Even casual students of the Oscars probably develop pet distastes among the Academy’s many awards categories. There’s the tendency in the Best Cinematography category to award the prettiest shots of mountains, rather than more evocative work; the propensity to equate Best Visual Effects with Most Special Effects; or the recent insistence that technical nominees should be chosen primarily from a narrow field of Best Picture contenders, rather than a broader spectrum of movies.
Among these petty but distinct injustices, the Best Original Song category barely registers—not because its nominees are typically any good, but because they’re so wrongheaded so often that it doesn’t seem worth lobbying or complaining about. This year’s movies have a number of excellent song choices, from the wit of the tunes from Muppets Most Wanted to Stuart Murdoch’s soundtrack for his musical God Help The Girl to bolder choices like “Hate The Sport” from We Are The Best! But very few, if any, of these will be nominated. Some of the category’s litany of poor or unimaginative choices over the years can be attributed to the Academy’s general fustiness. But Best Original Song also has rules in place seemingly designed to snuff out flashes of inspiration.
For example, take the 74th Academy Awards. One of the five Best Picture nominees was a bona fide musical, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! Most of the film’s songs were mash-ups, covers, and reimaginings of previously existing pop songs, but one had never appeared in a film before: “Come What May,” a crucial romantic duet between Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. But the song was deemed ineligible as an original—because technically, it was first written for Luhrmann’s 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet, only to wind up in Luhrmann’s next film instead. Never mind that “Come What May” never actually appears in Romeo + Juliet or on its soundtrack; the mere intention (and, presumably, some manner of accompanying songwriting registration) was enough to invalidate its obvious centrality to the movie in which it made its actual debut.
On its own, this case would be a frustrating technicality. But taken in context, it seems downright arbitrary. One of the more respectable recent Best Song winners, “Falling Slowly” from Once, appeared on not one but two albums released for general sale well before the movie came out. But while the Academy’s music branch did review this case, they eventually concluded that the movie’s gestation period was protracted enough to make the case that the song being written in 2002 and performed on two different albums since then had no bearing on its eligibility as part of a movie released in 2007. (The two albums on which it appeared were “venues,” in the Academy’s words, “deemed inconsequential enough not to change the song’s eligibility”). Again, hard to quibble on an individual level: It’s certainly fair that a song intended for Once would get to compete as such, even if it had been performed in other contexts as movie funding came together. But it’s hard to reconcile arbitrations that would favor “Falling Slowly” and invalidate “Come What May.”
It’s this baffling bit of luck that could have helped this year’s most deserving candidates: Stuart Murdoch’s God Help The Girl songs. Almost every song in the film was previously released, on an album of the same name back in 2009. But according to Murdoch since even before the movie existed, these songs were written with a musical in mind. Like “Falling Slowly,” they made a stopover on an album on their way to the original destination of a homemade indie musical.
The Academy now also specifies that the music committee see and hear the songs as they play in the film, and disqualifies anything played, say, too deep into the end-credit roll. In the case of God Help The Girl, in-context viewing would involve showing several of the best scenes in the film: the joyful free-for-all of “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie,” the intimate opening scene set to “Act Of The Apostle,” or the sweet playfulness of “The Psychiatrist Is In.” If cinematic context is truly part of this award, God Help The Girl’s performances show a lot more merit than the postscript soundtracking of Coldplay’s song from Unbroken, an early favorite. But whether disqualified because of the earlier album or never submitted due to a perceived uphill battle, nothing from God Help The Girl makes the official long-list of 79 eligible tunes. An indication of the Academy’s stringent sense of fairness: One of the songs on the eligible list is from Paddington, a movie that didn’t even wind up coming out in 2014.
But Belle & Sebastian fandom (or magical thinking about what constitutes a 2014 film) isn’t necessary for finding worthwhile movie songs from the past year. There’s also “Hate The Sport,” the song at the center of We Are The Best! As with “Falling Slowly,” a fictional genesis of “Hate The Sport” is shown on-screen. In one scene, two 13-year-old girls figure out the anti-sport lyrics while running pointless laps in gym class; later, they bash out primitive versions of chords to accompany it; eventually, after befriending an actual musician, they have something resembling a song (and a modular one, as they prove with some last-minute lyric switch-ups in one triumphant performance scene).
“Hate The Sport,” then, would be the least-polished Best Song nominee since “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow” from A Mighty Wind; it’s delightfully difficult to imagine anyone performing it at the ceremony. But movie songs shouldn’t be limited to what fits in at a gala of self-congratulation, and “Hate The Sport” is vital to the bond the characters in We Are The Best! form. It’s catchy not as a pop song, but as a piece of these characters’ lives. Similarly, “I Love You All,” as performed by Michael Fassbender and company from Frank, is not traditionally soaring, uplifting, or tearjerking, but it nonetheless forms the emotional core of a movie about a mentally unbalanced songwriter. The performance in the movie means more than hearing the song out of context, as it should.
No matter: Neither “Hate The Sport” nor “I Love You All” is on the long-list either. While the Academy’s emphasis on in-context songs admirably attempts to keep the movie part of the award in play, the music division’s old-fashioned tastes combined with various rulings makes them seem vaguely hostile to any musical artists operating outside of a standard movie-score (or in the case of songs, Broadway-style) framework. Even in the Best Score category, eligibility issues have been popping up: Karen O’s score for Where The Wild Things Are was disqualified because it featured too many collaborators; more famously, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood saw his There Will Be Blood score disqualified from nomination because it contained too much pre-existing material, even though it was adapted and integrated into Greenwood’s work on the film.
If this is meant to safeguard against strategic repurposing or musical plagiarism, the issues seem slipperier than the Academy is willing to admit. As videos like this point out, it’s easy for film scores to resemble each other and for no one to take much notice apart from film-score nerds. If it’s a little galling to see how much certain scorers rip off each other’s work in addition to their own, it’s also natural, in the sense that, yes, there are certain chord progressions or combinations of notes that will tend to sound better than others.
In that sense, maybe both music categories should be loosened to accommodate the ways that pop music actually works. Some earlier years, when musicals were more prevalent, included a separate category dealing with groups of songs (“Song Score”) and/or scores adapted from other sources (“Adaptation Score”). Those could be revived, or the current eligibility for score and song could just be relaxed. What further humiliations could really result for an organization that nominated The Blind Side for Best Picture?
It shouldn’t matter that another version of “Act Of The Apostle” appeared on the 2006 Belle & Sebastian album The Life Pursuit; its performance and use in God Help The Girl is transformative. Of course, if just using a popular song in a particularly memorable, cinematic, or crowd-pleasing way was part of this award, “Gimme Shelter” would be vying with Meryl Streep for most Oscars ever and we’d live in a chilling world where Eddie Murphy and/or Smash Mouth could be rewarded for covering “I’m A Believer.” But surely the “Falling Slowly” distinction can be applied more widely than that particular exception, which all but screamed: “This is usually against the rules, but we really, really, really like this song and would like to see it performed on the ceremony, so never mind.”
As is, with some of the best and least obvious candidates disqualified, there isn’t much worth lobbying for in the Best Original Song category for 2014, beyond Bret McKenzie’s excellent batch of original songs for Muppets Most Wanted. Three songs from the film made the long list, McKenzie has won before (for “Man Or Muppet” in the low-competition, two-song year of 2011), and Disney doesn’t have an animated musical this year to compete internally. Yet the lack of big box office, Jason Segel, or novelty could hurt McKenzie’s newer compositions, even though they’re just as good as his earlier ones. “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo In Malibu)” is particularly inspired, performed by Kermit lookalike Constantine (Matt Vogel), singing around his thick Eastern European accent to croon his way into Miss Piggy’s heart. A Muppet song or two competing against “Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie is about the best film and music fans can hope for this year, when three different songs from If I Stay can fight it out with three different songs from Million Dollar Arm in the category of Whatever Sounded Most Okay Over the First Part of the Credits.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine what the nominees could look like if anyone in the Academy cared about music:
“Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie
“Hate The Sport” from We Are The Best!
“I Love You All” from Frank
“I’ll Get You What You Want (Coacktoo In Malibu)” from Muppets Most Wanted
“I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie” from God Help The Girl
…and that’s an imagined field of five that doesn’t go deeper into the multiple candidates from Muppets Most Wanted or God Help The Girl. Whatever gets nominated from the official pool of 79 will, on a collective level, almost certainly lack the originality and centrality of these songs. At their best, awards like the Oscars can help bring attention to films mainstream audiences might otherwise ignore; at their worst, they enforce a middlebrow hegemony about what “awards movies” look and sound like. It was an uncommonly strong year for music in film, yet to the Academy, it looks like any other.