In the course of this series, we haven’t spent much time talking about the Oscar-night performances of the nominees, and for good reason: they’re usually chintzy, uninspired takes on songs that were uninspiring to begin with. Who wants to sit through live versions of these limp, microwave-dinner songs? For every rare sublime performance—and there have been a few!—the number of painful, underbaked, overproduced messes is too many to count.
Which leads us to the 77th ceremony, a legendary mess among messes, a textbook example of what happens when you start with a bad premise and make even worse decisions from there. The premise: that declining Oscar viewership could be mitigated by, among other things, injecting some Big Names into the song performances, because who wouldn’t tune into a five-hour awards show to see five minutes of someone who peaked a decade earlier? (More on this below.) This was the year that producer Gil Cates hired Chris Rock to host and would live to regret it.
Assuming the premise, the options were dire, since the slate of nominees included two songs in foreign languages and a couple of snoozy ballads. Lame! The decisions that resulted were all bad, but here’s a spoiler: the punchline to the evening turned out to be deeply satisfying in spite of (in literal spite of) the setup. But before we get there, let’s trace each of those bad decisions, song by song:
The only performer who got to perform their work unmolested was Adam Duritz. Let that sink in for a minute. Early-90s favorite Counting Crows, who hadn’t had much of a presence on the charts for a decade, got to perform their anodyne opening-credits ballad from the top-grossing film of the year, Shrek 2, “Accidentally in Love,” looking like a time capsule from 1994 “accidentally” vomited onto the stage. I don’t have much to say about the song because it sounds exactly what you might imagine “once-popular band asked to recapture some of that ‘All Star’ magic for the sequel” sounds like.
Look, I like these guys. Was August and Everything After one of the first albums I bought with my own money? Guilty as charged. Do I still know all the words to “Mr. Jones”? Catch me at the karaoke joint. Is “Accidentally in Love” any good? Eh… I like that the opening phrase is in seven measures, which is pretty uncommon in contemporary pop music. I wish the totality of the piece didn’t sound so, I dunno, disposable?
I do get why the be-dreaded Duritz and his band were allowed to perform their song when all the others had to compromise: it makes some sense, logistically! But it’s a puzzling decision when so much of what follows was engineered specifically because of the fear that viewers would stay away, and how many people do you think tuned in to see a brief Counting Crows set between the awards for Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker!) and Adapted Screenplay (Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor!)? Again and again, we’ll be faced with the question: who is this for?
It’s outright infuriating given the next decision. The unremarkable “Learn to Be Lonely” appears in the closing credits to Phantom of the Opera (R.I.P. Joel Schumacher), and while critics say it’s one of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s worst works, I’m in no position to judge because I don’t much care for him at his best, either. My grandparents once quipped that ALW has exactly one song stuck in his head and has spent his entire career trying to get it out, and this is definitely that song, again.
In the film’s credits, “LTBL” is sung by Minnie Driver, who played Carlotta in the film (although, funny enough, all of Carlotta’s in-film songs were dubbed by Margaret Preece). But what do the kids know about a “Minnie Driver”, the producers asked themselves. Guess who was surprised and, by anonymous accounts, “devastated” to find out she’d been booted from the ceremony1 so they could give the song to… Beyoncé. Fair play to Beyoncé, no doubt a “bigger” name in all respects, but if you’re keeping score here: the producers of the Oscars dumped an Oscar-nominated actress for not being enough of a draw to the Oscars. Again: who is this for?
As for the song, it sounds exactly like the lazy attempt at awards-baiting it is, but of the three (!) songs Beyoncé was asked to perform that night, it’s the one best suited for her voice and style: she can hold those crystal-clear notes beautifully, and she does. Shame about the material, though.
The second Beyoncé song… sorry, the next song on our list is a rare Best Song nominee from a horror movie, The Polar Express. Let’s not mince words here: “Believe,” by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri, is similarly uninspired mush. The opening riff is awfully similar to Dimitri Tiomkin’s “The High and the Mighty,” which, if we recall, won a copyright lawsuit by arguing that it was so unoriginal it was impossible to plagiarize. So that’s roughly the level we’re working with here.
The singer was a little-known youth named Josh Groban, and despite his recent no.1 album and Grammy nomination, he clearly wasn’t a pop-culture powerhouse like Counting Crows. Unlike poor Minnie Driver, baby Josh Groban was prominently saddled with a babysitter in the form of Queen Bey. What can I say about the performance?… Beyoncé looks stunning. Beautiful dress.
Every single Oscar prediction site the internet wayback machine could provide me put their money on one of the above three songs to win, and for good reason: only one non-English song in the history of the ceremony had ever pulled off a win before, so who cared about the remaining nominees? Despite the fact that they were, no surprise, the best songs in the category.
Let’s start with Bruno Coulais’ “Voir sur ton chemin” from Les choristes. Coulais is one of my very favorite film composers—from his breakthrough Microcosmos to his sublime work for animated films like Coraline, The Secret of Kells, and Solute Best-of-the-Decade runner-up Song of the Sea—and though he’s writing in (deceptively) easy mode here, it involves some fun tricks to overcome the limitations of the context. To create the illusion of deep polyphonic complexity while staying true to the film (it’s an amateur chorus of gamins oubliés, not the Paris opera), he writes only two, almost entirely diatonic lines, but in the same vocal range and at the same volume, so the clash between the lines is highlighted more dramatically. Coulais’ use of children’s voices foregrounds both their clarity and their vulnerability: it’s the tremble in difficult leaps that makes his songs feel more “human,” less factory-produced.
For all these reasons, Beyoncé was exactly the wrong choice for the performance: she’s a great singer and all, but there’s no longer any clash of melodic lines (it’s now a solo piece with the hum of backup singers), and her voice doesn’t have that tremble of imperfection that gives Coulais’ work its special frisson. I get that the viewers weren’t exactly tumbling over each other to see “that one song from that French movie,” but … look, just the year before, Benoît Charest gave us a truly demented performance of his “Triplets of Belleville” and this year we got something instantly forgettable instead.
But things always could have gone worse, as they emphatically did with Jorge Drexler’s “Al otro lado del río” from The Motorcycle Diaries. The first-ever Oscar nominee from Uruguay was not invited to perform his work, and Gil Cates apparently threw his dart at the only Spanish-labeled folks in his rolodex, which is how we get Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana making an absolute hash of Drexler’s gentle ballad.
Nearly everything that works in the original song involves the lilting, almost lullaby effect of the singer-songwriter’s soft voice coaxing us to row across the river. Banderas is not so much coaxing as screeching, and I don’t know if anyone prepped Santana before the ceremony or if he just showed up and did his Santana thing before being sent home with a gift bag. I don’t want to understate this: I have sat through a lot of bad performances when prepping the last year’s worth of entries for this series, but this is the hardest I’ve cringed through any of them. Drexler deserved the Oscar for his very public humiliation alone.
I did promise, though, that this whole fiasco ended with a happy punchline, so check out what Drexler did when he went on stage to accept his much-deserved award:
At first blush it seems like a slap at Banderas, but he later clarified that it was a slap at everyone but Banderas. Drexler has been frank about his feelings that night,2 and though he wasn’t thrilled with how Banderas handled the song, Banderas was also the only person to show him anything like basic respect through the whole process, apologizing for the arrangement, asking his permission to sing, treating him like a human being at the ceremony, etc. They’re apparently friends now, and Drexler got to take home the statue. See? A happy ending after all.
What else could have been nominated?
To be honest, not too damned much. 2004 wasn’t that long ago, but I feel like so many pop culture artifacts from the year have vanished from my memory, possibly as a defense mechanism. I forgot that baby Josh Groban also wrote a song for Troy (with a truly amazing video in that “bad graduation photo” kind of way). I forgot that Randy Newman wrote multiple songs for Meet the Fockers. I forgot that Wyclef Jean wrote a song for Hotel Rwanda. I forgot that Shark Tale existed. Skimming through the year’s biggest movies, it’s less original songs than a depressing slate of the most obvious, most overused needle-drops. It was the year of mix tapes that would “change your life.” The biggest bright spots were films using old (and therefore ineligible) music in new and interesting contexts: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and David Bowie, The Saddest Music in the World with Kern and Hammerstein, The Ladykillers with gospel, etc.
The weirdest original soundtrack of the year undoubtedly came from The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, whose creator opted against using Justin Timberlake (Shark Tale) in favor of The Flaming Lips, Ween, and The Shins. All the songs they contributed are fun if minor, but I’m partial to Wilco’s submission, “Just a Kid,” a quick n’ fuzzy piece that sounds like an early premonition of their Star Wars album a decade later:
And of course, the Academy’s persistent (and racist) ban on incorporating previous material means that composers like RZA (pulling double duty in 2004 on Blade:Trinity and Kill Bill, vol. 2) had worthwhile tracks that were ineligible for their use of samples, however uniquely transformed.
Finally: in the past I’ve butted heads with you, the commentariat, over your unfair dismissal of Burt Bacharach’s classic, Oscar-nominated theme song to Alfie, but I hope we can all make up and agree that Mick Jagger’s non-classic, non-nominated song (“Old Habits Die Hard”) from the 2004 remake of Alfie is pretty lame. Still, if you’re the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, you can’t possibly resist the siren call of fame, and so you’ve sent this B-side of a B-side home with your Best Song award for 2004. That said, it would have been funny if Jagger had gotten the nomination only to be told their song was being given to Beyoncé. Friends, not everyone can be Counting Crows.
- The whole thing feels is almost comically cruel in retrospect: not only was Driver booted from the performance, but the song was introduced on stage by Driver’s Phantom co-star Emmy Rossum who, as Driver subtweeted this week, was openly disrespectful to her during filming. It’s not quite Bette and Joan but holy shit.
- The highlights: “Antonio found himself in a very difficult position having to compete with that brutal guitar volume. … It’s easy to laugh, but try putting yourself in his place. I just saw someone putting his heart out there, behaving gallantly, stepping out there in front of that wax museum.” Drexler said he made “the best of a bad situation,” noting that they almost got Enrique Iglesias instead.
Previous installments: 1934, 1936, 1940, 1954, 1966, 1972, 1974, 1982, 2007
Next month: Jon Bon Jovi dukes it out with, uh, Shel Silverstein?