Monday, January 20, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Original Song, featuring "Let It Go" (but not Lana del Rey)

Typically, I hate this category. Not only are the eligibility rules arcane, but most of the nominated songs add minimal value to their actual films, as they frequently just play over the closing credits, when most moviegoers are shuffling out to the parking garage before their validation expires. It's why I usually dump my analysis into a larger post that addresses all of the music and sound categories at once. This year, however, one of the candidates is so extraordinary that it practically demands its own essay, while two others (one nominated, the other not) further illustrate how smartly written songs can actively complement movies, rather than simply serve as tacked-on denouements.

Alone Yet Not Alone—"Alone Yet Not Alone" (Bruce Broughton, Dennis Spiegel)
Despicable Me 2—"Happy" (Pharrell Williams)
Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
Her—"The Moon Song" (Karen O, Spike Jonze)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom—"Ordinary Love" (Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen)

This category is less predictable than you might think. Songs from musicals are obviously the most visible, but that exposure hasn't always translated to Oscar success (Dreamgirls and Enchanted provided a trio of nominees in 2006 and 2007, respectively, only to lose out to lesser-known competition). And despite accusations of stodginess, the Academy has routinely embraced more populist forms in this category, including awarding trophies to hip-hop artists Eminem and Three 6 Mafia. So as tempting as it may be to give a cursory look at this quintet of nominees and swiftly declare Frozen's "Let It Go" to be an absolute lock, the possibility of an upset remains, well, possible.

But good luck settling on a challenger. Alone Yet Not Alone is so obscure—it grossed a mere $134 thousand at the domestic box office—that its out-of-nowhere nomination incited controversy regarding the music branch's process, so I can't imagine it garnering more than a handful of votes. But at least it's received publicity, albeit negative; Despicable Me 2 made a boatload of cash, but how many people have even heard of "Happy"? Her's "The Moon Song" is a more intriguing dark horse, but while its quasi-duet provides for an utterly hypnotic moment in a movie full of them, voters might not respond to its improvisational, deceptively simple feel.

The most plausible competitor is U2's "Ordinary Love", which surprisingly snagged a Golden Globe win. But the Globes' music selections rarely match up with the Oscars—the two ceremonies have honored the same song just thrice in the past 12 years—and indeed, U2 has played this particular game of musical chairs before (in 2002, when Gangs of New York's "The Hands That Built America" lost to the aforementioned Eminem for 8 Mile's "Lose Yourself"). Furthermore, unlike with Dreamgirls and Enchanted and their trio of nominated songs, "Let It Go" is immune to inadvertent cannibalism, as Disney wisely declined to submit other songs from Frozen for consideration in order to avoid vote-splitting. Throw in the gulf between the two songs' actual cinematic usage—"Ordinary Love" plays meekly over Mandela's credits, whereas "Let It Go" serves as Frozen's unquestioned artistic apex—and U2 basically needs a huge sympathy vote to make up the ground. Somehow I doubt that voters will feel all that sorry for one of the most popular bands of the past three decades. Disney bags another Oscar with "Let It Go".

Idina Menzel singing "Let It Go" in "Frozen"

As with virtually everyone else in the country, I haven't seen Alone Not Yet Alone, though I did listen to the titular song, courtesy of a wondrous invention called YouTube. Musically, it's a relatively pleasant piano-based hymn, though lyrically it features some unfortunate rhymes. Given the religious bent, it's obviously designed to be inspirational, but it comes off as little more than innocuous and thereby forgettable.

I haven't seen Despicable Me 2 either (the Netflix disc is roughly three feet away from me as a write this, so I'll watch it in the near future), so I can't comment on how Pharrell Williams' "Happy" integrates into the film. As a song, it features an appealing syncopated beat, but it's a grating tune, with Williams' strained vocals clashing against the hand-clapping gospel chorus. It's liable to get stuck in your head, a quality that in this case proves irritating rather than endearing.

I did see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, though that hardly matters when evaluating "Ordinary Love", given that it plays after the movie concludes. It's basically boilerplate U2, which is to say it generates a steady build before arriving at a pretty electric hook. The lyrics are typical nonsense ("Birds fly high in the summer sky and rest on the breeze/The same wind will take care of you and I/We'll build our house in the trees"), but once the percussion heats up and the bass starts blaring, it's easy to be seduced by the casual splendor, even if it feels like Bono composed the arrangement in his sleep.

Unlike with "Ordinary Love", it's impossible to separate the musical rendition of "The Moon Song" from the film in which it appears. Taken on its own terms, the song is flimsy and straightforward, featuring nothing more than an acoustic guitar accompanying a pair of seemingly childish verses. In the context of Her, however, "The Moon Song" feels downright majestic, a literal soundtrack to two entities' flourishing romance. And the simple, playful nature of the lyrics makes sense, given that Scarlett Johansson's character is purportedly making up the words on the spot. (Johansson sings during the actual film version; Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O provides a tender reprise over the credits.) That sense of musical spontaneity—that we're witnessing the creation of art rather than its canned reproduction—yields a marvelous moment at the song's end, when Joaquin Phoenix's character cottons on to the lyrics and joins in for a final, whispered chorus. "The Moon Song" may just be the idle scribbles of a futuristic computer caught in a romantic mood, but it's also a startling demonstration of the power of music in cinema, of how instrumentation and song can elevate movies to transcendence.

Which brings me to Frozen and "Let It Go". Please forgive me, but in order to adequately describe this song, I need to briefly discuss my own relationship with Disney. My childhood coincided perfectly with the so-called Disney Renaissance, meaning that I grew up with the music from such animated luminaries as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Yet while I watched those movies in the theatre, I can't honestly remember the first time I heard enduring pop-culture staples like "Under the Sea", "Be Our Guest," "Friend Like Me," or "Hakuna Matata". To this day, I know the words and the tunes by heart (and if you're a movie fan my age, odds are you do too), but it's not as though I actively learned them—they just existed. And by the time I became a teenager, memorable Disney songs had vanished from the multiplex, meaning that during my formative moviegoing years, I never received theatrical exposure to songs that ultimately became embedded into the nation's musical lexicon. I spent my youth surrounded by classic Disney music without ever really experiencing that music in the first place.

Until now. Because when, half an hour into Frozen, Idina Menzel launched into the chorus of "Let It Go"—"Let it go, let it go, can't hold it back anymore/Let it go, let it go, turn away and slam the door"—I felt transported back to my childhood, to that first time when I must have heard "A Whole New World" or "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" And that's amazing. For someone who evaluates movies critically and dispassionately, those few moments of uninhibited joy are sacred. I realize that sounds exaggerated, but there's something deeply moving about sitting in a theatre as a curmudgeonly adult and suddenly feeling like a giddy kid.

But even ignoring my highly personal response to "Let It Go", there's a more rational explanation for my seemingly excessive praise: The song is—to put it in terms both adult and juvenile—fucking killer. Not that it's particularly complicated; it features a fairly typical verse-chorus structure, with a quiet piano that gradually crescendos before being joined by a full orchestra. But there's a beauty to the music's simplicity, and it serves to highlight Frozen's single greatest asset: Menzel's voice. It's both precise and awe-inspiring, and Menzel possesses the discipline not to swing for the fences throughout the song; she shapes the low-register passages with weight and body before unleashing her full, stunning power for the high notes. As "Let It Go" reaches its stirring conclusion, Menzel belts out, "Here I stand in the light of day/Let the storm rage on, the cold never bothered me anyway." In narrative terms, it's a princess jubilantly embracing her identity as an outcast. In musical terms, it's the sound of triumph.

(Note: "Let It Go" is destined to be remembered by children for eons, but I sincerely hope that it's Menzel's rendition (which appears in the actual film) that receives countless downloads and satellite-radio plays, rather than the slick Demi Lovato version (which plays over the credits), which feels overproduced and inorganic. Lovato is a fine pop singer with a decent voice, but there's a reason Menzel is a Broadway superstar: She has a ferocious set of pipes, and the in-film version wisely just stands back and bears witness as she lets it rip.)

Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
The Great Gatsby—"Young and Beautiful" (Lana del Rey)
Her—"The Moon Song" (Karen O, Spike Jonze)
Short Term 12—"So You Know What It's Like" (Destin Daniel Cretton, Keith Stanfield)
Trance—"Here It Comes" (Emeli Sandé, Rick Smith)

"So You Know What It's Like" is a single-take, a cappella showstopper, with young Keith Stanfield delivering an angst-ridden rap that seethes with rage and confusion but never panders or asks for sympathy. "Here It Comes" nicely marries Rick Smith's trance beats with Emeli Sandé's full-bodied vocals, resulting in something rather rare: operatic house music.

Those are both good songs, but the Academy's omission of Lana del Rey's "Young and Beautiful" is downright criminal. Del Rey is often maligned as a shallow songwriter, sometimes fairly, but she has a singular, husky voice, and the song's apparent superficiality brilliantly complements The Great Gatsby's obsession with wealth and opulence. It's also used to great effect in the actual film, essentially signifying the apotheosis of the movie's doomed courtship, and del Rey is the perfect cipher for that level of materialistic grandeur. Whether voters were bamboozled by an alleged sabotage attempt or simply turned off by the songstress' manufactured stardom, they refused to acknowledge del Rey's undeniable talent and, in so doing, failed their industry.

My ideal winner: Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez).

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