Greetings, Soluters and music lovers! What a year this has been. Aside from things happening out there (*waves around*), we’ve had quite a wild range of nominee slates in the last twelve months, from almost uniformly terrible to my favorite piece ever nominated, from the very first winner to some recent surprises. I’m more than grateful to all the readers and commenters here who’ve joined me in wading through the death march of mediocrity that this category nearly always represents. Can’t wait to see what new horrors 2021 brings!
In the meantime, we end the year with a mildly happy surprise: I’d make a good case for three of the five nominees below. That counts as a resounding win, given our track record. Unfortunately, that group of three wouldn’t include the winner, Johnny Mandel’s droopy ballad “The Shadow of Your Smile” from The Sandpiper:
The song’s not especially complex, but it does make use of the relationship between a relative major and minor to generate some mild ambiguities. A relative major and minor are two keys that share most of their notes in common: “most” because, to oversimplify this a bit, we can raise the sixth and seventh degree when approaching the minor tonic from below. The details aren’t especially important here, except that Mandel uses this exception to flavor the first phrase enough to fool us into thinking the piece is unequivocally in the minor key, then uses a secondary dominant process to move us into a second phrase that sounds unequivocally in the relative major. Which will ultimately take control? That’s the low-stakes tension underpinning the song’s development.
Unfortunately, I don’t find the melody especially compelling, especially in the film’s sleepy choral version, and the lyrics by 16x nominee Paul Frances Webster are impossibly cringe (“A teardrop kissed your lips / and so did I.”) But this basic canvas did allow for some interpretive freedom that helped make the song popular in the 60s, when it was frequently slapped onto a bossa-nova beat. More relevant to Oscar voters was the fact that Tony Bennett had made it a hit (with a somehow sleepier version!), through which Mandel and Webster would also take home a Grammy for Song of the Year. I can’t say I’ve liked any of the covers I’ve heard, with one exception: Stevie Wonder eats the song alive, because of course he does.
Call it a necessary step in the Academy’s slow turn from early-century songwriting to the pop-dominated category of today, but simplicity is king among the 1965 song nominees, for better or worse: with one exception, all of these songs are so easy to parse that there isn’t much to talk about. Take, for example, Henry Mancini’s contribution to The Great Race, a literal follow-the-bouncing-ball singalong, “The Sweetheart Tree“:
This is very much in line with “Moon River,” but where that film had the confidence that Hepburn’s inexpert voice carried the song’s emotional beats more effectively than a polished pop vocalist, here the filmmakers dubbed Wood with singer Jackie Ward and eliminated anything that might give the song anything like personality (no shade to Ward, but the song isn’t especially memorable otherwise). It’s especially a pity since we do have a track of Wood singing (*allegedly. I haven’t been able to confirm this), and — much like Hepburn’s — it’s just shaky enough to give the song a jolt of personality missing in the film’s version. It’s still the weakest of the nominees and feels an awful lot like Mancini chasing a “Moon River” repeat, but we’ve heard worse in this series.
Of course it’d make sense for a song in this context to be simplicity itself, and the same hold true of Jerry Livingston and Mack David’s troubadour-narrative “Ballad of Cat Ballou“. Vaudevillian Stubby Kaye joins the silver-voiced Nat King Cole as the film’s Greek chorus, delivering exposition — and sometimes counterfactual mythmaking, as our Sunil Patel has pointed out — in the form of a rollicking “old West” ballad:
This is full-on musical western Americana: the melody is largely pentatonic and the chords limited to a very small and straightforward range with no funny business in between. Since this is a recurring bit, the film keeps things interesting by shifting some iterations into slower and more pensive versions at key moments (the clip above combines them all). In retrospect, it seems like “Cat Ballou’s” biggest influence wasn’t on songwriting but on a particular visual-narrative strategy. There’s nothing new about the troubadour narrator in itself, but the way director Elliot Silverstein handles it here spawned a number of imitators, most pointedly the Farrelly brothers’ use of Jonathan Richman in There’s Something About Mary.
Likewise, Michel Legrand’s classic “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi” (aka “I Will Wait for You”) from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg isn’t the most sophisticated song from a compositional standpoint, but here that simplicity is put to intensely effective use: a tearjerker that aims right for your heart. The faces below belong to the impossibly beautiful Nino Castelnuovo and Catherine Deneuve, but the voices are José Bartel and Danielle Licari, respectively.
Most of Umbrellas is a quasi-recitative, with little that demarcates a “song” from expository dialogue. Repeated phrases are very few, and refrains all but nonexistent. Given how little there is of actual “songlike” songwriting in the film, the transparency of this section is something of a surprise: the entire song is built on a five- or six-note motif that he shifts along the circle of fifths, easy-peasy. It helps that the motif first appears in instrumental form in the opening credits and then, most memorably, in a sweeping, full-orchestra swoon in the final moments of the film. Lyrics or no, you’d walk out of the theater humming that motif in between your choking sobs. And if a tale of thwarted love isn’t enough to do it, a quick reminder that this is the same song used for the legendary finale of Futurama’s “Jurassic Bark.”
Finally, we have the one song that chews up any pretense of simplicity and spits it out with gusto: the psychedelic saloon-stomper, “What’s New, Pussycat?” a loopy theme song by Burt Bacharach that marked the composer’s first of six visits to the nominee pool. Bacharach’s frequent writing partner Hal David supplied the lyrics, and the singer was a fresh-faced Welshman Tom Jones, who’d just been introduced to the world a few months earlier with what would become his theme song, “It’s Not Unusual.”
Bacharach was one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic of 60s songwriters, with songs that seem to burst out of conventional harmonic expectations: you can hear that in particular when the first verse starts (around 01:09 in the clip below), the melody taking on a seemingly carnivalesque randomness as the oompahapah-bass throws darts at the circle of harmonies. In fact, the actual structure is more straightforward than it sounds: the chorus stays within the tonic key and the verses are in dominant, but Bacharach allows the latter to explore more freely between the margins. It’s so much fun, though: maybe too much fun for the stuffed shirts who voted on these awards every year.
What else could have been nominated?
The theme of this month’s would-be’s is doubling, since they all seem to come in pairs. Segueing directly from our previous paragraph, we can start with Tom Jones, who had a second title song under his belt in 1965, the below-par Bond theme to Thunderball. I love me some John Barry, but this was not his best work. Bobby Darin also had two theme songs this year, the self-penned theme to That Funny Feeling and a Sherman Brothers special for That Darn Cat! The Sherman brothers had just won an Oscar the previous year, but they submitted two theme-song duds in ’65 between the abovementioned Cat! and the comedy-sequel cash-in The Monkey’s Uncle, which is only interesting because of the surprising choice of backup band supporting Annette Funicello (the song itself is… very bad):
One of the bigger surprises (to me) is that the year’s awards juggernaut, The Sound of Music, is nowhere represented here. While it’s true that most of its songs were ineligible for belonging to the stage musical, Richard Rodgers provided two new pieces for the film. “Something Good” was added to make up for another ballad that had never quite worked, and it’s a fine enough song (I’d take it over “The Shadow of Your Smile” any day). The second is one of the film’s best numbers, “I Have Confidence.” It’s possible that the Academy considered this ineligible because of the song’s prelude, which does recycle an unused bit from the stage, but the song itself is all new material, and it’s a great showcase for the great Julie Andrews. Hard to imagine she was only two years removed from losing roles for being an unbankable unknown.
Finally, the Academy wasn’t yet ready to open its doors to rock music — and wouldn’t until the 1970s. That said, I don’t know if even rock-friendly voters would have known what to do with Richard Lester’s Beatles whatsit, Help!. It’s an odd duck of a movie, but it also contains such an all-time great soundtrack that it almost feels like cheating to include it here (minus, of course, its biggest hit: “Yesterday” isn’t in the film and thus wouldn’t have been eligible anyway). But it’s otherwise an embarrassment of riches, and I’d probably have gone with the gentle Lennon ballad “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” for the win. Plus, unlike most of the album’s songs, it was written specifically for the film:
That’s it for me for 2020, folks. Hope you’ve all enjoyed this strange trip, and I look forward to continuing to annoy your eardrums in 2021!