Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Original Song

Sam Smith's opening titles theme for Spectre, "Writing's on the Wall," is nominated for Best Original Song.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Original Song

The nominees are:

“Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey
“Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
“Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction
“Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre
“Simple Song #3” from Youth

Almost every year, this category is just a joke. Remember yesterday when I wrote about how nice it is that the makeup artists are willing to look outside the prestige world and nominate the best work. Well, the music branch takes that lovely idea, distorts it, and coughs up a nominations list that is frankly embarrassing. Maybe this is easy to miss since the Academy has gotten lucky the last few years with zeitgeist-capturing winners such as “Let It Go” from Frozen, “Skyfall” from Skyfall, and “Glory” from Selma. It is arguable whether any of those is a deserving winner, but I promise no song nominated this year is as enjoyable to listen to as any of those.

I have thought about this category for a few days now and had been considering softening my stance. As I wrote at the end of last month, I think it is great these nominations have shined a light on two important, well-made documentaries that deserve a much wider audience. Associating itself with worthy causes is about the best thing this category has done in the last couple decades, but then I remember that forever, people will be able to say, “The Oscar-nominated box-office smash Fifty Shades of Grey …,” and I get sad all over again.

The thing is I do not think the music branch or the Academy as a whole knows what it wants out of this category. As it seems now, the winners tend to be the most enjoyable or popular songs that happened to have been written for a movie, regardless of their impact on, place in, or importance to the film. Well, there is an awards show already that recognizes the best context-free song: the Grammys. The show is this weekend.

Of these five nominees, only one has any meaning to the plot of its film, and the best thing I can say about that song is that it is interminable. The other four nominees are, by turns, pointless, indelicate, ill conceived, or actively annoying. I do not ask that every year every song rise to the level of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle and Flow, “Falling Slowly” from Once, or “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart – songs I believe establish a gold standard for recent winners – but rarely have things felt this dire.

“Writing’s on the Wall from Spectre – The last movie I saw in the great Ziegfeld Theatre before it was recently shut down was Spectre. It was a lovely experience, seeing a throwback spy thriller in that wonderful movie house. Fittingly, Spectre felt like it had more in common with the old James Bond movies of the Sean Connery or Roger Moore era than with the new, self-consciously gritty entries in the series. Still, every Bond movie feels like a Bond movie, and it starts right at the beginning with a big action sequence followed by the opening titles set to the new theme song.

Adele and Paul Epworth’s “Skyfall” is a tough act to follow, to be sure, but it is hard to overstate how aggressively bad Sam Smith and James Napier’s “Writing’s on the Wall” is. It barely works as a listenable song, let alone a coherent commentary on the themes or even the plot of Spectre. One of the Ziegfeld’s best qualities was its amazing sound system, and the longer “Writing’s on the Wall” played through those awesome speakers, the angrier I got. It would have been a good time to grab a snack.

It is beyond baffling to me that this song could be nominated. Hell, it won the Golden Globe, though the Hollywood Foreign Press, in keeping with its celebrity-first, quality-second history, has nominated and awarded some genuinely terrible songs over the years just based on star power. If this song wins the Oscar, which it very well could, it would be for the same reasons. Smith has the name recognition, and Spectre blew the rest of these nominees out of the water in terms of box office.

“Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground – Probably the only nominee that could compete in terms of star power is this composition from Diane Warren and Lady Gaga. I will not sit here and argue that the song does not have certain qualities or that its subject matter is not important, but I will admit to being confused by its message within the context of the film.

Kirby Dick’s campus sexual assault documentary is a powerful look at how universities are set up to protect rapists and ignore victims, a sobering, infuriating investigation into a broken and backward system, and a radical call to action that focuses on survivors and their quest for justice. The lyrics to the song assert, “’Til it happens to you/you won’t know how it feels/’til it happens to you/it won’t be real,” which is true enough but also quite disempowering for those of us not personally touched by sexual assault.

Both the film and the song are about survivors, as they should be, but while the film is also about how we all should be angry and doing something about this problem, the song seems to run counter to that point. The song essentially says if we have not experienced this trauma, we should shut the hell up about it, which again is totally fair but not exactly conducive to open dialogue.

This is Lady Gaga’s first Academy Award nomination, though she did perform that weird tribute to The Sound of Music at last year’s ceremony, a moment a lot of people liked much more than I did. She has confirmed she will be back to perform this song at this year’s ceremony, which if nothing else, should be an emotional moment. Warren has been nominated eight times, including last year for “Grateful” from Beyond the Lights, but she has never won. This could be her year.

“Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey – Ugh. Written by The Weeknd, Belly, Jason “DaHeala” Quenneville, and Stephan Moccio, all first-time nominees, the song is fine. I am just mad I had to watch this movie to write this piece. “Earned It” is a credibly sexy song, but it is wasted on possibly the least sexy movie ever made about sex. There is not one redeeming thing about this movie, up to and including the fact that this fairly solid composition is deployed in such unmemorable ways.

“Earned It” was a top-five hit on the U.S. singles charts and is nominated for three Grammy Awards this weekend, so its cultural cache is enough that it could strike a chord with Oscar voters – younger ones, most likely. The Weeknd’s performance at the Academy Awards ceremony also promises to be one of the weirder musical moments in the show’s history, so that should be fun as well.

“Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction – This song is long and plodding and plays over the end credits of the film, though its piano theme is used extensively throughout the score. I cannot fathom how this was included over 69 other eligible songs. I am glad it was because it led me and hopefully others to this great documentary with an urgent message, but the fact remains this was not even the best original song to play over the last 10 minutes of the film. That would be J. Ralph and Sia’s “One Candle,” which for whatever reason was not eligible for a nomination.

J. Ralph was previously nominated for the song “Before My Time” from Chasing Ice, another environmental documentary, while this is co-songwriter Antony Hegarty’s first nomination. At best, the song is so inconsequential that it gives viewers time to reflect on the message laid out in director Louis Psihoyos’ mass extinction documentary. “Manta Ray” probably should have no place in this category, but at least it comes from one of the best films of the year.

“Simple Song #3” from Youth – From the only movie actually about a composer, David Lang’s “Simple Song #3” is the only nominated song this year that fits my idea of what a Best Original Song winner should be. It is integral to the plot, and it is used well within the context of the storytelling, which if you think about it is not a high bar to clear. The entire subtext of director Paolo Sorrentino’s lugubrious meditation on aging is whether the main character can come to terms with the legacy his songs have created for him.

We hear certain themes from the song throughout Lang’s score for the film, and everything builds up to the audience finally hearing the song in its entirety. It needs to land with authority and with conviction, and it does – for about the first two minutes. Unfortunately, the song lasts for about six minutes. The extended runtime of the song is infuriating at first, then laughable, and finally exhausting, coming as it does at the end of a rather taxing film experience.

The final analysis

Throw a dart. I would say it comes down to “Writing’s on the Wall” and “Til It Happens to You” with a slim possibility that “Earned It” sneaks through to the win. More voters obviously will have seen the big-budget Bond picture and the based-on-a-bestseller sex movie than the independent documentary, but it might not matter. Lady Gaga’s star power is such that people may vote for it just because it is her, whether or not they have seen the movie. On top of that, she has been everywhere recently, including a knockout performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl. So if pressed, I would bet my money on the culturally ubiquitous star walking away with this award.

Will win: “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
Should win: “Simple Song #3” from Youth
Should have been here: “Feels Like Summer” from Shaun the Sheep Movie

A quick note on “Feels Like Summer,” written by Ilan Eshkeri, Nick Hodgson, and Tim Wheeler, from the Best Animated Feature nominee Shaun the Sheep Movie: It is the only eligible song I have heard that fulfills the criteria I think of when I think of Best Original Song and manages to be entertaining at the same time. It is used multiple times throughout the film in different arrangements, and it ultimately proves necessary to resolving the main conflict of the plot in an extraordinary sequence that pays off narratively and emotionally.

Tomorrow: Best Original Score

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