra; Wyclef Jean
How Used: End titles; reminder of genocide in Rwanda
Oscar pedigree: None
Quote: “I had to dig deep that day,” says Jean, after learning about the death of a friend the day he was recording.

Film: Ladder 49
Song Title: “Shine Your Light”
Songwriter and Performer: Robbie Robertson
How Used: Describes the heroism of firefighting.
Oscar pedigree: None
Quote: “These guys are our heroes. I wanted it to be much more than just a song, but also a tribute,” says Robertson.

Film: A Love Song for Bobby Long
Song Title: “Lorraine’s Song (My Heart Was a Lonely Hunter)”
Songwriter and Performer: Grayson Capps; Capps, Theresa Anderson
How Used: Pivotal spot in film body to sum up story.
Oscar pedigree: None
Quote: “I was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to write,” says Capps.

Film: Home on the Range
Song Title: “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again?”
Songwriter and Performer: Alan Menken, Glenn Slater; Bonnie Raitt
How Used: Poignant moment involving loss of farm
Oscar pedigree: 15 noms; 8 wins (Menken)
Quote: “A classic Disney ballad,” says Chris Montan, Walt Disney music chief.

Film: Meet the Fockers
Song Title: “Crazy ‘Bout My Baby”
Songwriter and Performer: Randy Newman
How Used: End titles
Oscar pedigree: 16 noms; one win
Quote: “It’s typical Newman: well-crafted, fun,” says Kathy Nelson, president of film music Universal Pictures.

Film: The Phantom of the Opera
Song Title: “Learn to Be Lonely”
Songwriter and Performer: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart; Minnie Driver
How Used: End titles
Oscar pedigree: 2 noms; one win (Lloyd Webber)
Quote: “It was initially going to be sung by the Phantom, but Minnie did a terrific job,” says music producer Nigel Wright.

Film: Shrek 2
Song Title: “Accidentally In Love”
Songwriter and Performer: Adam Duritz; Counting Crows
How Used: Beginning of film
Oscar pedigree: None
Quote: “When we heard (Adam), everyone said ‘that’s it'” recalls DreamWorks music czar Todd Homme.

Film: The Spongebob Squarepants Movie
Song Title: “Just A Kid”
Songwriter and Performer: Wilco
How Used: End titles
Oscar pedigree: None
Quote: “How could I not write a song for the movie? It automatically makes me the coolest Dad on the block,” says Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.

Film: The Passion of the Christ
Song Title: “Resurrection”
Songwriter and Performer: John Debney, Lisbeth Scott
How used: Resurrection scene near film’s end
Oscar Pedigree: None
Quote: “I was beating myself up more than usual because I wanted the music to be worthy of being in the film,” says Debney.

Film: Les Choristes
Song Title: “Look To Your Path (Vois Sur Ton Chemin)”
Songwriter and Performer: Bruno Coulais, Christophe Barratier;
How Used: To track the progress of the children
Oscar Pedigree: None
Quote: “I tried to create music that was timeless, yet complex,” says Coulais.

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