After seeing how well it worked Sunday night, Oscar producers should find a way to get “Shaft” into every ceremony.
Not to suggest that they don’t write ’em like they used to, but a medley of Oscar tunes from the past lent an emotional centerpiece to the 72nd annual Academy Awards that the film overviews lacked. Co-musical directors Burt Bacharach and Don Was gave the performers — Ray Charles, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, etc. — appropriate backing and allowed each to breathe a bit of personality into each number. (It also helped that not every number has been done to death).
The 10-song medley, prefaced by Bacharach’s comments about the role theater has had in presenting new music, leaned heavily on ballads yet allowed each song to establish a distinct texture as film clips beamed behind the singers.
Hill did yeoman’s work on longtime faves and Charles had a tough time finding the right key but eventually gave “(I’ve Got You) Under My Skin” a funky and updated turn. Brooks overlooked the nuance of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” but hit squarely on Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Queen Latifah demonstrated a talent that has remained generally undercover: as a torch singer.
But after Isaac Hayes’ delivered his Oscar-winning smash from 1970’s “Shaft” — complete with dancers in a supposedly dance-productionless show — Dionne Warwick gave an exquisite reading of “Alfie” that went beyond the other renderings in her command of a lyric and phrasing. Collectively, the perfs were the highlight of a generally solid musical program that reduced the Oscar song nominees to 90 seconds each.
In an Oscar ceremony as polite as any in the recent past, four of the five song nominees were presented professionally in their original form by the original art-ists. Then came Robin Williams.
Williams and a cast that filled the enormous Shrine Auditorium stage bellowed “Blame Canada” from “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” and even within the stately tenor of the evening, it had surprisingly little effect. This was a case of Williams being Williams.
While it may have appeared to be a slight to composers, the abbreviated performances still reinforced perceptions of the music that arose from the respective films: Randy Newman and Aimee Mann have created works of art; Phil Collins’ pop-rock is a perfect fit for Disney; Gloria Estefan landed a coup by teaming with a hot boy band (‘N Sync); and anything associated with “South Park” is a joke.
With Bacharach and Was working as co-musical directors, the ceremony had two musicians who delivered deliberately off-kilter musical passages to accompany a walk to the podium. In some cases it was triumphant: The musical companion for Angelina Jolie, for example, was a haunting piece that fell in line with her character in “Girl, Interrupted.” In years past she probably would have been ushered in with the pic’s most dominant piece of music — the Petula Clark 1960s hit “Downtown.”
Symphonic music, conducted by Bacharach, was consistently crisp and affecting — a sign that this ceremony isn’t the place for more aggressive rock or hip-hop. Was certainly brought in those elements from his side of the pit for introductions, but as subtle as it was, the music was still hit (Cher) and miss (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Most encouraging, by presenting composer John Corigliano with the Oscar for the score to “The Red Violin,” the Academy Awards proved that a serious composer still has a place in Hollywood.