Just under the wire! Apologies for the rush job this time, but October took me by surprise and left me with little time for anything else. I’ll be making up for it with a two-parter next month (woo-hoo!)
Greetings music-lovers and not-infrequent nominee-haters! Last month was a bit of a slog apart from the winner, a rare case where the Academy picked a beloved song that’s also stood the test of time. This year, however, is an even rarer anomaly in Oscar history: in a category that often baffles with some of its left-field choices, all five nominees below were huge hit songs. Part of that has to do with some lucky timing: the 80s hits a certain sweet spot where movie musicals were mostly exhausted and the Disney machine hadn’t yet revived itself, freeing up the spots usually reserved for, well, movie musicals and animated films. That said, the rest of the decade the Academy maintained some pretense of middlebrow affectation when musicals or kids’ movies were in short supply by nominating a small song from a small movie (Tender Mercies, Bagdad Cafe(?)), like a dash of flavor to liven up their otherwise top-40 soup. Not so for the movies of 1984: every one of these songs was big, and every one of these songs could likely be sung start-to-finish by anyone of a certain age.
Let’s jump straight to the winner here, an interest case of being a victim of one’s own success. The Gene Wilder vehicle The Woman in Red isn’t one of his more fondly remembered projects, but it did boast a soundtrack by one of the greatest songwriters in this country’s history, Stevie Wonder. In the late 60s and 70s, Wonder was an unstoppable force in the industry, the first songwriter (i.e. not Sinatra) to win back-to-back Grammys for Best Album… and it would’ve been a hat trick if he’d finished Songs in the Key of Love faster: his third win came two years later. And despite a legendary career and much-deserved accolades, he never had a bigger-selling hit than “I Just Called to Say I Love You“:
I totally understand why the song is a controversial one among Wonder-lovers: it’s hard to believe that this, of all things, was his biggest hit. From the same guy who brought us the mind-bending brilliance of “Sir Duke“! For a kid growing up in a very white family in the 80s, it was my first contact with Wonder and put me off to exploring him far longer than I should have. It’s not just the song’s thematic simplicity (the title says it all) that makes it such a strange entry in his catalogue — Wonder expressed the same sentiments in the much more sophisticated “You are the Sunshine of My Life” — but that the music here doesn’t seem to do much to compensate: it’s harmonically and rhythmically inert, and the only component attempting to counterbalance that inertness is a bubbly synth line that you’ll either find thematically appropriate (it sounds as effervescent and transparent as his love!) or really, really grating. Maybe this is an unfair assessment, and the song’s just fine, it’s just not Stevie Wonder fine.
I don’t think it’s by any stretch the worst song nominated here, though; for that I’d have to say, pace Persia and the rest of The Dissolve, that I don’t have much nostalgic fondness for Ray Parker Jr.’s theme to Ghostbusters, a song that, outside of its immediate context, sounds about as corny as an 80s-drenched version of “The Monster Mash,” and its creakiness has only felt creakier in the nearly four decades since. Parker was handed a cut of the film with Huey Lewis & the News’ propulsive but silly “I Want a New Drug” and doubled down on the silliness, the only real innovation being a “spooky” synth that mostly sticks to a basic pentatonic line and, in the break, two alternating notes. The studio was sued by Huey Lewis and settled out of court, but Parker still got both Oscar and Grammy nominations out of it, so. (The Academy would make it up to Huey Lewis by nominating him next year, for “The Power of Love.”) If this is the installment that gets my Dissolve card removed, so be it!
Oh, you’re still here? Great, let’s keep going! As we’ve discussed before, the 80s was the decade of double-nominees: once Fame had breached the one-song-per-film ceiling, it started happening with some frequency until Disney upped the ante to triple-nominees and shut everyone else out. One of the Fame songwriters, Dean Pitchford, was back in 1984 with another double-nominee, the unlikely smash hit Footloose. Naturally its rollicking Kenny Loggins theme was the first nominee. It was Loggins’ second soundtrack hit (after Caddyshack‘s “I’m Alright“) and he was well on his way to becoming the voice of a certain kind of 80s movie masculinity (Top Gun was right around the corner). Musical merits aside, the opening credits are one of my favorites ever — if you’re going to make a movie about dancing, it helps to have a trained choreographer at the helm:
Footloose’s second nominee, this time with songwriter Tom Snow joining Pritchford, is the Deniece Williams-fronted “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” (A striking choice: Footloose is about a cloistered white conservative town being (productively) unraveled by a free-spirited urban teen. Williams’ voice here makes more thematic sense than, say, Wonder’s in The Woman in Red.) Again, I’m not sure I have anything worthwhile to say about music itself — it is what it is — but it does back the movie’s most charming scene, where Kevin Bacon tries to teach human golden-retriever/proto-himbo Chris Penn how to dance.
Lots of hit songs here, but I’m not sure how many I’d be keeping on my rotation thirty-five years later. There’s really only one song in the group that I’d go to bat for as an all-timer, which, to be fair, is one more than we’ve had in some of these installments. That honor goes to Phil Collins’ theme song for the Jeff Bridges-Rachel Ward thriller Against All Odds. Collins at the time was only a couple of years into his solo career, and though he’d had some chart success, this would be his first U.S. number one hit. It’s not hard to hear why:
One of the really striking things about “Against All Odds” is its almost perverse (for a chart-topping song) avoidance of rhymes. There are none in the first set of verses at all; we don’t hit its a rhyme until the chorus (space/face), and even that one feels more like an afterthought than a critical pillar of its construction. There’s also a nifty harmonic move where the chorus always comes in on a chord in second inversion, which keeps pushing the tension further and makes us feel like the expected musical culmination hasn’t happened yet (and it hasn’t). For all my grousing about how the Best Song category is often stuffed with limp ballads instead of more fun, energetic entries, this is one year where I’d toss everything overboard for the ballad. It’s a great piece of music.
What else could have been nominated?
Uh… Prince. Purple Rain. I haven’t done a deep enough dive into Oscar history to know if this was the case, but did the now-defunct “Best Original Song Score” category (which Prince won that night, the last time the category has ever been offered) automatically block any nominations in the Best Song category itself? It didn’t the year before, when Yentl was nominated in both, but… I can’t otherwise imagine why a soundtrack album universally lauded as one of, if not the greatest, of the genre should have been absent here. Did Tipper Gore make some phone calls? Regardless: Prince. Purple Rain, take your pick. Probably “When Doves Cry,” which would have mopped the floor with this category as it stands.
Speaking of killer soundtracks, it’s just as surprising to see Beverly Hills Cop unrepresented here, though it didn’t help that the movie’s most lasting hit had no lyrics and was thus ineligible (fie! It’s still a song!) Still, they could have grabbed a number of other songs from the movie — there’s not much distance, musically speaking, between the Footloose songs and the Glenn Frey-penned “The Heat is On,” which sounds every bit like the non-union equivalent to Kenny Loggins. Even better, you have Patti LaBelle going to town on “Stir It Up,” (Oddly, LaBelle’s had a much bigger hit, “New Attitude,” as the lead single from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack despite not actually appearing in the film.)
Phil Collins wasn’t the only songwriter from the other side of the pond making ripples this year. In 1984, the Eurythmics dropped a soundtrack for 1984 including their minor hit “Sexcrimes 1984.” Paul McCartney contributed a Globe-nominated “No More Lonely Nights” to the mostly retrospective soundtrack to Give My Regards to Broad Street. But if we’re doing an ’84 British Invasion, the crown goes to Spinal Tap. The Academy’s never been especially friendly to song parodies (*sheds another tear for Walk Hard*), but the fact that Spinal Tap’s tongue-in-cheek discography has maintained such a long, independent life is vindication enough. Alas, no Oscar nominations for this group (although Michael McKean would finally break into the category, funny enough, with another parody: “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” for A Mighty Wind.) With such a wealth of possibilities here, which to pick? Maybe that was the Academy’s problem: too much to choose from. Let’s just go with “Big Bottom” and call it a night. Happy Halloween, everyone!
Next month: A controversial decision leads to a permanent change in the rules; plus, the best song ever nominated?