What is it that makes the “Best Original Song” for a motion picture?
There appears to be a clear front runner in La La Land, nominated for the maximum two songs – “Audition” and “City of Stars.” Being a “movie musical” (yes, in quotations) the songs function in a very clear and direct way, allowing their effectiveness and RTDW to be more objectively quantifiable. With two nominations, however, it runs the risk of cancelling itself out.
Furthermore, historically the academy has chosen songs by famous pop artists, which gives an edge to Justin Timberlake and Sting. Although THIS year, with the massive pop appeal of Hamilton, the prize could go to Lin-Manuel Miranda. So it’s really up in the air.
There is always going to be a large amount of subjectivity when evaluating a creative endeavor. Ideally, the law of averages works it out so that the opinions of an educated sample reflect the opinions of the educated majority.
Remember, though, that while the nominations are made by Academy members who are songwriters and composers, the winners are decided by the membership as a whole. (So beware Lin Manuel Miranda – the deciding vote may come down to a tone-deaf cinematographer.)
I’ve always thought that songs in motion pictures are a difficult thing to judge, and precisely because of that they are almost always a difficult award to predict. Add to that the bizarre and ever-changing rules which govern the nominations of songs, which results in years where only two songs (???) are even nominated.
I thought it might be interesting to go through the nominations and see how to evaluate them on the principles of the Academy. According to the voting rules of the Academy:
Works shall be judged on their effectiveness, craftsmanship, creative substance and relevance to the dramatic whole, and only as presented within the motion picture.
Craftsmanship and creative substance are a little clearer to discern, but effectiveness and relevance to the dramatic whole are open to a wide range of interpretation, especially when you consider past winners. Particularly I remember being very confused about Sam Smith’s win for “Writings on the Wall” for the movie Spectre over Lady Gaga and Diane Warren’s song “‘Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground. A rather banal pop song with a meandering lyric in a James Bond film beats an affecting survivor anthem in a documentary about rape on college campus? If you say so.
But let’s start with this year’s nominations. We have:
***Full disclosure: I have not SEEN Jim: The James Foley Story or Trolls so my discussion about their effectiveness and RTDW will be entirely speculative.
“The Audition (Fools Who Dream)” – La La Land
- Music: A Chopin-esque waltz, with a very straightforward melodic line.
- Lyrical Structure: Verse/Chorus-Verse/Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Outro
- Content: The verse lyrics tell the story about Mia’s (Emma Stone) aunt, with uncomplicated, playful, impressionistic, and occasionally strained language. For example, I think I understand what “she captured a feeling/Sky with no ceiling” means, but at the same time, a sky with no ceiling is just a sky.
The chorus is very strong here. It describes the aunt’s “mantra” as it were – a celebration of dreamers who are messy and complicated. It beautifully encapsulates the theme/point of the entire movie in four simple lines.
The bridge furthers this point, underscoring the need for artists and dreamers in society at large.
The outro seems to bring it back to Mia’s bottom line. It’s unclear, but perhaps Mia re-discovers the heart of her art here. Her desire is not to “make it big” but simply to “dare greatly” as her aunt once did.
The melody is built beautifully. The minor ending to the chorus always adds a twinge of melancholy or pain to the lullaby-like tune.
“City of Stars” – La La Land
- Music: A plaintive melody with a swung 8th, underscored with a sort of “bumbling-along” bass figure.
- Lyrical structure: AAB AAB’ CC AA’ (Effectively: verse/chorus-bridge-chorus)
- Content: The characters of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) search for the meaning of life in this “city of stars,” and discover that it may be love.
The lyrics match the meandering nature of the melody/accompaniment, but at times feel a bit general and casual, perhaps on account of the vocal performances. Some nice rhymes in here (wants/restaurants; a rush a glance/a touch a dance.) The bridge lyrics also veer into a more tin-pan alley tone with phrases like “send me reeling”, “this crazy feeling”, and “a rat tat tat on my heart.”
They also hammer this tune over and over, giving it the “Some Enchanted Evening” treatment. You can’t help but leave the theatre singing it.
The first hearkens back to the odd disconnect between the lyric and the melody. This might be the most depressing love song I’ve ever heard. Think “My Funny Valentine,” but without the irony. And that’s the thing – the lyric is so bold-faced and rosy. Perhaps if it was underscored with more pathos, the intention of the song would be clearer.
In the film, the song functions in two ways. The first – as mentioned – is as a love song. We hear Sebastian mumble the song to himself after having fallen in love with Mia, while dancing a soft-shoe on the Hermosa Beach pier at dusk (a frequent time in the movie). It’s the most “brooding-artist-like love” I’ve ever seen expressed, and feels more self-involved than unabashed. Mia and Seb are supposed to be true loves, yet if I witnessed him sing this in real life, I might advise Mia that “he’s just not that into you.”
The second problem I have comes from the other function of the song in the film. The melody is presented as Sebastian’s own, self-composed leitmotif. It’s the expression of the kind of music that Sebastian wishes he could play. However, Sebastian is supposedly obsessed with jazz. If this is the music he writes, it’s the lamest jazz I’ve ever heard.
All told, I rate this song “not that effective.”
“How Far I’ll Go” -Moana
- Music: A very catchy musical theatre/pop tune with Polynesian instrumentation.
- Lyrical Structure: Verse/Pre-chorus/Chorus, Verse/Pre-Chorus/Chorus, Chorus in new Key. Very unusual to not have a bridge in this song, but perhaps not the good kind of unusual.
- Content: Your basic musical theatre “I Want Song,” describing Moana’s desire to sail out beyond the limits of her world.
CRAFTSMANSHIPThe tune is very catchy through out. It’s got an exciting build in the pre-chorus, and the dissonant note on “Knows” and “Goes” in the chorus adds a great touch of longing. I’m not super fond of the minor iv chord right before the chorus, however. (Don’t get me wrong I usually LOVE a good minor iv.) It intentionally and effectively adds a bit of hesitation, but for my money they could have written a bridge instead to serve that purpose.
“The Empty Chair” – Jim: The James Foley Story
*** Quick reminder here that I have NOT seen the following two films***
- Music: A simple, plaintive hymn.
- Lyrical Structure: AABA’
- Content: A gorgeous and extremely tight lyric using the image of an empty chair held at the dinner table to capture both the sorrow and the hope of a man imprisoned and ultimately slain by enemy fighters.
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Trolls
- Music: Pop at its most poppy. An inoffensive dance club beat with a touch of disco.
- Lyrical Structure: Verse/Verse’/Pre-Chorus/Chorus, chorus, chorus,choruschorussszzzzzz (Literally that’s the structure)
- Content: Trolls Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake) convince the unhappy Bergens that happiness lies within them. The town becomes colorful once again as happiness is restored throughout the land.
Nobody pops like Justin Timberlake. It’s extremely catchy and has a beat that could make boulders dance. The lyrics are facile and bright, capturing the sense of happiness that it tries to spread. The repetition of the word “dance, dance, dance” is infectious.