Melancholia, which used classical compositions to accompany its lush imagery.
Kirsten Dunst in
Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, which used classical compositions to accompany its lush imagery. Magnolia Pictures
You might have noticed something odd in the Academy Award nominations announced on Tuesday, and for once we're not talking about the surprise nomination for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The Best Original Song category named just two nominees for its award: "Man or Muppet" from the well-received The Muppets, and "Real in Rio" from apparently-real motion picture Rio, possibly the most widely ignored $143 million hit in history. Yes, yes, you saw it with your kids, fine. The point is: how did we get here? Only two songs from movies were worthy of Oscar nominations? From, the country that brought you "Let's Hear It for the Boy" and "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You"??
Part of the reason for the low nomination turnout lies in one of the Academy's more draconian voting practices. According to Gold Derby, songs are screened for voters, who then assign the songs they hear a numerical score (on a half-point scale from 6 to 10, for reasons that I am sure make perfect sense). "Any song that averages an 8.5 or higher are eligible for a nomination. If no song receives an average score of 8.25 or more, there will be no nominees. If only one song achieves that score, it and the song receiving the next highest score shall be the two nominees."
That means that, of "Man or Muppet" and "Real in Rio," it's entirely possible that only ONE song made a high enough grade to merit a nomination. One song all year! "Remember the year when 'Man or Muppet' was the one good song?" we'll tell our grandchildren. This grading procedure — unique among the Oscar categories — means that voters with agendas (anti-Muppet agendas? anti-Madonna agendas? Who ever heard of such things?!) could effectively vote against competition.
And then there's the rule that says a song is deemed ineligible unless it is either used within the main part of the movie or right at the very beginning of the opening credits (this is how Madonna's song from W.E. was nixed from the ballot). It all seems fishy and, if you'll excuse an un-scientific conclusion, weird.
Perhaps even more disturbing than the lonely nominated songs this year is that you can't even point to anything else that got egregiously snubbed. Sure, they could have added another tune from The Muppets ("Life's a Happy Song" was sweet and catchy, just not that lamenting dirge that Kermit sings in the rain, please), but what else? Madonna touched off a mini-flame war in the celebrity community when her song "Masterpiece" from W.E. won the Golden Globe, earning her more than a few snitty responses from Elton John and David Furnish, who were hoping to win themselves for "Hello Hello" from Gnomeo and Juliet. But really, why are we even arguing over these nothing songs?!
I know the movie business is cyclical, and we're probably just in a fallow period for original songs in movies, but what a fallow period. Back in the 1980s, the Best Song lineups could have doubled as Billboard charts, filled with #1 hits and movie-defining anthems. Your "Against All Odds," your "Flashdance (What a Feeling)," your "I've Had the Time of My Life." All told there were twenty-one #1 hits nominated for Best Original Song in the '80s. Since 2000, there has been a grand total of one (Eminem's "Lose Yourself"). Not that chart performance is the sole arbiter of song quality, but the fact is impossible to deny: movie songs were once part of the fabric of American pop music, and now that's just not true.
Here's the thing, though: the movies haven't gotten any less musical since the turn of the century. Moulin Rouge! kicked the decade off with a glitter-bomb of an example for how movie music was growing less "original" but no less creative. The decade that followed saw more and more movies that combined new music with old, be it the repurposed pastiche of A Prairie Home Companion or the omnipresent jamming in Rachel Getting Married or Marie Antoinette's New Wave anachronisms.
This year, the Ryan Gosling critical favorite Drive made a splash with a score that blended original music by Cliff Martinez with previously-produced songs by Kavinsky and College, all adding up to the film's dreamy, '80s-synth-pop soundscape. It was easily among the most celebrated uses of music in a movie this year — even among detractors of the film itself — and more importantly, it was a completely original vision by the filmmakers. But because its blood was tainted by the impurity of non-original music, Martinez was deemed ineligible for Best Original Score. This is something that's become depressingly common in recent years: Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood's work on There Will Be Blood comes to mind, as does the playful work done by Carter Burwell and Karen O for Where the Wild Things Are.
And it's because the Academy has failed to keep up with the way movies are scored today. Think of how much the Scorseses, Tarantinos, and Wes Andersons of the world did with smartly curated soundtracks that used old songs in new ways. Not one of those films were awardable under the current Oscar construct. Why shouldn't that change?
The Academy has shown itself willing, of late, to change with the times. The size and scope of the Best Picture field has changed twice in three years, after all. It's frustrating that seemingly no one has recognized that the way we employ music in our movies today has also changed. It's a playlist culture, and many movies are ignoring traditional original-song/original-score structures. Would it not make sense to look into, if not revamping the rules for Best Original Score, introducing a category for exemplary use of non-original music in a film? Sort of an Adapted Screenplay category for music.
Think of composer Clint Mansell weaving his original score inside, outside, around, and through the familiar strains of "Swan Lake" in Black Swan. Or the way Burwell weaved old Western hymns into his work on True Grit. This is real artistry, and while the necessity of throwing gold statues at real artistry might be debatable for some, if we're going to take the time to honor acting and makeup and the Foley guys who make the robot sound effects in Transformers, there's got to be a way to recognize the ace work being done on today's soundtracks.
The result of such an "Adapted Song Score" category* could be that The Artist's appropriation of the Vertigo score becomes not a bug but a feature. Or the use of classical compositions in Tree of Life and Melancholia are recognized for the artistry in how they're employed. Or the un-showy but so telling '90s music in Young Adult. Throw in Drive and you've already got five perfectly worthy nominees.
And that's a lot more than two.
*Credit is due to Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience, who has been advocating this kind of category for years.
Joe Reid is a writer in New York and the author of the blog This Had Oscar Buzz.