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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


Considering music has such a pivotal role in the creativity of movie-making, I often find myself largely disappointed at the choices that the Academy Awards Committee often makes in choosing their winners in the "Best Original Song" category. So I thought that this week I would stir up a bit of debate with my selection of five songs where I think they surprisingly made the right choice and created worthy winners.

The first two winners were big productions from early musicals in "The Continental" and "Lullaby Of Broadway" as you might expect. But songs became much more common within plots than they are now (so not just musicals) and many great standards found themselves winners; "Moon River", "Mona Lisa", "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Over The Rainbow" to name just a few and they feel integral to the films they represented.

Into the 60s, this carried on with big centrepiece songs that set the tone for the entire soundtracks emerged such as "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head", "Born Free" and "The Windmills Of Your Mind". Interestingly, they all seem to pick up on the Easy Listening / Lounge vibe that was so popular during that decade.

However, this continued into the 70s and the choices felt increasingly out of kilter with popular taste - I bet nobody can hum the respective tunes to "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure or "We May Never Love This Way Again" from The Towering Inferno - both directed by Irwin Allen and both songs written by Joel Hirschorn and Al Kasha so I hope they don't think I'm picking on them.

But in 1979 (with all the attendant musical revolutions such as Punk, New Wave and Disco, going on), "It Goes Like It Goes" won from the film "Norma Rae".No... me neither...

Now directors such as Tarantino or Scorsese - he has a particular affection for the Stones - use old tracks to bring tension and drama to their films but sadly there's no award for this. If there was I am sure that "Misrilou" in "Pulp Fiction" and "Rags To Riches" in "Goodfellas" would clean up. I suggest the Academy should consider the skill of this particular art.

Perhaps because of the need to try and appeal to broad audiences, the music choices sometimes tend to be less threatening. The 80s saw massive hits win the award such "Up Where We Belong", "I Just Called To Say I Love You", "I've Had The Time Of My Life" and "Arthurs Theme" are just some of the examples. Notable songs all but their regular inclusion on movie soundtrack compilations shows them to be what they are - little marketing snapshots of their respective movies designed to add further impetus to get audiences to buy tickets or keep renting videos (!)

As an aside, for trivia enthusiasts everywhere, Irene Cara did perform two Oscar winning songs in the 80s for "Fame" and "Flashdance (What A Feeling)" without any other significant chart action at all - in the UK at least.

More recently, Disney has tended to sweep the board with its entries - "Aladdin", "Pocahontas", "Beauty & The Beast" "The Lion King" and of course, "Frozen" to name just a small selection. Big songs and family favourites for sure, but deliberately timeless and unreflective of any change in the musical wind, outside soundtrack licensing. Unlike Grammys or Brits, the choices seem far more out of step with the prevailing music buying mood.

Which brings me to this latest Fab Five selection which is my choice of great Oscar Winning songs and I feel certain there will be a generous amount of debate to follow. Hands up now, much as I love anything to do with Bond I have not included either the excellent "Skyfall" or "The Writing On The Wall" from "Spectre" as my own protest to the fact that no other 007 track with the exception of Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" a wonderful song from the woeful "The Spy Who Loved Me" had even been nominated. That lost to the utterly mawkish "You Light Up My Life". Incidentally. Bacharach classic "The Look Of Love" was nominated from "Casino Royale" in the mid 60s but no self-respecting Bond aficionado can classify this as part of the series, however good the song was.

Curtis Hanson is a director who inevitably produces interesting character driven films and is not afraid to make music a very exciting counterpoint to his storytelling. Now I am no real fan of rap and certainly not of Eminem, but "8 Mile" coaxed a great performance out of the fledgling rap star - not unlike the characters of Prince in "Purple Rain" and Madonna in "Desperately Seeking Susan" where they really played parts barely even a half step removed from their real selves.

All are convincing but Eminem really manages to portray a more rounded and interesting character thanks to the efforts of the director. However, he also manages to produce a shuddering time bomb of a song in "Lose Yourself" which won the award for 2002. There is unmistakably an intensity in Eminem as an artist that was channelled by Hanson into the music. This anthem was written on the set of the film and its creation seems to have played a part in the fledgling actor's preparation for his part.

It was the first ever Hip Hop Oscar winner and his biggest global hit by a country mile.

Hanson was also responsible for the winner in 2000 when he managed to secure Bob Dylan to perform the fabulous "Things Have Changed" for his movie "The Wonder Boys". Hanson was a lifelong fan of Dylan and felt he best represented the inner feelings of being considered a wonder boy - the adulation followed by the associated expectations and fear of repetition that so drives Michael Douglas's character in the film.

After all, if anybody has been there and done all of that it is the former Mr Zimmerman and "Things Have Changed" marked something of a watershed. It is a reflection on the ageing process and one's ability (or inability) to adapt which is also the premise behind the lead character of the film.

Dylan had written the soundtrack for "Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid" in 1973 which had included the classic "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and this had been particularly admired by Hanson but Dylan had not really had a lot of interaction with the film business since then apart from some rather puzzling acting appearances. He had released "Time Out Of Mind" in 1997 which was put simply his first decent album in probably 15 years since "Infidels" but the success of the song and its subsequent acclaim set Dylan on a different more bluesy path and something of a creative renaissance with "Love And Theft" and the subsequent releases in the 2000s.

So whilst he had many Grammys, Dylan now had an Oscar (later to be joined by a Nobel Prize of course) which was not a bad return for a song he recorded on his day off from touring in two takes. With the film and the singer so closely reflective of one another, the song is littered with references from the events of the film (Hanson had shown him 80 minutes of rough footage) but it is a marvellous summation of Dylan at this impending crossroads of life.

He would describe it at the awards as a song that "doesn't pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature".

Another formidable artist who had always had fairly distant relationship with the film business was Bruce Springsteen. His existing songs are often used to soundtrack action and indeed in "Blinded By The Light" formed the subject of an entire movie but he himself was always wary of scores and felt he was not really very good at them.

In 1993, he was approached by Jonathan Demme to produce a bespoke song for his moving legal drama "Philadelphia" and though initially reluctant sent him a demo tape with just him, his drum machine and Tommy Sims on backing vocals. Apparently, the effect was immediate. "Streets Of Philadelphia" would go on to win the 1993 Oscar, beating another song from the same soundtrack - "Philadelphia" by the hapless Neil Young. It would then go on and win a Golden Globe and countless Grammys as well.

What is not often discussed is that the version we all know is actually the demo because Springsteen preferred its rawness and honesty (reflected in the promo too as it's actually a live take). It was substituted as the single release versus a more produced version which is actually used on the soundtrack.

Bruce was once accused of only writing about "Cars And Girls" but if anything could demonstrate the sensitivity of his writing and sonic astuteness, it is the achingly sad end-product of "Streets Of Philadelphia".

As I said earlier, the selection of "Lose Yourself" is one of the few times the Academy has managed to select something that reflected the contemporary music scene. In 1978, they did award the Oscar to the floorfilling "Last Dance" by Donna Summer from "Thank God It's Friday" as a nod to the all pervading Disco movement but really it was a far more traditional tune and construct, just set to a four to the floor beat (eventually, after an extended intro). The Academy had managed to overlook "Saturday Night Fever" and all of its attendant disco superhits entirely.

However, in 1971, with soul hugely popular and in the early days of funk, the Academy really played a wildcard and chose the largely instrumental "Shaft" by the incredible Isaac Hayes from the blaxploitation film of the same name - one that whilst hugely entertaining was in normal circumstances unlikely to trouble any jurors.

It opening theme however, just blew everybody away. It's exciting, powerful and slick. It may have been a soundtrack song and written very much for the context of the lead character, but its epic build-up and narrated interjections with female call and response creates one of the most exciting recordings ever - let alone for a movie.

I know I can dig it.

Which brings us to my final offering and it is something of a throwback - though deliberately so. Madonna has sung two Oscar winning songs. In a previous blog, I lamented that the dreary 'You Don't Love Me" from "Evita" beat the far more deserving (to my mind at least) "That Thing You Do" by The Wonders from the film of the same name.

However, in 1990, she had performed "Sooner Or Later" from the often under-rated movie "Dick Tracy". Not only is this, I believe her best cinematic performance as Breathless Mahoney, the singing gangster's moll but it is also the album of hers ("I'm Breathless") that I feel most happy returning to - possibly because for the super-chameleon that is Madonna, its deliberately classic styling has not dated anything like as much as some of her other recordings.

The film was a real cinematic experience as Warren Beatty, the director and star, managed to create a wonderful comic book art direction and cinematography that really evoked the 2D original in texture (only using 4 colours in its palette). Overall it is a much more enduring achievement than you might imagine. Madonna plays a 30s siren and it is the part she was made for. However, the music and particularly this one were particularly challenging - written as they were by Broadway legend, Stephen Sondheim. It was a far more complex song than her normal compositions but after a lot of work they managed to coax a great vocal performance for this smoky and authentic-sounding jazz ballad.

She has never been doubted for her hard work and application as we know.

At that year's Oscars, Madonna came with her date, Michael Jackson and obviously, wanting to make sure she knew he had a genuine challenger as the world's greatest performer, proceeded to put on a very convincing (if initially nervous) Marilyn Monroe tribute to bring the song to life.

In wanting to make a conclusion about this particular Fab Five, I think it is fair to say that all five performances forced each of the artist's to really push themselves into territories that they might not always occupy. Springsteen was stripped back, Isaac Hayes went full orchestral and Madonna used more complex vocals.

All of them pulled out big defining performances (especially Eminem). It is almost as if like those who gain the awards for their acting prowess by pushing their performance boundaries, musically they wanted to imitate that level of effort also.

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Aug 30, 2020

I'm with you on Oscar Film Music. Bee-zare. Your piece reminded of Jennifer Warnes' odd career. Despite having the voice of an angel, being a favourite of Leonard Cohen and having released at least one world-class album (Famous Blue Raincoat) she's only ever had number one hits with Oscar winning duets (Up Where We Belong and Right Time of the Night). As a result, she's been pressed into recording a dozen other film themes, usually in duet, by hopeful film producers. Also bee-zare.

PS pub quiz item relating to the above. What Oscar-winning film song brought together writers Jack Nitzsche and Buffy Saint-Marie?

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