Apologies for a brief and not very analytical post this month: a few deadlines caught up with me and this is the result, more of a grumpy rant than a real engagement with the category. To be fair, the category isn’t exactly helping this time around…
Last month I tried to (somewhat) defend the honor of Maureen McGovern, the oft-crowned queen of bad Oscar winners, with the observation that the winning songs she performed are a bit more interesting and at least a touch cheekier than they’re usually given credit for. Besides, if we want to crown the real royalty of Best Song mediocrities, we can make a much stronger case for the husband-and-wife team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who rode their wave of middling lyrics to a whopping fifteen nominations (and two wins). It’s hard to think of a better personification of category, of the Academy’s depressingly consistent rewarding of lesser work by lesser artists.
It’s especially true this year, when we have a murderer’s row of great songs that didn’t make the cut, but the Bergmans scored three of the five nomination slots for their work in three different movies, a feat I believe has never happened before or since.1 It’s also hard to make a strong argument in favor of any of them.
Let’s start with the worst. I doubt many people would consider John Williams’ “If We Were in Love” among his best work, but it’s almost impossible to assess fairly in light of the trainwreck around it, the legendary catastrophe that was Pavarotti’s Yes, Giorgio. Rightly nominated for a slew of Razzies (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky called the movie “god-awful. Boring, too” and the song in question “wretched”), it’s a sappy piece transformed into a Tim-&-Eric levels of comic-horror by its appearance in the film in question. Nothing about it works very well, least of all Pavarotti overperforming the Bergmans’ top-40 lyrics as if they were doing Aida. You don’t so much analyze this as let it wash over you in ripples of discomfort. (The song starts at the 2:00 mark in the clip below, but watch the whole thing to appreciate Kathryn Harrold’s heroic effort to salvage anything out of this mess.)
Considerably better is Michel Legrand’s “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” from Best Friends, a movie I keep forgetting exists (which is an improvement on Yes, Giorgio, a movie plenty of people wish they could forget.) Legrand, who died earlier this year, had a strange career that peaked almost right out of the gate, from Jacques Demy musicals to a prolific but almost anonymous work-for-hire twilight (he would briefly bounce back with next year’s Yentl, depending on how you feel about Yentl). As for this song…
Here I have to admit a personal bias: as someone who grew up in the 80s, the particular timbre of this electric keyboard elicits an immediate, Pavlovian loathing in the deepest part of my brain: it’s the sound of musty shopping-center clothing stalls and dentists’ waiting rooms. This one, at least, is elevated considerably by the killer vocal team of Patti Austin and James Ingram (reunited after their big hit “Baby Come to Me”), two black vocalists giving their passionate all in the theme song to a movie exclusively about white people.
The third Bergman song nominated this year was Dave Grusin’s “It Might Be You,” better known as “that song from Tootsie.” Like most of Tootsie’s Oscar nominations, it was a loser (the film went 1-9 for the night), but it’s nowhere near the worst showing of the category. Again with that goddamn electric keyboard, but I’ll grudgingly admit that it’s an okay song construction-wise, Stephen Bishop’s transparent performance is fine, the chorus is memorable (I kinda like it, in fact!), and apart from the production, the only real demerit is (of course) the Bergmans’ lyrics (“Lying on the sand watching seabirds fly” gag me with a spoon.) There are some nice touches here: I love the way the chorus hits its highest note on the word “might,” as if the word were italicized in the phrase: a melodic expression of doubt.
I’d like to say that things will improve now that we’ve left the Bergmans behind, but despite the following song’s monster popularity, I have nothing nice to say about the category’s actual winner, “Up Where We Belong,” the lukewarm block of Velveeta served at the end of An Officer and a Gentleman. Nothing here speaks to me, not Will Jennings’ cringey lyrics (“where eagles fly / on a mountain high,” what is it with people watching birds this year?) not Jack Nitzsche and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s nondescript songwriting, not the production, not Joe Cocker’s strained and improbable duet with Jennifer Warnes. Warnes was apparently chosen for good luck, and it’s true that she owned this category for a decade: in the course of ten years, she performed three Best Original Song winners and a fourth nominee. This is my least favorite of the four, by a country mile.
That leaves us with pop-culture juggernaut “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III, written and performed by Survivor. There’s not a lot to say about the song’s pre-Jock Jams workout track: you already know it, you already know how you feel about it. The construction is very basic, so what lends interest to the piece is its production, its percussive charge. This is paired with a somewhat interesting use of syncopation, where each line of the chorus kinda draaags into place and then rushes to finish before the phrase ends (thanks for the terminology, Whiplash!), which creates an illusion of intensity, of something tightly coiled and then explosively released within each phrase. In total, I think it’s the lesser of the two Oscar-nominated Rocky themes, but that doesn’t make it a bad song, and it deserves better than to be another also-ran alongside Yes, Giorgio.
What else could have been nominated?
What a year 1982 was for great music: it should have been easy to stuff this category with all-timers. The elephant in the room was the soundtrack to Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and at the very least its number-1 hit “Somebody’s Baby,” by Jackson Browne, which should have been a shoo-in for the category. But now that Fame had become the first film with multiple songs competing in the category (fun fact: “Fame”‘s songwriters were presented the winning statue by Luciano Pavarotti!), this was easily a case where more than one song could have, and should have, gotten in there. Donna Summer’s 1981 song “Highway Runner” (written by Giorgio–yes, Giorgio–Moroder) was technically unreleased until the film and could have qualified, and as long as we’re playing fantasy ball here, how cool would it have been to see future 4x-Oscar nominee Danny Elfman taking the stage to perform Oingo Boingo’s sublime “Goodbye, Goodbye“?
Fast Times wasn’t the only soundtrack with multiple strong contenders: we can say the same for Ron Howards’ Night Shift. Hindsight is 20/20, but here we have the first recording of Burt Bacharach & Carol Bayer Sager’s soon-to-be enormous hit “That’s What Friends Are For,” with Rod Stewart doing vocal duties on what would later become Dionne Warwick’s signature song. Then again, there’s also Quarterflash performing the title track “Night Shift,” and that’d have been an even worthier inclusion:
The field of eligible songs was particularly broad in 1982, but not all of them were winners. Actual movie musicals had one of their worst years in living memory, between Pavarotti’s flailing and the possibly even more embarrassing Pirate Movie, which rightly won the Razzie for worst song (“Pumpin’ and Blowin'”… Seek it out if you must, but you’ve been warned). Then there’s Dave Grusin’s truly baffling song from Author! Author!, “Comin’ Home to You,” (with lyrics by–you guessed it!–Alan and Marilyn Bergman), a song that begins like an insufferable early 80s sitcom title theme until its bizarre chorus (both musically and lyrically: I can’t think of a more off-putting “romantic” line in a song I’ve listened to for this series?)2 Likewise, I love Dolly Parton like anyone with an ear and a pulse, but her eligible contribution to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, “Sneakin’ Around,” is not exactly up to par with rest of the (frequently excellent) soundtrack, and suffers even more for being sung by non-singer Burt Reynolds.
There were also other bright spots. If the early queer romance Making Love hadn’t been such a bomb, there’s a possibility the Bacharach-Roberts-Sager title song (sung beautifully by Roberta Flack) might have gotten in: it’s a conventional ballad, but the kind the Academy likes. Then again, my tastes skew a little weird, so while it doesn’t exactly surprise me that David Bowie’s “Cat People” (with Giorgio–yes, Giorgio–Moroder) didn’t find its way into the pool of nominations, maybe that’s for the better: the song is so feral, it’d tear apart the kind of crowd that couldn’t stop handing out awards to Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
1. I’d be happy to correct this if I’m wrong, but it’s not an easy thing to search for. Janet Gaynor, for example, won the first-ever Best Actress award for three different movies–7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise–, but these were presented as a single award for the body of work: she wasn’t competing against herself. Randy Newman would score three nominations for three different films in 1999, but each was in a different category.
2. I don’t like spending too much time on bad music, but I’m really obsessed with how much of an oddity “Comin’ Home to You” is. It sounds like if a much less-talented Brian Wilson had tried to make his own version of “It Might Be You” but couldn’t resist laser sound effects and infantilizing lyrics: like, and I can’t overstate how much that chorus makes me cringe. It’s awful and I love it.
Next month: *takes another long, hard drink* … It just… it doesn’t get better, does it?