Well, we had a good run (last month). Now it’s back to the millstone of crushing mediocrity, but we knew what we were getting into when we started this journey, so… let’s go!
Pity poor Maureen McGovern. If there’s such a thing as “aural” typecasting, she was the 70s queen of disaster-film easy-listening songs that inexplicably won Oscars. In both cases, this saw her paired up with songwriters Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha, nobody’s idea of legendary artists. In fact, most recaps of the Best Original Song category list one or both of their songs at or near the very bottom, and it’s not hard to hear why from the moment they start playing: there’s a kitschy, elevator-music vibe to both, which is all the more inexplicable given the large-scale, apocalyptic spectacle those films promise. Both songs are pure noradrenaline.
But I’m going to stick my neck out and argue, first, that they’re both interesting enough to warrant at least a little more respect than they’re usually given, and second, that I’m not mad “We May Never Love Like This Again” won the Oscar this year, at least among the five nominees. For one thing, the song represents a pretty funny joke: though McGovern had famously covered The Poseidon Adventure’s Oscar-winning “The Morning After” and turned it into a radio hit, she’s not in the film and only recorded her version after its release (in the film, it’s sung by a teenage “jazz” band that even the other characters think is lame: Hirschhorn and Kasha tossed the song off in a single evening and seemed genuinely shocked to win an Oscar for it). The Towering Inferno turns this into an inside joke by having McGovern sing their equally tossed-off disasterpiece herself, as herself, in the hotel lobby, the disaster-movie equivalent of, say, a bunch of horny teenagers going to Crystal Lake. (Pro-tip: if McGovern is singing in your vicinity, run!)
There’s at least a purposeful bit of construction here: the melody begins in the supertonic (ii), which, as a jumping-off point, we sometimes hear in jazz but somewhat rarely in pop music, because it starts things off so tentatively. From there it’s a quick two-step to the home key (ii – V – I), so it’s nothing radical, but it’s a start. Similarly, where a lot of songs build to high points in order to create an intensifying arc, this one actually starts at the high point, collapsing precipitously from there. The combination of these two elements makes it sound like we’ve walked in on a melody that’s already in progress, like we missed the first couple of measures and are only catching the back end of the phrase. This is fitting enough, since the song is about finding yourself at the peak of a relationship and knowing that life can only disappoint you from there. (Also, the movie is about being at the peak of a building and having it collapse around you, so this joke has layers).
Would that Hirschhorn and Kasha’s lyrics had anything like this level of interest, but there’s no way around this: they’re dire. They are sub-sub-sub back-of-your-notebook high-school doodlings (“Don’t stop the flow / We can’t let go”). Not everyone is a Cole Porter, an Irving Berlin, a Dolly Parton; not everyone can do both the music and words. Nor is the song production doing them any favors, with its snoozy easy-listening strings. In fact, if there’s any single element that leads modern critics to be so dismissive of this era’s songs en masse, it’s the production. Let’s take the next song, this time with… oh, look, Maureen McGovern (yes, again) performing a piece by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black for the mining adventure film Gold:
With an instrumental score that sounds like the Mii Channel theme, “Wherever Love Takes Me” spends most of its time… well, wherever, just moving back and forth between the minor mediant (iii) and the major subdominant (IV); since there’s no real feeling of “resolution” between these two (that is, there’s no tension pulling us to or from one or the other), the piece sounds more harmonically ambiguous than it really is. It’s about eight or nine measures into the melody that we get our first statement of our ostensible home key, if you’re still awake by then. I can imagine a version of the song that doesn’t sound like a retirement home in Key West, a version where Bernstein’s architecture has a little more room to breathe, but that’s not the version we have.
At the other end of the production spectrum, we have a guy and his guitar. The guy in this case is Charlie Rich, who was riding his career peak of successful singles like “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and just before his epic meltdown, tapped, for some reason, to sing an even hokier song by a professional commercial jingle writer, Euel Box. The kindest thing I can say here is that it’s a naïve song for a naïve film, so it can’t be faulted for not knowing its audience:
What I find funniest about “I Feel Love” is that it’s so clearly a three-minute song written by a guy used to writing thirty-second earworms (at any moment I expect Benji to pose with a can of Alpo). What to do with all that extra time? Just kick it up a key and repeat the whole thing again! Love the jarring children’s chorus near the end, which at least adds a bit of unexpected flavor before launching into yet another round of lyrics that nobody asked for. Box’s wife and lyricist Betty also manages the nifty trick of challenging Hirschhorn and Kasha for worst lyrics of the year (“I feel love, yes I do / I can feel it, so can you”). Christ.
If these represent the future of the category, then the future is grim. The final two nominees this year are more pointedly old-fashioned, one an actual relic of the Golden Age of the musical, the other an ironic copy of old Western theme songs. The first, “The Little Prince” from the ill-starred musical of that name, turned out to be the final collaboration of Lerner and Loewe, who’d won an Oscar some fifteen years earlier for Gigi. The film is a failure in nearly every way, so much so that I think it overshadows how solidly-constructed this particular song is. Rather than composing a full melodic phrase, Loewe uses a simple motif: a low rat-a-tat followed by a higher zigzag. It looks something like this:
It’s not Beethoven’s fifth, but Loewe is enough of a professional to know how to manipulate this simple motif to build emotional tension, usually by propelling it upwards or shifting it into a different key, sometimes by flipping it for variety:
But therein lies the other major problem with the song: it feels almost comically passionate in context, and Richard Kiley’s soaring howl over a dying kid looks more awkward on screen than it might have seemed on paper, not to mention far, far away from St.-Ex’s understated gut-punch of an ending. It’s an interesting composition used for the wrong reasons, and Lerner’s lyrics are… well… (“When you came, my day was done / But your smile turned on the sun”) … Seriously, was there just a dearth of good writing in 1974?
That leaves us with the song that most contemporary viewers would probably pick as the year’s best, if only on the basis of recognition, the theme song from Blazing Saddles, which earned Mel Brooks (as lyricist) his second Academy Award nomination that year:
The music, by John Morris, is a pitch-perfect evocation of the era of Western TV theme songs, so much so that there isn’t much to say about it: Brooks wanted a “Frankie-Lane-type” singer and he got Frankie Lane outright. On the other hand, Brooks’ “intentionally awful” lyrics are a swing and a miss for me (hot take: Blazing Saddles is a great movie because it’s far more hits than misses, but there are no few misses, as in most of Brooks’ work). I guess the theme song represents a more “conventional” choice than the movie’s vastly superior “I’m Tired,” a song that layers multiple and even conflicting parodies into delicious comic chaos (tho it did earn Madeline Kahn a much-deserved nomination for that performance), but outside of the nostalgia factor, I’m really scraping the barrel for anything much to say about this particular nominee. It’s fine, which is damning with faint praise, but it’s all I’ve got this year. Everything is fine and (almost) nothing hurt.
What else could have been nominated?
The really frustrating thing about this year is that there were quite a few good songs, but the Academy lined up a slate of mediocrities that it almost had to cherry-pick from a pile of worthy contenders. While Lerner and Loewe and Morris and Brooks were looking backward, young Brian De Palma was looking forward: the rock musical was less than a decade old when he helmed the cult-classic Phantom of the Paradise. Despite flopping at the box office and getting only middling reviews at the time, the film did catch the Academy’s eyes (or rather ears): Paul Williams and George Tipton were nominated for Phantom‘s score. Still, it’s hard to understand why none of its songs merited a closer look, because there are a lot of options. Setting aside its genre parodies, which are a lot of fun (and much more interesting as parodies than Blazing Saddles’ title song), the movie’s emotional lynchpin is its dueling versions of “Faust,” while the soaring “Old Souls” brings everything to a striking emotional climax. But if I could only pick just one, it’d be the movie-summing “The Hell of It” that runs over the closing credits.
Just three years before, the Academy had satisfied its progressive bona fides by honoring Isaac Hayes (not just the first African-American winner in this category, but the first winning singer-songwriter who also performed the piece in the film) for Shaft, and with that, it washed its hands and forgot that black songwriters existed outright: it’d be another decade after Hayes before another was even nominated. The genre that Hayes helped give mainstream notoriety, blaxploitation, was itself in a state of flux: 1974 represents both its peak year in total number of films released and the beginning of its precipitous collapse as it came under attack, not only from Hollywood cultural gatekeepers (and their money), but also from the respectability wing of the civil rights generation. Still, there was no shortage of films that could have been honored here: though Hayes’ own attempt to replicate the success of Shaft with Truck Turner proved a disappointment, we could have heard anything from Willy Hutch’s Foxy Brown soundtrack, Curtis Mayfield’s Three the Hard Way, or Barry White’s Together Brothers, among others. But jazz maestro J.J. Johnson’s songs for Willie Dynamite also have Martha Reeves on vocals, and “King Midas” is one helluva great song, maybe my favorite of all the songs discussed here:
If the Academy was no longer willing to reward blaxploitation, it could at least have given a second look to one of the best soundtracks of the year, from the more mainstream social dramedy Claudine, starring the recently passed Diahann Carroll, who was nominated for Best Actress for her performance as a struggling single mother. Written by Curtis Mayfield, performed by Gladys Knight & The Pips, the soundtrack landed a Golden Globe nomination for its hit song “On and On” but had no such luck with the Academy. The whole soundtrack is worth your time (“To Be Invisible” is sublime), but top of the set for me is the epic “Mr. Welfare Man,” which spins a five-minute story about the singer’s exhaustion with the bureaucracy, rising steadily from its nearly spoken-word lyrics to its sustained dominant pre-chorus until it finally bursts back into the tonic (“Keep away from me!”) Deeply satisfying music here, though the film only uses (and talks over) the first minute or so (you can listen to the full version here):
Just one: why do people keep trying to film The Little Prince? Only one of the copious adaptations of the book is worth your time, the 1966 Soviet version directed by Arūnas Žebriūnas. It might tilt a little too eerie in spots (the opening feels more like Carnival of Souls than an understated kid’s book) but everything else is great, including and especially the use of Debussy’s “Nuages” for maximum unsettling lethargy.
Next month: *takes a long, hard drink* … *pours another*