Tech Support: International lineup of Best Original Song contenders presents a great opportunity

Posted by · 7:55 am · December 20th, 2012

With the recent reveal of the Academy’s list of Best Original Song qualifiers — all 75 of them — the music branch has a wide swath of popular artists to choose from. Of course, the branch tends to focus on the work itself, not necessarily the talent involved, but it’s worth mentioning that Fiona Apple, Florence + the Machine, Karen O, Christina Aguilera, Adele, Keith Urban, Mumford and Sons, The Bootleggers & Emmylou Harris, Arcade Fire, Dolly Parton, Katy Perry, Paul Williams, Jordin Sparks and Norah Jones are all in the mix. That’s quite the role call.

There’s also a fantastic cross-section of international appeal, providing a real opportunity for the Academy. And one name, with that in mind, could stand out above the rest with an industry crowd, and it’s there I’d like to start analyzing the Best Original Song race as we close out this season’s Tech Support profiles of the Academy’s crafts categories with a robust column. The name in question: Ennio Morricone.

You’ll see from the list that Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” qualified four original songs in the race, and three of them — “100 Black Coffins,” “Freedom” and “Who Did That To You?” — are from artists that might as well be included in the list above (Rick Ross, Anthony Hamilton/Elayna Boynton and John Legend, respectively). And “100 Black Coffins” — a rap song that’s a fun (extreme) longshot at best — would make a unique nomination for Jamie Foxx, who co-wrote the track. But I’m leaning toward a little, meaningful ditty used in the context of the film’s narrative (as all four are) and written by one of the most iconic names in the game of film music composition.

Of course, the Academy has had its chances to award Morricone over the years. He landed Best Original Score nominations for “Days of Heaven,” “The Mission,” “The Untouchables,” “Bugsy” and “Malèna,” but never won a statuette. They finally dealt with the matter via an Honorary Oscar in 2007, but a nomination for “Ancora Qui” from Tarantino’s latest would present the first opportunity in 12 years to recognize him with a competitive award. The song is performed by popular Italian singer/songwriter Elisa Toffoli, who co-wrote it with Morricone. I don’t know if the branch will go for it or not, but if they do, there’s an interesting narrative there.

But I honestly think all of the “Django” songs are worth considering because the overall use of music in the film is quintessentially Tarantino, and well-achieved.

One of the immediate notes about the list of contenders was that Adele’s “Skyfall” from same managed to qualify. This despite the fact that the amazing Bond song samples and builds upon the original Monty Norman theme for the franchise, first heard in 1962’s “Dr. No.” With that, though, I think she’s likely a safe bet for a nomination, and perhaps even our ultimate winner. What Adele and collaborator Paul Epworth did in crafting that track is significant and injects new life into a staple of original songs in film. Though, it’s worth reminding, no Bond song has ever won in this category. “Skyfall” was nominated by both the BFCA and HFPA.

Providing the stiffest competition in the field and a very real threat to win, particularly if the Academy responds resoundingly to the film, is “Suddenly” from Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical “Les Misérables.” The only tune written specifically for the film (by the stage production’s original songwriting team of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer), it was conceived out of Hooper’s thematic ideas for the material and is performed by lead actor Hugh Jackman. It has a couple of angles on the gold: it could easily come along for a sweep or simply be a consolation prize for the film itself, should “Les Misérables” fall to other frontrunners elsewhere. “Suddenly” was also nominated by both the HFPA and BFCA.

Potential Best Picture nominee “Life of Pi” also has a song in the mix, and it’s a beautiful one used effectively in the film as an extension of Mychael Danna’s lovely score. “Pi’s Lullaby,” composed by Danna and performed by Indian Carnatic vocalist Bombay Jayashri, is just the sort of flavorful addition the music branch is known for embracing. It plays through the film’s opening credits and would make for a great Oscar moment on the show (as would those already mentioned), should the producers elect to keep that element of the telecast.

Speaking of potential great Oscar moments… The documentary “Paul Williams Still Alive” somehow missed the cut when that category was whittled down to 15 finalists recently, but it is, well, still alive in the Best Original Song category. “Still Alive” is a closing credits track, but it’s such a thematically relevant addition to the film, which details the life and times of Academy Award-winning singer/songwriter Paul Williams in a unique and personal way. That’s right, Williams already has an Oscar somewhere (for the Barbra Streisand song “Evergreen” from 1976’s “A Star is Born”), with five other nominations besides. He is widely respected amongst his peers and should definitely be seen as a possibility here, and who wouldn’t like to see him take the stage at the Dolby to perform and remind that, indeed, he hasn’t gone anywhere? “Still Alive” was nominated by the BFCA.

(Fun fact: “Ancora Qui” means “Still Here” in Italian. So we could get a nominations slate including “Still Here” and “Still Alive.”)

Animated films are often enough films to watch in this field, and Pixar’s “Brave” has a pair of contenders it would like the Academy to consider. Either “Learn Me Right” (from Mumford and Sons with Birdy) and “Touch the Sky” (from Julie Fowlis) could make the cut, if not both. Each is also used within the context of the narrative, which helps because of the practice of viewing the contenders’ usage in their respective films. Songs from “Delhi Safari,” “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” “The Lorax,” “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” “Rise of the Guardians” and “Wreck-It Ralph” were also qualified, but seem less likely to resonate. However, Karen O’s heartwarming “Strange Love,” which plays over the closing credits of Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” is a handsome dark horse. “Learn Me Right” was nominated by the BFCA.

Two of the films from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy managed nominations for Best Original Song, with Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” taking the gold as part of “The Return of the King”‘s clean sweep in 2003. (Though somehow the best of the lot — Emiliana Torrini’s “Gollum’s Song” from “The Two Towers” — was snubbed entirely. Go figure.) So it stands to reason that “Song of the Lonely Mountain” from Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is in the conversation. And indeed, it’s a haunting track, adding on to Tolkien’s words to produce the film’s Neil Finn-performed closing credits song. (The actual words from the book, less the added material, are used as a separate version of the song sung by the dwarfs in the film.) It’s an organic extension of the previous trilogy’s music, as is the film’s aesthetic, so maybe nostalgia kicks in, too.

“Les Misérables” isn’t the only musical in the mix this year, by the way. There are a few others, and boasting a trio of hopefuls is Todd Graff’s choir drama “Joyful Noise.” “From Here to the Moon and Back” comes during a more intimate moment in the film, “He’s Everything” is the big finale and “I’m Yours” is an up-tempo closing credits track. Elsewhere there’s the comic relief of “Undercover Love,” written originally for the musical adaptation “Rock of Ages,” Jordin Sparks’ soulful, R. Kelly-penned ditty “One Wing” from “Sparkle” and even Katy Perry, who tosses her hat into the ring with “Wide Awake” from the concert doc “Katy Perry: Part of Me.” None are likely but “From Here to the Moon and Back” has a fair shot, I suppose.

And then there’s something like “Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best.” A few years back, indie “Once” (with, admittedly, a more robust campaign behind it) managed to assert itself in this category. This one isn’t really a great film, but since voters will just watch the clips featuring the qualifying songs, maybe tunes like “Airport,” “Come on Girl” and/or “Someday” could be surprises. Who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing a guitar, kazoo, accordion and Playschool xylophone combine to make a lovely little song in a moving car?

A couple of other songs are used in the narrative that are worth mentioning here, I think. First there’s “Ladies of Tampa,” an inclusion that brought a smile to my face. I had forgotten Matthew McConaughey’s solo strumming ditty used as prelude (and foil) to some naughty bump and grind in Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike.” It would certainly be a sight to see McConaughey perform that one on the show. It might have as good a chance or better as Fiona Apple’s “Dull Tool,” which, with its unique rhythm and structure, plays over the climax of Judd Apatow’s comedy “This is 40.”

There are also three more closing credits songs worth considering, and I’ll start with Keith Urban’s “For You” from “Act of Valor.” It received nominations from both the BFCA and the HFPA, largely due to a pretty committed campaign behind it. It’s a nice enough song for the film (which stars active duty U.S. Navy soldiers), but seems unlikely to register with Oscar voters to me. Jon Bon Jovi’s “Not Running Anymore,” meanwhile, from the geriatric crime flick “Stand Up Guys,” is lovely and was nominated by the HFPA. But it seems just as unlikely. Then there is “Before My Time,” from the stunning documentary “Chasing Ice.” It’s performed by actress Scarlett Johansson, so that gives it an added bit of exposure, but, again, it seems unlikely to pierce through.

I’ll close out with a few stragglers worth mentioning, given the star component of the list. Both Florence + the Machine’s “Breath of Life” from “Snow White and the Huntsman” and Arcade Fire’s “Abraham’s Daughter” from “The Hunger Games” are closing credits songs on summer and spring blockbusters respectively. They’re the kinds of songs that got nominated all the time in the 1980s and 1990s, but haven’t found as much traction as the branch has shifted its process. (And regarding “The Hunger Games,” Taylor Swift’s “Safe & Sound” was nominated by the HFPA but is ineligible for Oscar due to its being the second cue during the closing credits.) But they come from big-time musicians and so awareness will be high.

And that’s how I see the field for now. Granted, I haven’t heard a fair number of the songs on the list. So it’s entirely possible something rises up from the bog. But whatever happens, you can keep track of the category throughout the season at the Best Original Song Contenders page.

What do you think will be nominated in this category? Have your say in the comments section below.

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