Another year, another rule change. For only the fourth time in the category’s history (but for the second year in a row), three of the five nominations for Best Original Song came from a single film. The previous year’s Dreamgirls had been something of an exception to what was an otherwise Disney-centric accomplishment, having pulled it off in 1991 (Beauty and the Beast), 1994 (The Lion King), and now in 2007 with Enchanted. Something had changed, however: where both 90s films also won their categories, the 2006 and 2007 films did not, perhaps as a consequence of hogging the nominations. Regardless, the Academy sent down another ruling from on high: after this year, films were capped to two nominations in the Best Original Song category. Enchanted would be the last of the triple-nominees.
Let’s start with the best of the three. I have nothing but positive things to say about “Happy Working Song,” a bubbly take on the ol’Disney toil-but-whistle genre that, more than any moment in the movie, cements Amy Adams’ transformation into a bona fide cartoon princess. Every single thing about this song works, from the straight-faced juxtaposition of Cinderella cotton-candy magic with the sleaziest vermin of New York (insert White House joke) to Schwartz’s brilliantly tortured rhymes that force marriage between fairy-tale lyric vocabulary and modern-living terms like “toilet” and “vacuum” (sorry: “vacu-um”!). I especially love the second part of the main theme here, using a bouncing line of quarter-note broken chords capped with a little run of eight notes to give the song a delightful spring to it that doesn’t fade even when the song dips, however briefly, into a minor-key episode. Would this song be as effective if we didn’t know the material it’s parodying? Would it stand on its own? Yes, absolutely, it would.
“Happy Working Song” was nonetheless the perceived runner-up to the second nominee here, with bigger=better voters more seemingly aligned with the giant set piece “That’s How You Know.” I’m a bit less (ahem) enchanted by this one. Like “Happy Working Song,” there’s an element to parody in how it marries the conventional with the modern, though the equation is reversed here: instead of the princess’ fantasy being ironized by the available raw material, now it’s a real-life Central Park that’s transformed into a suspiciously squeaky-clean fantasy, with all sorts of buskers and passersby absorbed into a grand musical number. The song is fine, and the way it seems to casually incorporate the styles of its musician additions is mildly clever even if I find the writing itself somewhat underwhelming, its syncopations a bit more rote (embarrassing admission, though: the steel drum is my favorite instrument by timbre, I can’t help myself.) Still, Amy Adams living her fullest Sound of Music fantasy at the 0:55 mark below will never not make me laugh; ditto the brief bit with James Marsden in his goofy knucklehead mode.
Maybe the category rule change wasn’t a bad thing, because there’s no doubt we face diminishing returns here. The third and most baffling of the nominations is the moldy block of 80s-90s ballad cheese, “So Close.” Functionally, it represents the most “modern” of the movie’s songs, symbolizing the cartoon heroine’s final step into real humanhood, but… blah blah, it’s such a snooze. Over the course of his career, Alan Menken received twenty Academy Award nominations and eight statues (third only to Thomas Newman and Walt Disney), and I feel confident in saying this is the least of the twenty. (Seriously, though: if they insisted on three nominations, why not the far superior “True Love’s Kiss,” a pointed riff on the chaste romances of Disney’s earliest films?) Stuffing in this unnecessary third wheel may not have been responsible for Enchanted going home empty-handed on awards night, but it can’t have helped.
Maybe the three nominations really did cancel each other out, but as far as I can tell, the sense among Oscar-watchers in the weeks leading up to the ceremony was that Once‘s “Falling Slowly” was the song to beat. This seems obvious in retrospect, a crowd-pleasing song from an unexpected indie hit that not only plays like gangbusters in the film itself, but also came with an irresistible “they really did fall in love!” (for a while) backstory. Its road to victory, however, wasn’t always so certain: it was snubbed outright by the Globes and nearly removed from Academy consideration once they realized that the song had not only been released two years earlier, but was on the soundtrack for another film entirely (the 2006 Kráska v nesnázích, or Beauty in Trouble). On a technicality that brings splitting hairs to new levels, the producers argued that Hansard and Irglová’s album The Swell Season was really a Once soundtrack released a few years before this or the other film was made (even and despite the fact that Hansard’s other band, The Frames, also recorded and released the song independently.) Eh, well, the Academy bought it, so here we are.
If you’re wondering how plausible it is that “Girl” (Irglová’s unnamed character in the film) could play along and harmonize so well with a piece of music she’s just now seeing for the first time, the answer is: it’s very plausible indeed, since the song is exceedingly simple, an entirely diatonic affair (i.e., only the white keys on the piano) with a regular and fully on-beat rhythm on the piano (i.e. no syncopation or funny business). You could argue that this is one of the simplest songs ever to win the Oscar, but simple doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and it’s very effective in this movie and in this scene in particular. If (to my sense) some of the original shine of Once looks somewhat dimmed after years of musical adaptations, attempted follow-ups, and just exhaustion with the movie’s themes of unappreciated genius and May-December romance, it’s hard to fault “Falling Slowly,” which is a pretty solid winner in a pretty solid year.
That leaves us with one more nominee to discuss. August Rush belongs to the small but disreputable subgenre of films about art that climax with a capital-S Serious artwork so bad* that they veer into unintentional comedy (let’s call it the Mr. Holland’s Opus effect). It’s a small mercy that its Oscar-nominated song, “Raise It Up,” is not nearly as bad as the rest of film’s original music. The song, originally credited to Harlem’s IMPACT Repertory Theatre as a whole before the Academy enforced its three-name-maximum rule, uses chord inversions over a stable, non-root pedal to maintain a kind of uncertain tension underneath its descending chromatic line: the song never feels at rest because it never settles down in its home key in root position, a feeling that the spare piano-chorus arrangement only amplifies to haunting effect. As music, it’s a very worthwhile addition to the category. The lyrics, unfortunately, are more in line with August Rush’s emotional transparency, for
better or worse.
Frankly, there’s nothing in August Rush nearly as interesting as the bio of Jamal Joseph, one of the “official” nominees for “Raise It Up,” and someone who’d make for a much more interesting film than any fantasy child-genius musical prodigy. That said prodigy’s main takeaway from this sequence is to get a few music lessons and then borrow singer Jamia Simone Nash for a limp orchestral rhapsody about his own life is… well, it says maybe more than the filmmakers intended.
What else could have been nominated?
Were it not for the tyranny of Enchanted‘s grip, the category would have had a few other good options this year. After all, only one song scored a nomination both here and at the Globes (“That’s How You Know”), which made for a much more wide-open field than usual. That said, it’s surprising that the Globe winner, Eddie Vedder’s gentle “Guaranteed” (from Into the Wild), was among the no-shows in the nominations. I’m of just the right age that I’d happily listen to Vedder read a phone book for all the nostalgic value I associate with his voice, but, truth be told, this soundtrack is not exactly the most memorable thing that he’s produced over the years (the one percussive and thus best song on the soundtrack is, alas, a cover).
There was, if anything, a glut of straightforward ballads in 2007, most of them sunk by the movies that they were in. Bob Dylan wrote “Huck’s Tune” for a film called Lucky You that I refuse to believe existed. My husband, a huge Shakira fan, would probably have my head if I didn’t include her lovely “Despedida” (from the much unloved adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera) that she wrote along with composer Pedro Aznar. It’s a rawer and more direct than the movie’s more famous love theme, “Hay Amores,” but both are quite good and either would have made for a respectable contender. Trading guitar for piano and dire movies for better ones, we have the lovely main theme of Music and Lyrics, Adam Schlesinger’s “Way Back Into Love.” Committed Francophile that I am, I’d also have loved to see more attention towards Ratatouille’s “Le Festin,” a charming and more-sophisticated-than-it-seems chanson by composer Michael Giacchino, performed by the great French singer Camille. Or we could go back to the Spanish language and revisit any of the tracks from the Omarion-led reggaeton film Feel the Noise. A lot of options out there, but many didn’t even make the Oscar long list, and we settled for “So Close.”
As for more conventional musicals… most of the year’s works, like Sweeney Todd and Across the Universe, adhered to existing (and therefore ineligible) songbooks. I confess to not understanding the cult following that Hairspray has developed over the years, but even that following was unable to propel any of its new, and therefore eligible additions. Parodies, however, had a great year, and the big absence among the Oscar nominees from this year was a little movie called Walk Hard, a film full of parodies that often approach, and sometimes even exceed (yes, exceed!), their source material. Say what you will about the Globes (and I’m happy to say plenty), but they had the presence of mind to nominate the movie’s unforgettable title track.
But can you imagine… can you imagine!… if the Oscar ceremony had had to find some way to accommodate Mastodon performing the masterpiece “Cut You Up With a Linoleum Knife,” a musical moment so inspired that even critics who hated ATHF Colon Movie (etc.) found it hilarious. Can you imagine!
* Wikipedia tells me that composer Mark Mancina spent “over a year and a half” writing the music to this film, and I am filled with an overwhelming sadness, verging on despair.
Next month: it’s the Women’s Canon, so we don’t have a year to celebrate/mourn, but if any of our guests writers would like to do a piece on this category and its persistent allergy to women, let me know in the comments!