After overlooking “Dreamgirls” in the best picture and director races, the Academy seemingly added insult to injury by enforcing its new best song bylaw upon one of the pic’s three nominees, “Listen.” The rule change came in the wake of 2004 contender “Accidentally in Love” from “Shrek 2,” boasting seven songwriters, which caused AMPAS to limited the number of names on a tune submission to three. Given the bulk of their efforts on “Listen,” Anne Preven, Scott Cutler and “Dreamgirls” composer Henry Krieger — perhaps Oscar’s most conspicuous nominee — are credited as songwriters. While Beyonce’s involvement with “Listen” entailed fine tuning, her name was left off the song’s credits.
But even with the deck seemingly stacked in “Dreamgirl’s” favor, the chances of a musical tune winning look daunting: Out of the 32 songs that have been nominated since 1980 from either a musical or musically themed movie (i.e. “The Bodyguard”), only 12 have gone on to win best song. On the other hand, in the cases where a musical held at least three spots in the category (1991’s “Beauty in the Beast” and 1994’s “The Lion King”), one of its songs went on to take the gold.
Granted, going with the odds on the Oscars is a loser’s bet. For every pattern established by the Academy, a mold is also broken. Most recently, “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” from “Motorcycle Diaries” was the first Spanish-language song to ever be honored, while Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” from “8 Mile” and Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from “Hustle & Flow” were unlikely breakthroughs from the rap world.
In this precedent-setting vein, Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth” would appear to be a strong alternative to the “Dreamgirls” cartel since it’s the first tune from a docu to ever be recognized.
Then again, the category’s perennial nominee, Randy Newman, (“Our Town” from “Cars”), might improve his batting average of one win in 17 music nominations to date.
AND THE NOMINEES ARE…
Song/film: “I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth”
Oscar pedigree: Her first nom
Awards to date: Grammy nom for song in a motion picture
Challenge: The folk rocker found herself in a quandary over what tone to strike, given the pic’s grave message on global warming. “I knew I didn’t want to preach in the song,” says Etheridge. “I also didn’t want to scare anyone. Then I played some of my ideas to my wife, Tammy, and she suggested, ‘Why don’t you speak for yourself and express what you’re feeling?’ And that’s when I came into the lyrics ‘Have I been sleeping? I’ve been so still; afraid of crumbling. Have I been careless?'”
Resonance: “I’ve had a friendship with Al Gore since I toured with him during the 1992 election. After my 2006 Grammy performance ‘Piece of My Heart’ he called me and said the sweetest thing: that my rendition of the Janis Joplin song was inspirational. A couple of weeks later, he invites me to his slideshow on global warming. It was mind-blowing. Al said, ‘They’re making a film out of my slideshow and I need a song to go along with it.'”
Why she’ll win: It’s a melancholy folk song that plucks at the heartstrings.
Why she won’t: The “Dreamgirls” factor.
HENRY KRIEGER, ANNE PREVEN, SCOTT CUTLER
Song/film: “Listen” from “Dreamgirls”
Oscar pedigree: First nom for all scribes
Awards to date: Best song, Broadcast Film Critics Assn.
Challenges: “We were nervous to meet Henry (Krieger) on the first day. To me, he’s a legend,” says Preven, who co-wrote such pop songs as Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” with fellow scribe Cutler. “We were sizing each other up, and then we wound up having this magical day: The idea for the song was born and a good deal of it laid out. Henry and Scott were finishing each other’s choral sentences.”
Resonance: “We worried that song might have too much of a range. However, Beyonce surprised us with her vocals,” Preven says. “She came in to help shape the song lyrically and musically. Given the insight Beyonce had into her character, she would make suggestions on how Deena would express herself.”
Why they’ll win: It’s the most popular of the nominated tunes given its radio play and contemporary urban sound.
Why they won’t: Three “Dreamgirls” tunes could cancel each other out.
HENRY KRIEGER, SIEDAH GARRETT
Song/film: “Love You I Do” from “Dreamgirls”
Oscar pedigree: First for each
Awards to date: None for this song
Challenges: “(Director) Bill (Condon) challenged me to identify where songs could advance the story,” says Krieger. “He didn’t say, ‘This is how we work.’ I’m a dramatist. Bill was asking me to serve the story and the characters. With this song, I asked myself, ‘What do we need to have accomplished in this scene?’ It was Effie’s euphoria over this man in her new life and an uptick in her career. Siedah worked hard and we wrote the song line by line, expressing the things that Effie wanted to say.”
Resonance: “Let’s face it: Hollywood doesn’t call the old writers back when they make a musical,” Krieger observes. “Bill Condon made it a total point that he wanted to collaborate. That’s because he’s a praise-giver. He has a love of the music world, and he makes it his own. He’s a rare breed.”
Why they’ll win: Jennifer Hudson is on a roll, and it’s one of the various signature solos for her character Effie.
Why they won’t: It’s a bouncy love ditty versus the kind of emotional ballad that voters usually embrace.
HENRY KRIEGER, WILLIE REALE
Song/film: “Patience” from “Dreamgirls”
Oscar pedigree: First noms
Awards to date: Krieger has a BAFTA nom for the Anthony Asquith Award in Film Music.
Challenge: “Writing a message song that didn’t feel like a message song,” says Reale. “It had to be a song that had merit and life of its own.”
Resonance: “The underlying theme of the film is about racial and gender equality, and it’s all packaged in an entertaining manner in this song. The song is a counterpoint to the Detroit riots, acts as a turning point for Jimmy Early into deeper drug addiction and sets up the composer C.C. to ultimately break with Curtis Taylor Jr. All of this happens within the boundaries of a three-minute song.”
Why they’ll win: It’s a message-laden tune with echoes of Marvin Gaye.
Why they won’t: With Eddie Murphy on lead vocals, the song might not stand a chance against songs sung by divas Beyonce Knowles or Jennifer Hudson.
Song/film: “Our Town” from “Cars”
Oscar pedigree: Sixteen previous noms overall split evenly between the score and song categories. One 2001 win for the tune “If I Didn’t Have You” from “Monsters, Inc.”
Awards to date: Grammy nom for song in a motion picture. Won World Soundtrack Award.
Challenge: “When I saw the film, I thought that the message of ‘slow down and enjoy the journey’ was a hard concept to sell to an 8-year-old,” says Newman. “There’s a strong emotional component in ‘Cars’ and we used this song to show that.”
Resonance: “Animated films need music,” Newman says. “For a lot of other films, it kind of doesn’t matter. I loved ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ but I don’t know if the music helps the film or hurts it. Films like ‘Cars’ and ‘Toy Story’ need music because they help the audience get around them.”
Why he’ll win: Newman is a perennial fave in the original song category. Older voters might find him appealing since Newman is the only film composer among the nominees.
Why he won’t: Mostly a bridesmaid, rarely a bride.