The Best Original Song Oscar: Still Mattering, Against Odds
Almost as good as Resident Evil: Extinction
The Best Original Song Oscar is one of the weirdest and most fascinating music awards in existence, mostly because it makes no sense. The Academy has a ton of borderline-arbitrary rules in place denoting what can and can't be nominated: no songs with samples can get the nod, for instance, which is why "Lose Yourself" ended up being the first-ever rap nominee and winner instead of "Gangsta's Paradise." And because the songs have to be all-new and especially written and recorded for the movie, a whole lot of iconic movie-music moments never get a chance at recognition. It's also tough to figure out how the Academy voters go about making their choices. Do they vote for the songs that added the most to the movies? Or the songs that have become most ubiquitous? The ones inextricable from the movies they accompany? Maybe just the songs they like the best? Looking back at the list of winners from the past twenty years or so, we see a whole lot of grandly mushed-out closing-credits power-ballads: "My Heart Will Go On," "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," that sort of thing. "Lose Yourself" sort of fits into this category, as does last year's winner, the Melissa Ethridge thing from An Inconvenient Truth. Still, it's not like these songs have a lock on the award; closing-credits power-ballad overlord Diane Warren, I'm happy to report, has never won an Oscar, though she's been nominated a gang of times. Songs from Disney cartoons also do awfully well: "Under the Sea," "Beauty and the Beast," "You'll Be in My Heart." And the Academy loves handing out awards to grizzled old cred-magnets; Springsteen and Dylan both have Oscars. (Actually, the award's Wikipedia page is full of all sorts of vaguely interesting ephemera: Giorgio Moroder has won two Oscars, even if they're for "Flashdance... What a Feeling" and "Every Breath You Take"! "Eye of the Tiger" got nominated! So did "Blaze of Glory"!) All of this is to say that the Oscars, even more than the Grammys, are likely to reward hacky unapologetic prestige-grab songs. But because a whole lot of directors are also music nerds, and because there just aren't that many songs written specifically for movies, this category has also led to a few feel-good underdog stories where relatively unheard musicians have had a chance to ply their trade on one of the biggest TV events of the year: squirmy Elliott Smith in 1997, swan-dress Bjork in 2000, giddily excited Three 6 Mafia in 2005. (The Three 6 dudes clearly thought that miraculous win would be their ticket to the big-time, and that hasn't even come close to happening, but the memory of that win still makes me very, very happy.) There's no guarantee that we'll even get an Oscar telecast this year, what with the writers' strike and all, but we've already got another of those stories brewing.
First-off: this year's slate of music-related Oscar nominees is just unspeakably shitty. Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood is one of the most compelling bits of film-music in recent memory. It's also absolutely integral to the film, and it's one of the only things I really liked about that boring-ass overrated piece-of-shit movie. But that score got disqualified from contention on some halfassed bylaw technicality. Meanwhile, I sort of hated all the Kimya Dawson songs in Juno, but they certainly helped define that movie's vibe, and it seems a bit weird to disallow them because they already appeared on a Dawson album that nobody bought. Meanwhile, I can't think of any reason why the Academy neglected Eddie Vedder's "Hard Sun," from Into the Wild. The song is new, and Vedder is now old enough to fit into that Dylan/Springsteen elder-statesman spot. The song, meanwhile, is pretty haunting and great, and I would've dearly loved to see Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker, who sings backup on the song, sitting next to Vedder on the Oscar scene. Tucker once told me that the band has an annual tradition where they all get together at her house to watch the Oscars, something I hope they still do even if the band is broken up now. I love the image of Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss sitting on Tucker's couch and watching the show, cheering on their old bandmate, but I guess it wasn't meant to be. Maybe if Vedder keeps recording vague but moving soundtrack-songs and recruiting Tucker to sing backup, she'll get another shot some other year. (Vedder, incidentally, should absolutely do this.) So here's what we're left with: three songs from the Disney cartoon-spoof musical Enchanted, one attempted inspirational gospel jam from the frightening-looking child-prodigy tearjerker August Rush, and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's "Falling Slowly."
First off: Enchanted. I haven't seen the movie, so I can't tell whether the songs are supposed to function the same way songs worked in older Disney musicals or whether they're intended to be nudge-wink pastiche parodies of those songs; my gut tells me it's the latter. Either way, Disney recruited longtime house songwriters Alan Menkin and Stephen Schwartz, both of whom have already won a ton of Oscars for past Disney tracks. (I have to give Menken some credit for cowriting "A Whole New World." That song is sort of great.) But the three nominated Enchanted songs are total throwaway nothings, and one of them, "Happy Working Song," is annoying enough to convince me to never, ever, under any circumstances, watch Enchanted, even if I have kids or whatever. (Amy Adams, I'm sad to report, cannot sing. At all.) As bad as those Enchanted songs might be, they probably at least serve some narrative function in the movie. I haven't seen August Rush either, but I can't imagine the hacky and overblown gospel tooth-rotter "Raise It Up" would add anything to it.
So that leaves us with "Falling Slowly," a sad and pretty and unassuming song from the happy and pretty and unassuming indie non-romance Once. I liked Once, a small and patient movie about two people trying to break out of their routines for long enough to make something together. And the movie wouldn't work if the songs didn't. "Falling Slowly" is a rough-around-the-edges slow-swell Coldplay jam, and Hansard sings it with raggedy desperation. The whole idea behind movie musicals is that characters sing the sentiments that they can't readily speak, and that holds for "Falling Slowly"; Hansard charmingly underplays his character, and it's almost like the force of his vocal on this song frees him up to not get all melodramatic elsewhere. And the song unfolds with a real unforced grace; it's a closing-credits power-ballad at heart, and it works its formula perfectly. Hansard and Irglova play the song over and over during the movie's runtime, but it never gets old. And if and when they get to perform the song on the Oscar telecast, it'll look like a final triumph for the characters they play in the movie. The weird thing is that "Falling Slowly" will probably win; the Enchanted songs will cancel each other out, and I just can't imagine anyone liking "Raise It Up" enough to rep it. If Hansard and Irglova do win, it won't be a left-field triumph on the order of that Three 6 win, but it will feel good. Somehow, I care about the Best Song Oscar yet again. I don't learn.
Voice review: Robert Wilonsky on Once