Last year, I went into painstaking detail to explain how the voting in Best Original Song works. Essentially, all music branch voters watch all of the eligible songs and score them from 6 to 10. Songs need to score higher than 8.25 to qualify. If no song scores that high, the category is skipped. If one song scores that high, it and the next highest scoring song are the nominees.
At this point, I think they should just get rid of Best Original Song at the Oscars. I can think up more than five songs that easily deserved recognition off the top of my head from 2011 films: “Marcy’s Song”* in Martha Marcy May Marlene, “Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets, “Man or Muppet”^ from The Muppets, “Real in Rio”^ from Rio, “Never be Daunted” from Happythankyoumoreplease, “Star Spangled Man” from Captain America: The First Avenger, “Lay Your Head Down” from Albert Noobs, “So Long”* from Winnie the Pooh, and “Another Earth”* from Another Earth. Of these, the songs with asterisks didn’t even get screened for the Academy and the songs with carrots are the nominees.
Yes, it’s true. Only two songs were deemed worthy of an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. More than likely, only one song scored 8.25, allowing the next highest scoring song to join it on the final ballot. Not to take anything away from these two songs (they’re strong nominees), but there were so many narratively significant songs in films this year that there easily should have been five nominees.
Take, for instance, the title song from Another Earth. A man who has no recollection of the car accident that killed his wife and son has fallen in love with the young woman responsible for the accident. He takes her to the university performance hall he used during his tenure as a music professor and plays an original song inspired by her. It’s a huge moment in the film, absolutely essential to the story, and the music branch decided that it wasn’t significant enough to even make the long list.
Or take “Marcy’s Song” from Martha Marcy May Marlene. Talk about essential to the story of the film. The song is how the cult leader convinces Martha to stay at his commune. He woos her in song and she falls head over heels for the charismatic leader. This song made the long list, but did not make the shortlist for the music branch voting.
If, in a year where critics were forced to discuss the use of original songs in many films, the Academy cannot use its strange nomination process to get more than the bare minimum of nominees in Original Song, then what’s the point in having the category any longer? There have never been enough musicals released in a year to kick in the complimentary prize Original Musical Score (since the latest iteration of that prize was added to the possible Oscar categories). Why even pretend that there’s a reason to honor vocal songwriting anymore if the voters do not believe that there are more than two or three worthwhile songs for the past few years? It’s a waste of time and resources at best and an insult to the hardworking songwriters at worst.
The only good thing I can say about the choice of two nominees this year is that the two songs are actually used in significant ways in their respective films. These aren’t the songs that play over the closing credits (although, used properly, those can be quite an effective way to bring catharsis to the audience). These are the songs that drive their respective stories forward.
The first nominee is “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets, written by Bret McKenzie. Walter, who has spent his entire life living among humans, and his brother Gary, a human obsessed with everything Muppets, are forced to choose if their loyalty to The Muppets is more important than their relationships with family and friends. It’s a highlight of The Muppets because of the mock-music video staging and fantastic sight gags. The song itself is a strong introspective rock ballad spinning the “Man or Muppet” concept in an interesting direction. It’s the eleventh hour anthem of a film that refuses to just be a full blown musical like it should be.
The second nominee is “Real in Rio” from Rio, written by Sergio Mendes, Carlinhos Brown, and Siedah Garret. It’s the big opening number for a film that has a surprisingly strong score. It introduces the Brazilian rhythms that dominate the score, shows off the birds, and gets you excited for the rest of the film. It’s quite a clever composition that would be at home in a stage show. It’s the “Bonjour” from Beauty and the Beast or “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. “Real in Rio”‘s purpose is to let the audience know the tone of the film, how the music will work, and what the story is going to focus on. It’s an old-fashioned film/musical scoring technique used to great effect here.
Here’s where the category gets strange. If more voters just listen to both songs, “Real in Rio” could easily win. It’s a flashier song that stands up by itself better than “Man or Muppet.” If more voters watch the films to see the context, “Man or Muppet” could easily win. Its narrative purpose is stronger and it’s a much more engaging scene than the big bird dance number of Rio.
Both films are only nominated for Original Song and both films fared will with critics. Rio grossed almost twice as much money at the box office domestically, but The Muppets came out more recently. It’s really a toss up as neither of these songs were favored by critics groups or major precursors for Original Song nominations. I’d bet on “Real in Rio” pulling a surprise win just because it’s more exciting out of context.
In conclusion, I believe we can all agree that this category needed more “Star Spangled Man.”
Thoughts? Love to hear them.