Songwriters sing the blues

Oscar rules the latest song-and-dance

Halfway through “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” corporate villain Franklin Bean tosses a cigarette at banjo-picking Petey (an animated Jarvis Cocker) and declares, “That’s just weak songwriting. You wrote a bad song, Petey.”

Four days from now, members of the Academy music branch may at times be tempted to echo Mr. Bean’s sentiments as they sit down to listen to — and look at the footage accompanying — the 63 songs entered for this year’s best song Oscar competition.

It will be a three- to four-hour marathon of songs penned for everything from “Crazy Heart” to “Hannah Montana: The Movie,” including Cocker’s own contribution to “Mr. Fox.”

And in a year that (according to many observers) contains some of the best songs written for films in recent memory, the nominating process will face more scrutiny than ever and could render even fewer choices, if any at all, for Acad members to vote on.

The 2009 batch includes talked-about entries by U2 (for “Brothers”), Paul McCartney (“Everybody’s Fine”) and T Bone Burnett (“Crazy Heart”) plus such past Oscar winners as Randy Newman (“The Princess and the Frog”), James Horner (“Avatar”) and Marvin Hamlisch and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (“The Informant”) as well as new songs from a Broadway tunesmith (Maury Yeston for “Nine”). The performers run the gamut from opera (Andrea Bocelli for “A Christmas Carol”) to alt-rock (Karen O’s “Where the Wild Things Are”).

This year’s choices come under the microscope as a result of the branch’s sometimes head-scratching omissions. In two of the past four years, only three songs have been nominated in a category that usually touts five (snubbing along the way the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and Miley Cyrus).

The rules have been tweaked slightly this year, to allow for no nominees at all (in case no song achieves the minimum score of 8.25 out of 10) or, depending on the vote tally, two to five nominees.

Key factors in the song-nomination process, some of which irk branch members:

  • Only those who show up at the bake-off or request a DVD of all the songs, are allowed to vote;

  • Songs are scored numerically (on a 6-to-10 scale, 10 being best) on the basis of dramatic relevance, effectiveness, craftsmanship and “creative substance”;

  • No one who has submitted a song is allowed to vote;

  • Each clip must be three minutes or less, regardless of the song’s actual length, and must feature the song in its original scene, even if it’s just endless names during an end-credit roll.

Acad officials defend the system as carefully designed to reward the best material, regardless of whether it was a big film or a big-name songwriter. “That was the motivation in taking it from just voting for your top five favorites to having a bake-off,” explains music-branch governor Bruce Broughton.

But who’s really voting? Who shows up for the bake-off, and who asks for a DVD? Of the 234 voting members in the branch (all composers, songwriters or music editors), how many actually participate?

Acad execs decline to say. Some reports indicate that a few dozen take part. Variety’s informal survey of past Oscar nominees and winners in the music categories indicates that many don’t bother, either because they’re disinterested in the process or fed up by, in their view, arcane rules. Several demand a return to the old system, where everyone in the branch gets to vote and the top five are chosen.

Adds a studio executive: “There’s no other category you can point to, whether it’s screenwriters or costume designers, who have this kind of strangely restrictive process.”

He suggests that those who do choose to vote might not be “artistically equipped” to judge movie songs by contemporary artists. “The sensibility of what works in a movie is so different from just a few years ago.”

Only one thing is certain: Whichever tunes the music branch chooses to nominate, somebody will be outraged. Because, as more than one composer noted during the survey, when it comes to songs, everybody has an opinion.

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