Hell yeah, the 90s! I’m excited about this installment because it’s the first since the series began (one year ago next month!) to land in this decade, my formative years, when I was just old enough to start taking note of the Oscars but not yet old enough to get too invested in them. But 1990 is a weird year because it comes perched between two very distinct eras in Best Song history. Just behind it was the 80s, when the Academy finally allowed for multiple nominees from a single film (a total of six films that decade, beginning with Flashdance, went on to compete against themselves). In 1989, The Little Mermaid‘s win began ushering in a new era, when Disney ruled the category with an iron fist, winning half the 90s awards but also shoving out other competitors with up to three nominates a year for the same film.
So 1990 is a little aberration on the cusp of that change, a year with no Disney films and no animation but a fair amount of quirk. You could even say a cartoon, of sorts, took home the prize. Best of all, I’d even say that the slate of nominees (but for one) was pretty good across the board.
Let’s start with that one, a mighty obelisk of hair and flopsweat, Jon Bon Jovi’s inescapable “Blaze of Glory” from Young Guns. JBJ got a lot of critical flak for this piece, and for the album “inspired” by the film, but I’ll give him this: it’s the perfect accompaniment to a movie about a bunch of teen idols playing dress-up in a derivative of a derivative of a Western. The lyrics, allegedly written on a diner napkin during lunch while the actors were sitting around munching burgers, are the perfect late-80s mix of overheated and underbaked, a kind of pastiche of bad-boy antihero Westernism dreamed up from a swimming pool in New Jersey. The song plays over the hilariously po-faced final scenes + credits, and again, it’s hard to imagine something more fitting for its context:
Alas, it was not JBJ’s year for Oscar gold: “Blaze of Glory” would have to settle for the Globe from the fame-chasing HFPA. It’d have been an uphill battle anyway, since it was competing against a bunch of legacy acts, some of whom did legacy-level work, some of whom delivered song that, in the long run, feel pretty inconsequential (remember when the AVC used to list its Least Essential Albums of the year?).
Take “Promise Me You’ll Remember,” one of the seven nominations that The Godfather Part III would go on to lose on Oscar night. Here we have the first of our major legacies, former Oscar winner and dynasty member Carmine Coppola stitching together a throwback to the soft jazz standards of the past, and recruiting Harry Connick, Jr. to do his androgynous Frank Sinatra thing. The real heavy hitter here, though, was lyricist John Bettis, not exactly a household name, though he ought to be. The result, though just as beholden to nostalgia and pastiche as “Blaze of Glory,” is what happens when you give a bunch of professionals a workmanlike assignment: nothing really striking (the harmonies here are less interesting than the often good instrumentation), but it’s certainly nowhere near the kind of embarrassment that this category so often gravitates towards. It’s fine.
Like “Blaze of Glory,” this was strictly a closing-credits piece. I get why this happens, but I wish more focus went to use of songs in films.
Carmine Coppola is a more than competent composer, but as far as legacies go, it’s hard for anyone to compete with John Williams. In addition to his eight billion nominations for Best Original Score, Williams was a five-time nominee for Song, with “Somewhere in My Memory” from Home Alone landing right in the middle. (Fun fact for your trivia night: Home Alone was nominated for two Oscars, both for Williams’ work on the film.) I don’t know if your memories of Home Alone are better than mine, but I couldn’t have recalled this song if you put a gun to my head… I definitely remember the scene where hear it most fully, though. Williams sprinkles the song’s motifs throughout the film to build anticipation of this scene, where the weight of loneliness finally hits Culkin’s Kevin McCallister as he stands outside of Christmas parties like a better-fed Little Match Girl:
If I have any complaint here, it’s that the lyrics really aren’t necessary: Williams treats this scene as more of an extension of the score (the construction here is laser-targeted to your tear ducts). The lyricist, Leslie Bricusse, is best-known in movie circles for his Oscar-winning “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Dolittle, one of the earwormiest earworms that ever earwormed. Once again, everything here is professional, polished, and fine.
At least the last two nominees give us something to talk about. The first isn’t technically a legacy (in the film world) nominee, though the film certainly was, since Postcards from the Edge is about as legacy-industry-insidery as a film can get. The composer of its nominated song and the runner-up in my heart was Shel Silverstein, one of those broadly talented artists whom popular memory has tended to flatted over time into only one of his many faces. Silverstein had a long and celebrated history as a songwriter, from Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” to his own novelty earworm “(I’m Being Eaten by a) Boa Constrictor”. What an inspired choice to cap this adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s “novel” than having Carrie stand-in Meryl Streep belting out Silverstein’s “I’m Checkin’ Out.”
Everything about this is great, even Streep’s limited vocal range: she may not nail all the notes, but she acts the living fuck out of this. Silverstein’s usual puckish laconicism is in full effect here (“I’m goin’ from sleazy to swell”; “Chug-a-luggin’ Sally’s packed and gone”), and the way the song builds from mopey resignation to honky-tonk exhilaration is … well, exhilarating. (Also: that shot beginning at 2:24? Maybe my favorite in the whole Mike Nichols catalogue?)
Now, no shade to anyone involved here, but there is a better performance in the same movie, with Shirley MacLaine setting fire to the screen in her rendition of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here. The Follies standard is obviously not an “original” song, but there was no better year than 1990 if you wanted your Sondheim itch scratched at the cineplex, because this was his biggest year in movies, with five original songs for Warren Beatty’s adaptation of Dick Tracy… and guess what? They ain’t half bad.
You could almost pick your favorite based on your favorite type of Sondheim. The Sondheimiest of all is “What Can You Lose?“, a delicate duet between Mandy Patinkin and Madonna that uses one of the composer’s trademarks, an aimless melody that never seems to come to rest until it builds into an uncertain climax (If you haven’t seen it yet, Judy Kuhn recently owned this song as part of the virtual Sondheim-90th celebration). There’s the bubbly-bluesy throwback “More,” which featured heavily in the movie’s advertising. There’s the legendary Mel Tormé swinging his way through “Live Alone and Like It,” and the trio of Janis Siegel, Cheryl Bentyne, and Lorraine Feather doing their best Andrews Sisters in “Back in Business.” But on Oscar night, the statue went to a solo torch song for Madonna, “Sooner or Later.”
It’s a fine piece, but you can see how bored Beatty is with it (and all these songs, let’s be honest), constantly cutting away to an obnoxious (and Oscar-nominated!) Pacino and another round of (fun! cartoony!) montages. I have to admit I was initially a bit dubious about this one too: at first blush, it doesn’t seem to have the full force of personality that some of the other pieces do? But it’s a keeper, another densely constructed puzzle-box (that melody! over those harmonies!) from a composer who never met a cruel trick he didn’t enjoy throwing at singers. There’s also the problem that Madonna, bless her, struggles to find the heart of Sondheim’s weirdly constructed lines (something she’s acknowledged, btw), and to find a good balance with her own signature style, while Beatty leaves her a bit stranded, almost an afterthought.
However, due credit to Madonna here: there’s a reason her live performance of “Sooner or Later” at the ceremony itself is so many people’s first choice for best live Oscar performance ever. She found the balance, finally. She’s even better here than she was in the movie.
What else could have been nominated?
It’s a shame none of Sondheim’s other songs were nominated, and also a bit of a surprise: you’d think it would split the vote, but this is the only year in the first half of the decade that didn’t see a multi-nominee winning the gold, or even a multi-nominee in the category at all. The Globes certainly took notice, with “What Can You Lose?” taking the slot that the Academy sent to John Williams. So we’ll need to cast our net a bit wider this time.
One of the biggest soundtracks of 1990 came from Disney’s unexpected runaway hit, a Cinderella story about how millionaires are really decent guys to the sex workers they keep on payroll. True, the biggest of the Pretty Woman hits weren’t original (the sublime title track, Roxette’s also sublime “It Must Have Been Love”), but there were two original hits that could have competed here. The first is Robert Palmer’s “Life in Detail,” which I kinda dig, though its relatively hookless hook might explain why it never made much of an impression on the charts. But the radio-friendly second single is like a shot of pure, distilled early-90s pop so inject this shit directly into my eeeeears:
You could make a case for Maria McKee’s power ballad “Show Me Heaven” from the Days of Thunder soundtrack, but I won’t. I’d make even less of a case for ZZ Top’s “Doubleback” from Back to the Future III. There’s a lot of chaff in this here wilderness. Fortunately, we can always count on Prince to rescue us, swooping into the desert with a canteen of refreshing funk: even if Graffiti Bridge is not exactly the most fondly remembered of his films, it gave us a couple of great singles to work with, like “New Power Generation” and “Thieves in the Temple“:
As always we run into the Academy’s decades-long de facto ban on hip-hop, which is a pity, because even if House Party had been on their radar, I can’t imagine how amazing it’d have been to see LL Cool J perform his diss track “To Da Break of Dawn” on the Oscar stage… Alas, rap’s glass ceiling wouldn’t come down for another decade, plus.
Finally, I have no idea how the Academy rules work when an independent album is released around the same time as a film, but Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love” was released in sync with its appearance on the soundtrack to notorious bomb The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, so let’s just pretend it was eligible and enjoy Idol’s only number one hit on the U.S. rock charts (edited: see comments), with its David Fincher-directed video (that originally contained footage from the movie before Andrew Dice Clay was banned from appearing on MTV. Man, I miss the 90s.)
Next month: Our first non-English-language winner, as a street performer sings about a famously beguiling smile…