Saturday, February 14, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Original Song

The Lego Movie, which missed out on a Best Animated Feature nomination, is nominated for Best Original Song.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Original Song

The nominees are:

“Lost Stars” from Begin Again
“Grateful” from Beyond the Lights
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
“Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie
“Glory” from Selma

Full disclosure: This is the category in which I have seen the fewest nominees, just three of the five, because, well, sometimes these things just fly under the radar. As discussed previously in our post about Best Original Score, the music branch’s nominating process is broken. As bad as the rules are for original scores, they are just as bad for songs. Often, the arbitrary guidelines around submissions and eligibility prevent the best work from even being considered, let alone nominated.

Case in point, nothing from either Frank or We Are the Best! was on the initial long list compiled by the music branch because artists must submit their material for consideration. Well, some production companies just do not have the budget to mount an Oscar campaign for their films. Great songs from great films should not be penalized for arbitrary reasons, but that is the current state of the music branch of the Academy, and honestly, it bums me out.

All that being said, the songs that are nominated this year range from good to great and make for a strong lineup. It simply is not as strong a group as it could have been if the branch would loosen its restrictions. One thing that tends to happen with this category is that obscure nominees from little-seen films will get in because they strike a chord with the music branch. However, few Academy members will have seen the films, and due to a short voting window, it is unlikely they will. So, your two most likely winners also come from the two highest profile films in the category.

“Glory” (Selma) – Objectively, this is probably the best song in the bunch, and it has the highest profile. It plays first over the opening credits in a Best Picture nominee that has been very much in the news. Songwriters John Legend and Common have been doing the press rounds at major events, including the Grammys and on 60 Minutes. They won the Golden Globe for best song, and their song appears in the best film of the group.

I love this song, and I love this film, but I do not love this song for this film. Context counts, and a song that plays over the end credits is at a disadvantage because it is perceived as being less important to the film. Beyond that, to my ears, it just does not fit. Director Ava DuVernay creates a highly specific 1960s world, full of moody atmospherics and quiet, delicately observed moments, and the modern sound of “Glory” intrudes at the worst possible time. At the movie’s close, when the audience should be reflecting on the gravity of the film, Legend and Common treat us to a great pop song with brilliant lyrics but an inappropriate feel.

“Everything Is Awesome” (The Lego Movie) – By contrast, this Shawn Patterson-penned, Tegan and Sara-performed synth-rock number is the perfect fit for the style and mood of The Lego Movie. In addition, it is the kind of earwormy pop song that you will find yourself singing hours after you have seen the movie.

Unlike “Glory,” “Everything Is Awesome” is sung throughout the film in a number of different styles that reflect the changing setting of the world as the characters go from place to place. The lyrics are both funny and poignant as they relate to the themes of group think vs. individualism and conformity vs. creativity, ideas that cut to the heart of what The Lego Movie is about.

“Lost Stars” (Begin Again)Begin Again is not quite a remake of writer-director John Carney’s earlier breakout hit Once, but the films are close enough to make a few comparisons. A guy in the music industry is down on his luck when he meets a young immigrant singer-songwriter who gives him a reason to get his act together. Both films are essentially musicals about musicians, and both ended up nominated for Best Original Song. But where Once was a charming, low-key surprise, Begin Again tries just a little too hard to capture that lightning in a bottle twice.

The song appears in the movie a few times in a couple different versions, and the final conflict of the film revolves around what version audiences will hear. It is kind of an ingenious conflict for a poor singer who could have a breakout hit if she is willing to compromise her vision of the song. Unfortunately, I just did not find the song to be that memorable. Writers Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois have crafted an earnest, emotional ballad, but it is also completely disposable, kind of like the film itself.

“Grateful” (Beyond the Lights) – Now, we are into territory where I would just be guessing. I have heard the song, which is a rousing, soulful ballad, but without knowing its context within the film, I cannot say if it is entirely successful. Beyond the Lights is a backstage musical drama about a pop superstar looking to break out of the box fame has put her in and find her own voice. One thing I can say, as opposed to the would-be hit “Lost Stars,” I could see “Grateful” climbing the charts. Penned by Dianne Warren, it is a radio-ready song that will appeal to voters if they actually take the time to see the movie.

“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me) – Meaning no disrespect to the great Glen Campbell, this nomination feels like a bit of a cheat. I have not had a chance to see the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which chronicles Campbell as he embarks on his final tour while battling Alzheimer’s. I imagine it is a cathartic and emotional journey, but he is a professional songwriter and musician.

I would expect that a documentary about his life would include an original composition, which Campbell co-wrote with Julian Raymond. To call that a song written specifically for the film – a stipulation of the Best Original Song rules – seems a bit of a stretch. The song itself is quite strong, hitting on themes of loss, regret, love, and pain, all the things a songwriter might think about he nears death. I am happy for Campbell. It is a great work, and he deserves recognition. I just am not sure this was the forum for it.

The final analysis

“Glory” is in the lead for this award, and it would be a highly deserving winner, if only because it will allow us all to call Selma an Academy Award winner as it should be. It should not and may not come down to guilt, but an Academy that wants to recognize a picture that was otherwise unfairly snubbed will be more likely to vote for “Glory.” “Everything Is Awesome” has the narrative relevance and pop sensibility that often combine to make a winner, and the Academy has always been open to songs from animated films, but without a Best Animated Feature nomination, it is possible the love for this particular animated film does not run as deep as some thought. When in doubt, go with the song from the Best Picture nominee.

Will win: “Glory” from Selma
Should win: “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie
Wish it had been here: “I Love You All” from Frank

Because it deserved at least to be considered, here is my favorite song of the year – from a film or not – “I Love You All,” from Frank, written by Stephen Rennicks and Lenny Abrahamson.

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