Films will always rely on music to help set the mood of a scene. So, why has the Academy Awards turned its back on songwriters, asks Todd Martens
The Academy Award's (fondly referred to as the Oscar) best song category sometimes feels like the field that gets no respect. Two years ago, only three songs were nominated, and prior to that much of the music recognised by the academy came from one film, Disney's Enchanted. In 2010, a long-standing tradition was done away with, as the contenders for "Best Song" did not perform on the telecast. What feels like a lack of attention from the academy isn't reflected in the films themselves. The likes of Randy Newman, Christina Aguilera, Cher, Carrie Underwood and John Legend were among the many who lent their vocals and musical talents to films this year. Below is a small sampling of some of this year's contenders...
The Disney factor
Alan Menken is a veteran when it comes to delivering music to Disney films, but for Tangled he had to retrain himself. A snappy digital update of the classic princess fairy tale Rapunzel, Tangled is a musical that isn't song-driven. That meant few long expository songs with grand landscapes and colourful characters. "Marrying the contemporary tone of the book to a classic Disney fairy-tale score was a challenge," Menken says. "There was a tendency to want to put the kitchen sink in every song." With eight Oscars to his name, including awards for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, Menken is one of the industry's most decorated musicians. Tangled shows off a more stripped-down side of Menken, as he turned to folk heroes Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne for the opening number When Will My Life Begin. Tangled's younger fans can be forgiven, though, for hearing more Taylor Swift than Mitchell in the peppy acoustic guitar number. "I wrote five numbers for the opening scene," Menken says. "The one we used established a song reality, but it was compatible with the scene. It didn't carry the scene. On a gut level, 1960s folk rock felt like a fresh, interesting place to go to."
The Meditative One
American audiences saw a glimpse of A. R. Rahman's talents with Slumdog Millionaire's Jai Ho, a festive and rousing Bollywood number. Working with director Danny Boyle once more for 127 Hours, the Indian film composer, record producer, musician and singer was again called upon to create magic. Although his If I Rise, a collaboration with English pop artist Dido, strikes a more meditative tone this time. As a character on the verge of falling victim to the elements, James Franco's Aron Ralston summons a final burst of courage, turning recent memories of new acquaintances into dreams of better days to come. "Somebody was offering him something of a future," Rahman says. "That gave him hope and the energy to liberate himself." Light and ambient, If I Rise builds delicately, with Dido's soft voice lending an angelic presence. With layer upon layer of guitar, the song has a magical feel, as it's grounded in real instrumentation (but not exactly organic). Boyle, says Rahman, had one request.
"Danny said, ‘I want your voice too," says Rahman. "I initially wanted it to be just Dido, but the main character is a male voice. It's a very simple tune, very innocent, and very much from the heart."
If Davis Guggenheim's education documentary Waiting for ‘Superman' didn't exist, R&B crooner John Legend likely would have created it. In the midst of recording Wake Up! with hip hop act the Roots, a project that sees the artists re-interpreting civil rights era protest songs from the likes of Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers, among others, Legend wanted a documentary to accompany the album. "The idea was to take all the artists that we covered from the Wake Up! album, and then go back to the cities where they grew up and the schools they went to," Legend says. "We wanted to see what state the schools were in at this point." The artist's manager met with Guggenheim to see if he'd be interested in taking on such a film - discovering that Guggenheim was already working on a documentary that addressed issues facing today's public school system. Legend asked to participate. Legend cut the song Shine after seeing a rough cut of the film. It's an unadorned ballad with an intricate piano arrangement, and it is topped with an impassioned vocal performance from Legend. By the end of the song, Legend has practically sung himself hoarse. "You are weeping by the point the song comes on," he says. "It's right at the end, and it's somewhat hopeful, but it's melancholy. That was on purpose. I didn't want a rah-rah song. The chords are more optimistic, but the verses are more melancholy."
The country heartbreaker
There's a reason Gwyneth Paltrow promoted Country Strong by singing the title track at the Country Music Association. Awards in November 2010. Not only is it an uplifting, guitar-driven cut, it's one that doesn't contain any spoilers. Featured later in the film is the more downbeat Coming Home - a glistening Nashville ballad. The song is also sung by Paltrow's character (Kelly) in the film. "There was a moment within the script where they were specifically asking for a song with the title Coming Home," says Hillary Lindsey, one of four credited songwriters on the cut. "It was interesting for me, since Gwyneth's character is pretty dark and twisted, yet she's also honest, raw and real. The song had to have a few layers to it."
Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas and Troy Verges round out the A-list songwriting team on Coming Home. Separately the four have written for the likes of Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw, among others. Coming Home is a song that starts innocently enough, but one that takes a wide-angle view toward heartbreak.
"We wanted a movie within the song," Douglas says. "The song has a thematic arc. It starts at 35,000 feet, and then gets narrower and more specific. We did want to slightly target the tragedy that was going to be awaiting Kelly. There's a lot of heartache in this song."
The golden girl
The legend Diane Warren estimates she's written about 20 songs for Cher. She counts You Haven't Seen the Last of Me - a hearty rock ballad for Burlesque - among the strongest. Think of it, Warren says, as a bookend to the 1989 Cher-sung, Warren-penned hit, If I Could Turn Back Time. "That moment in Burlesque, when they're about to take the club away, she's defiant," Warren says.
"I wanted to write something that was also Cher. We never see the last of Cher. She does the farewell tour that goes on for ten years, and we wouldn't want it any other way. Cher is eternal."
Much has been written about Burlesque as a vehicle for pop star Christina Aguilera, but it's Cher, who sings the film's powerful number. You Haven't Seen the Last of Me starts with just Cher and a piano, but follows the vocalist as she reaches cords no one older than 60 has any business hitting. "That's Cher!" Warren says.
"She'll be 100 years old, in a wheelchair and still be better than all the 20-year-olds."
From : Los Angeles Times