Thursday, January 24, 2008

Song and Score: the wrong note

With a renewed focus on the quality of the film rather than the quality of the promotional campaign, this year’s Oscar nominations seem to have many singing a happy song.

However, two of the categories hitting sour notes are those races spinning the tunes – Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Both contests are already facing criticism that could rise to a crescendo. At heart are potential issues of style, age, power, purpose, and the role of music in the enjoyment of a film.

Initially, the five nominees for Best Original Score have attracted much of the ire. What many enthusiasts feel should be the front runner, Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, failed to secure a nomination. The reason is a little mysterious. It was ruled ineligible last week for allegedly taking portions from other pieces of music, including a BBC concert by Greenwood two years ago. Thus, following the theory, it was not original to the motion picture, and therefore not eligible. Certainly the powers-that-be believe they’re rightfully upholding the rules. Yet some feel the claim is a bit of a specious technicality that too easily overlooks the "Score" part in favor of the less important "Original" part.

With the disappearance of Blood, it is the score to Atonement, by Dario Marianelli, that has taken over the mantle of the supposed favorite. (For the record, of the other nominees, I only remember the Michael Clayton soundtrack making any impression.) While most scores exist as various shades of symphonic wallpaper – and those are the good ones, the ones that do not knock you over with saccharine – Atonement’s score has the virtue of noticeably building tension during the movie’s first half. Its success is cleverly heightened with the (presumably simulated) rising clacks of a typewriter that pierces through the melody. Masterfully done and thematically cogent.

With that in mind, why do I have a bad taste about this score? Certainly not for its elegance. Rather, for ruining the movie’s ending, and thereby greatly harming the product. In a moment that can only work if it is suffused with ambiguity, its rising string cues overwhelm you with the perfume of unearned nobility, killing any sense of underlying possibilities. It’s the most fraudulent ending I’ve seen in a while, and the score functions as the nut of the lie. For all the musical sophistication, I have a hard time forgiving this transgression.

Compare that effect to another great score, one that also failed to get nominated. Perhaps, like the film itself, the score to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, proved too unorthodox, too minimalist for Academy voters. However, I do not think any score this year has as commandingly served its film’s (in this case, twilit) mood. Which raises the question, do voters judge film scores primarily as freestanding pieces of music, or as integrated elements in the overall collaborative effort of great cinema? I don’t know the answer, but it needs to be the latter. And if it were the latter, Jesse James should be in.

While I have disagreements and dissenting opinions about the Original Score contest, the Best Original Song category is an outright mess, bordering on a national travesty. If the writers strike scuttles the ceremony, we can at least count ourselves fortunate that we won’t have to sit through three songs from Enchanted, with overly theatrical production numbers numbing our souls. The unexpected domination of songs from the Disney live-action, princess-out-of-water fable is a little … strange. I’ve made my share of wisecracks about the whole of Hollywood listening to the soundtrack over and over on their iPods. But more realistic theories abound. A friend of mine thinks everyone knew they were going to vote for one Enchanted song, but no one knew which one would be the consensus choice. So they ended up with three. If I were betting on what happened – and this is only my speculation – it would be that Disney’s promotion people did a steroid-sized job of getting their songs into the ears of the voters. It’s the Oscar season equivalent of overdoing the cream and the clear and batting .471 with 94 home runs.

The Enchanted domination means that only one song from Once, the terrific “Falling Slowly,” received a nomination, when frankly all five spots justifiably could be taken up by the songs of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Likewise, many feel that Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s hypnotic contributions to Into the Wild, ignored by the Academy, eminently deserved a nomination. Granted that his soul-rattling cover of Indio's "Hard Sun" isn't eligible. That “Original” thing, again. But there were certainly other quality possibilities. The exclusion of these songs by the Academy in favor of Disney singalongs makes the Grammys look progressive.

I don't think it should escape notice that all of the alleged snubs involve musicians (Cave, Ellis, Vedder, Greenwood, Glen Hansard) who are coming to the movie-score business from the angle of 1990s alternative/indie music. Is it an issue of reactionary Academy voters not being with-it enough to vote for younger voices and newer musical approaches? Is it a matter of networking, reputation, and skins on the wall? Or is it a matter of younger fans overrating their musical heroes? Is the wisdom of age tempering the enthusiasm of relative youth? I think the Academy needs to open itself to new people and new ideas.


Pinko Punko said...

There's nothing original about "Falling Slowly"- it's on two other albums besides the soundtrack. I'm glad it got nominated, but these guys are jokers. Like you mentioned, let's hope they get to sing it and not some glitzy chumps.

K. Bowen said...

Well, don't tell the Academy that.
And, yes, an Antonio Banderas-Penelope Cruz rendition would be a crime.

On the one hand, I understand that you don't want a nomination of a soundtrack loaded with well-known classical music. But it seems like they're setting the line in a place somewhere impractical and somewhere that's ruling out what should be legitimate competitors.

Pinko Punko said...

They fucked up on Greenwood big time, but I think this was a club style decision. They didn't want someone barging into the club. There are some deeply petty people out there.

K. Bowen said...

It's a shame, because all those flannel-clad (and not so flannel clad) musicians that sent a shock through the system in the nineties could well send a welcome shock through the movies in this decade. Instead, they are, for whatever reason, honoring the same-old-same-old.

Pinko Punko said...

They also honor some greats who phone it in. I remember just hating Elmer Bernstein's score for Age of Innocence, but that was an automatic nom. GC did not like Greenwood's score for TWBB, she thought it stood too much. I thought it was entirely organic with the film.