Song bakeoff seen by many as unfair

Every year at this time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ music branch is the biz’s favorite whipping boy — mainly because everyone has an opinion about music, and when the nominations don’t match the talked-about favorites, the blogosphere goes nuts.

This season, the hottest topics were the last-minute disqualification of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s love-it-or-hate-it score for “There Will Be Blood”; the failure of any of Pearl Jam guitarist Eddie Vedder’s songs for “Into the Wild” (one of which has already won a Golden Globe) to receive a nod; and the 11th-hour debate over whether the nominated song for “Once” was, in fact, written for the movie. (It was, branch leaders determined.)

Longtime participants in the Oscar game seem even more incensed than usual this year, not so much about the missing-in-action rock ‘n’ rollers as about the nomination process that eliminated them, especially the bakeoff system for choosing song nominees (now in its third year) that requires branch members to attend a marathon screening of all the entered songs.

An added factor this year — which has irritated studio execs, marketers and award-season consultants — is the ban on CD mailings to Acad members. Music-branch executive committee members say they will “revisit” this decision, which suggests it could be overturned.

Wall Street Journal pop music critic Jim Fusilli doesn’t take issue with Greenwood’s disqualification, the result of a close check of the film’s musical content, which revealed 35 minutes of new music versus 46 minutes of pre-existing music (by Brahms and Arvo Part, plus two earlier Greenwood compositions). That’s a clear violation of Oscar eligibility rules (which ban “scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other pre-existing music”).

What bothers him is what appears to be an inconsistency of application of Acad rules, citing last year’s Gustavo Santaolalla win for “Babel” despite the presence of considerable nonoriginal music. “You had all of these songs from other sources that appeared, and yet that didn’t seem to prevent the Academy from looking at the score as a whole,” he says.

Greenwood’s omission does bug Entertainment Weekly music writer Chris Willman. “What score are people talking about this year but the Greenwood score?” he asks. “If a score’s originality comes in under the qualifying mark, all I can say is, better to reward a score that has 15 minutes of brilliant original music than a lousy one that runs for two hours.”

Both writers are also irritated by the lack of an “Into the Wild” nom for Vedder, especially given the three nods in the song category for “Enchanted” songwriters Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

Veteran composers and songwriters who attended the bakeoff indicated privately that they were dismayed by the quality of many of the songs in contention. One attendee said he heard plenty of “guitar arpeggios, plain voice, no production” in many cases and found them dull and same-sounding.

The nature of the bakeoff itself poses problems for certain entrants. The “Enchanted” songs were fully staged musical numbers. “Once” was all about making music. The nominated gospel tune from “August Rush” was performed during an “emotionally moving” scene, said one attendee, thus giving it an advantage in the balloting.

Oscar historian Damien Bona (“Inside Oscar”) points out that the Vedder songs “are basically over shots of Emile Hirsch in the woods or driving. When they’re judged that way, rather than just listening to the songs themselves, they don’t have the same resonance.

“The intent (of the rule) is to make the best use of the song in a movie,” Bona adds. “That explains why ‘Hairspray’ wasn’t nominated — they only submitted one song, and it was over the closing titles. It should be a lesson: If your song is over the end titles, you should come up with something else.”

Complains one longtime observer: “There is no logic to showing clips. They don’t make actors watch clips of other actors — three minutes of Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘There Will Be Blood’ — or ask production designers or editors to do this.” In the case of “Hairspray,” he says, the song “summarizes the entire feeling of the movie.”

Music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas expresses surprise at the omission of both Vedder and Sondre Lerche (“Dan in Real Life”) in the best song category. “It’s certainly a subjective process, and a terrible shame that those two artists — who are clearly important in the pop world and also resonate in the film world — weren’t nominated.”

She thinks a rule modification, or possibly a new category, is in order, “to honor the composer or music producer or whoever is intertwining songs and score. If you’re using Arvo Part artfully (a reference to use in “There Will Be Blood”) and it’s the perfect pairing that we all search for, then I’m not sure why it should be disqualified.”

For their part, the music-branch governors defend the rules and the process. In the song category, says Charles Bernstein, “The award is given not just for the quality of the music, but how the music affects the storytelling, the drama, the film itself. In order to make that judgment, it’s necessary to hear the music in the context of the film.” Fellow governor Bruce Broughton points out that “we’re pretty aware of the complaints and disgruntled people and (issues of) fairness.” Adds Bernstein: “Each year we reconsider the effects of all these things. We always try to guard the integrity of the process.”

Charges that the music branch is out of touch with contemporary music don’t wash, Bona says, “because over the last decade or so, they have nominated some cutting-edge people” including rapper Eminem (“8 Mile”), hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia (“Hustle & Flow”) and singers Elliott Smith (“Good Will Hunting”) and Aimee Mann (“Magnolia”). “It’s really about the voting process.”

He recalls Bette Midler’s no-nonsense explanation of the music rules at the 1982 ceremonies: “Best original song is a song that was actually written for the picture and not just some piece of junk the producer found in the piano bench, you dig?”

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