Sunday, February 8, 2009

Oscars Analysis 2008: Best Original Song


Slumdog Millionaire – “Jai Ho” (A.R. Rahman, lyrics by Gulzar)

Slumdog Millionaire – “O … Saya” (A.R. Rahman, featuring M.I.A.)

Wall-E – “Down to Earth” (Peter Gabriel, Thomas Newman)


It’s quite surprising that only three pieces of music received nominations here, since the Best Original Song category has always supplied the Academy an opportunity to feed its own self-indulgence. Every year people complain – usually with cause – about the bloated length of the Oscar telecast, and one of the more obnoxious segments involves the live performances of each nominated work in the Original Song category. So, unlike the Best Visual Effects category, slicing the number of contending songs from five to three may not have been a bad thing. Sure, there have been some enjoyable moments over the past decade – Robin William’s flamboyant rendition of South Park’s “Blame Canada”, Three 6 Mafia’s unadulterated enthusiasm in performing “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”, Bjork’s unbelievably horrendous swan dress – but for the most part the live performances are a narcoleptic’s paradise.

(And yes, I’m still bitter about last year’s telecast, when the producers inexplicably refused to let the irresistible Amy Adams perform “That’s How You Know” from Enchanted, instead replacing her with Kristen Chenoweth. Look, Kristen Chenoweth is cute and all, but this was essentially the Oscar equivalent of someone landing the rights to play “Born to Run” at the Super Bowl, then booking Taylor Hicks to perform it.)

Anyway, this marks the third consecutive year where the same movie scored multiple nominations, and that’s bad news for Slumdog Millionaire. Two years ago, the completely forgettable Dreamgirls landed three nods only to be shocked by Melissa Etheridge’s title track for An Inconvenient Truth, and last year Enchanted’s three nominated songs couldn’t hold off Once’s “Falling Slowly”.

The obvious explanation for this is that films with dueling musical numbers are in danger of splitting their vote, but Slumdog Millionaire faces more pressing challenges, namely that neither of its songs conforms to traditional musical standards. “O … Saya” is perhaps more memorable for A.R. Rahman’s pulsating instrumentation than M.I.A.’s lively post-punk vocal delivery, while “Jai Ho”, for all its spunk and energy, features lyrics in Hindi rather than English. “Down to Earth,” in contrast, is a classical Best Song candidate, sporting a stock verse-chorus, verse-chorus structure and featuring a pop-music icon in Peter Gabriel.

This clearly positions Wall-E as the frontrunner, but I don’t expect Slumdog Millionaire to go down easily. Fox Searchlight, recognizing the possibility of a split vote, has apparently encouraged Academy members to select “Jai Ho”, going so far as to remove “O … Saya” from the campaign CD sent to voters. It’s a smart move, even if it does completely eradicate the latter’s chances; fans of M.I.A. may object, but I’d wager that two-thirds of the Academy’s members have never even heard of M.I.A., even if she is a music superstar. “Jai Ho,” with its infectious dance beats and overall buoyance, is a far more sensible candidate to knock off the Peter Gabriel juggernaut.

The key to “Jai Ho”’s chances, however, is that voters associate the song with its place in the film itself. As Slumdog Millionaire’s closing number, the Bollywood tribute serves as a triumphant musical embodiment of the movie’s rags-to-riches fantasy, and its inclusion could not be more perfect – everyone who sees Slumdog Millionaire walks out of the theatre smiling, with “Jai Ho”’s pop savvy shepherding them out the door. If the Academy’s members are astute enough to map the music to its moment in the movie, that smile might return to their lips.

Do I trust the voters to maintain that association? Not really. I’ve wrestled with this one for awhile, and it gives me pause that the Best Original Song category has produced some off-kilter choices in the past decade – most notably for Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” (for 8 Mile) and the aforementioned Three 6 Mafia track – but I just can’t see a Hindi-based song unseating a pop titan like Peter Gabriel. Wall-E takes this one.


“Down to Earth” reminds me, strangely enough, of the band Fleet Foxes. For those unfamiliar – and I’m pretty sure that’s everyone – Fleet Foxes are a Seattle-based quintet who released a rather innocuous self-titled album last year. This album inexplicably drew rapturous praise from the underground music community, eventually capturing “Album of the Year” status from online indie snob-rag Pitchfork Media. It’s a perfectly nice album, which is to say there’s really very little to recommend it; every time I listen to it, I find myself tuning out and thinking about how my Strat-O-Matic baseball team got hosed in the playoffs by my Dad’s team when Ty Cobb got thrown out at home in the ninth inning by Mickey Mantle. Suffice it to say that the album doesn’t exactly grab my attention.

My buddy Pat put it best in an email last December: “During the second track I thought for a second that maybe I was starting to understand what was good about it, because it really is mild and generally pleasant and unobtrusive … But then I realized that ‘mild’ and ‘unobtrusive’ are not adjectives I use to describe music I like.”

Well, that’s essentially how I feel about “Down to Earth” from Wall-E. It’s very pleasant and agreeable, and I really can’t think of anything else nice to say about it. Every time I listen to it, I just get sort of bored. Like “Jai Ho”, it plays immediately after the movie ends, but unlike “Jai Ho” there isn’t anything compelling on-screen to keep viewers in their seats (it accompanies some mild animation that serves as the end-credit sequence). It’s pretty much the only thing about Wall-E that can be classified as ordinary.

Neither of A.R. Rahman’s nominated songs from Slumdog Millionaire is remotely ordinary, at least not to my ears. “O … Saya” is musically cacophonous, with dizzying electronics and furious percussion supporting lyrics that, of course, I can’t understand (sure, I could look them up, but what’s the point?) The song builds until M.I.A. breaks in with a rapid-fire bridge that nicely illustrates the film’s bilingual nature (although frankly, I have a tough time understanding her vocals as well, even if she is speaking English). It’s a rich, musically complex song that sounds even better on-screen.

But it doesn’t come close to “Jai Ho”. Rahman’s music for his closing number features a pounding bass drum combining with more exotic percussion to support a soaring vocal track (supplied by Indian artists Sukhwinder Singh, Tanvi Shah, and Mahalakshmi Iyer) that is absolutely exultant. “Jai Ho” is one of those rare musical numbers that induces such a joyous sense of giddiness that it’s almost drug-like. Again, I can’t understand any of the words (although it’s bilingual as well, as Spanish shouts of “¡Baila, baila!” break into the fray), but it doesn’t matter – it still makes me happy.


Forgetting Sarah Marshall – “Dracula’s Lament” (Jason Segel). Honestly? I might be more disappointed about this than any other omission of the entire 2008 Oscars. In one of the funniest scenes in a movie full of hilarious scenes, Jason Segel reluctantly sits at a keyboard, warns the crowd that things might sound a little weird “out of context”, and then … I mean, wow. The lyrics are fantastic in their own right (“And if I see Van Helsing / I swear to the Lord I will slay him! / AH-HA-HA-HA”), but Segel’s Dracula voice is simply tremendous. I’m putting it in the Pantheon of Voices, right up there with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter and Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith. “Dracula’s Lament” is an absolute showstopper.

Here’s the thing though: If it had received a nomination, “Dracula’s Lament” would have been performed live at the Oscars. Can you imagine how fucking awesome this would have been? They could have brought in the full cast from the movie’s spectacular last scene, complete with puppets – it would have been the seminal moment in Oscar telecast history. Instead we get to watch Peter Gabriel and a (possibly) pregnant M.I.A. Fucking Oscars.

Hamlet 2 – “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” (“The Ralph Sall Experience”). C’mon, look at that title. You’re telling me you’d rather see Peter Gabriel perform live at the Oscars than Steve Coogan playing Sexy Jesus? Just look at these lyrics: “Immaculate Conception really makes my day / But the dude’s got lats that make me feel gay / ‘Turn the other cheek’ is really showing class / But I really think it’s sexy when you kicked Satan’s ass!” This would have had a great chance of getting nominated if anyone at the Academy had a sense of humor.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian – “The Call” (Regina Spektor). Sure it’s hokey, but Regina Spektor has a pretty voice, and when she sings “You’ll come back when it’s over / No need to say goodbye”, it’s hard to resist.

Wanted – “The Little Things” (Danny Elfman). Where did this come from? Danny Elfman has made quite a career for himself in compiling low-key, thematically driven scores for Tim Burton and other big-budget directors (he scored the first two Spider-Man pictures), so it wasn’t a huge surprise that he scored Wanted. What is a surprise is that he composed this track, a hard, guitar-driven piece of pure punk rock. Sure, lyrics like “Every single day / Things get in my way / Someone has to pay for the little things” aren’t exactly poetic, but they have a certain brash charm about them. Even more stunning? It’s Elfman singing. Who knew?


The Wrestler – “The Wrestler” (Bruce Springsteen). There was much clamor from fans of The Boss when the Academy denied “The Wrestler” a nomination here, which was quite the surprise especially after Springsteen won the Golden Globe. While I acknowledge that it’s a nice song, I can’t join their protest, and for one reason: “The Wrestler” plays over the film’s closing credits. The Best Original Song category is designed to promote songs that actively support the movies in which they’re featured, and “The Wrestler” fails that test. The movie ends before the song is ever heard. Sure, it serves nicely as an elegy, but it doesn’t bolster the actual film in any way. As such, the Academy made the right call in excluding it.

(I know what you’re thinking, but as far as “Jai Ho” goes, the final dance sequence in Slumdog Millionaire was undeniably a part of the film. There was no way anyone was leaving their seat while “Jai Ho” was playing, while you can’t say the same for “The Wrestler”, so I’m not being hypocritical here. Much.)


Anonymous said...

I strongly disagree with your opinion that "the Wrestler" song does not support the movie in any way. The movie has a very strong ending with 20-30 seconds of black screen (before the credits begin). Would that have been as emotional if there were silence rather than the theme song playing?

Jeremy said...

Think of it this way: When I saw "The Wrestler" in the theatre with a full audience, as soon as the screen went black and the song started playing, people started getting up from their seats and filtering out. It was clear that the movie was over. I think it's a nice song that serves as a pleasant grace-note to the movie, but it's nevertheless divorced from the film itself. Just my opinion, of course.