A raft of top music artists better known for their work on the concert stage than on the silver screen find themselves in contention for original song in the 84th annual Academy Awards.
Among the famous acts hoping to hear their names called when the nominations are announced Jan. 24 are Mary J. Blige; Zac Brown; Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell; Brad Paisley and Robbie Williams; Elton John teaming up with Lady Gaga (see story this page), Madonna;Sigur Ros’ Jonsi; and Zooey Deschanel. Both Brown and She & Him’s Deschanel, best-known as an actress in such films as “(500) Days of Summer” and her role in the Fox series “The New Girl,” received Grammy nominations in November for their contributions.
An illustrious list of musical performers have snagged the Oscar before, including Eminem, Annie Lennox, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, John, but this year brings an especially broad swath of artists who wrote (or co-wrote) and performed songs being weighed by the Academy for consideration.
All talents interviewed for this article agree that writing a tune for a specific scene or theme provides a nice change of pace from creating a song out of thin air. “It’s like remodeling a home, as opposed to building from scratch,” says Brown, who completed “Where the River Goes” from “Footloose” with his writing partner Wyatt Durrette after Anne Preven and Drew Pearson started it.
Paramount Pictures showed Brown a rough cut of the scene where his song would appear: the arrival of outsider Ren MacCormack to Bomont. “That helped,” Brown says. “And also knowing what the sentiment was and what feelings we were supposed to evoke. We knew it was little bit dark.”
Paisley had an idea of what he was getting into for “Cars 2” since he had written material for the original “Cars.” But when John Lasseter, chief creation officer for Walt Disney Animation Studios & Pixar, came calling, he wanted Paisley to shake it up to reflect tow truck Mater’s duck-out-of-water experiences in Europe in the film. Lasseter paired the country star with Williams, who, although a pop superstar in the rest of the world, remains largely unknown in the U.S.
Luckily, he and Williams got along well and both understood their respective roles in the song “Collision of Worlds,” which trades off on American and British colloquialisms: “I said (to Williams), ‘I have no preconceived notion of why I’m here. I’m the redneck tow truck and, make no mistake, you’re the slick British spy’,” Paisley says.
Paisley laughs at how precisely the well-oiled Disney machinery ran: “They said, ‘You and Robbie are going to watch the movie in our theater and then next Monday, you’re going to get together at Robbie’s house (to write). You have a start time at 1. At 3, our camera crews are going to come.’ I don’t know how many songs I’ve written where two hours later, we were filming the video.”
Like Paisley, Deschanel wrote for an animated cast of characters. For “So Long,” her end title song for Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh,” she wanted a tune that would appeal to both kids and adults, so, she says, she reflected on the music she loved growing up that, though targeted at children, had multi-generational appeal, such as Carole King’s “Really Rosie,” based on Maurice Sendak’s characters; or Marlo Thomas and Friends’ “Free to Be You and Me.”
Deschanel took key words from the “Pooh” plot, which focuses on friendship as the creatures search the Hundred Acre Wood for Eyeore’s missing tail, and “peppered them in.” Disney “had certain things they wanted me to bring out in the song and I made a few changes, but they were minor,” she says. “They were very collaborative and allowed me a lot of freedom.”
For “The Keeper” from “Machine Gun Preacher,” director Marc Forster gave Cornell some very explicit advice. “The first thing he said was he didn’t want me to write anything that was too literal, which was fine since I never do that,” Cornell says.
Forster had no movie footage for Cornell to see, but he steered him toward something better: scenes of the real Sam Childers — the crusading preacher Gerard Butler plays in the film who travels to the Sudan — from Childers’ website. “I connected with that,” Cornell says. “There’s a photo gallery and that’s really what I drew from.”
Ultimately, Cornell also found inspiration in pioneering folk singer Woody Guthrie. “He went to where there were all kinds of turmoil, I don’t know if there was anything as horrible as Sudan, and wrote these songs about it,” Cornell says. “To me, it was an obvious comparison.”
Cornell, who also wrote “You Know My Name” for the 2006 James Bond film “Casino Royale,” felt it was vital “The Keeper” be strong enough to stand on its own. “In every way, it’s a collaboration,” he says, “but the song has to be able to hold up without the film.”
Like the others, Paisley can’t wait to do it again: “There is nothing more fun than hearing ‘Here’s your script. Go write a song.’ ”
Lyrics bring pix to life | Stars tune up plots | John goes Gaga over inanimate romance
From rising stars to Oscar winners, seven composers talk about the method to their musicality:
Henry Jackman | Alberto Iglesias | Dario Marianelli | Michael Giacchino | Abel Korzeniowski | Conrad Pope | Thomas Newman