Friday, February 12, 2010

Awards Watch: Best Original Song 2009

This post is part of The LAMB Devours the Oscars, a 33-part series dissecting the 82nd Annual Academy Awards hosted by the Large Association of Movie Blogs.

Unlike last year, the Academy's music branch managed to deem five songs (from four films) worthy of nomination for Original Song in the 2009 Oscar race. This in itself is notable considering the rules for this category were once again tinkered with earlier this year, creating new restrictions that could have resulted in at little as two nominees or even (gulp) no nominations at all.

Thankfully, that didn't happen, and the quintet of tunes honored offer a varied selection of styles, not surprising considering their respective films are set in 1920's New Orleans, 1930's Paris, 1960's Italy and the present day American southwest. Three of the songs are from two full-fledged musicals, while the other two are from films set in the "real world", albeit in show biz settings where "bursting into song" isn't all that unusual. All five songs are performed onscreen in whole or in part; no end title power ballads here (sorry Avatar, no room for you here).

And the nominees are (click on the song titles to listen to them on YouTube):

An Academy favorite, Randy Newman is the only previous winner amongst this year's nominated songwriters, having finally won the Oscar for “If I Didn't Have You” from Monsters, Inc. a few years back. His two nods this year for The Princess and the Frog brings his career total to a whopping 19 nominations, 11 in this category alone. Rich with the flavors of his hometown of New Orleans, Newman's songs for Disney's return to traditional animation are an integral part of this creative retelling of the fairy tale "The Frog Prince".

First up is “Almost There”, performed by Anika Noni Rose as the film's heroine, Tiana. A classic example of the Disney protagonist's "I want" song, “Almost There” is an up-tempo declaration of independence for Tiana, who yearns to open her own restaurant on her own terms. The song is boosted by the strong vocals of the multi-talented Rose (who won a Tony Award for the Broadway musical Caroline, or Change) and its unique visual presentation, a stylized art deco fantasy as only Disney animation can do.

Newman's other nominated Frog tune is “Down in New Orleans”, which serves as a jazzy introduction to the film's colorful setting and cast of characters. The song is actually heard three times in the film: first, as a brief prologue sung by Anika Noni Rose, then performed over the opening credit sequence by the Grammy-winning jazzman Dr. John, and finally as (you guessed it) the finale, again sung by Rose. I suspect that these two songs will be performed together as a medley on Oscar night, hopefully by original singers Rose (who last sang on the Oscars as part of the Dreamgirls) and John.

By all accounts a surprise nominee, “Loin de Paname” from the French period piece Paris 36 nevertheless follows this category's recent trend of recognizing non-English language songs, such as recent winners “Al Otro Lado del Río” from The Motorcycle Diaries and “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, the last French song to be nominated was “Look To Your Path (Vois Sur Ton Chemin)” from The Chorus (Les Choristes), directed by Christophe Barratier, who also directed (you guessed it) Paris 36.

Detailing the trials and tribulations of a ragtag group of theater people "putting on a show" in pre-World War II France, Paris 36 centers on the music hall known as the Chansonia, wherein we hear “Loin de Paname” (translated: “Far from Paris”). The show's ingénue, Douce (played by lovely newcomer Nora Arnezeder) is urged by the opening night crowd to sing a song, and she timidly agrees, eventually winning them over with her natural talent and the rousing refrain of "Paris, Paris". With its lilting melody and simple lyrics, “Loin de Paname” is reminiscent of the period; one could almost image Édith Piaf singing it.

And speaking of Piaf, the actress who won an Academy Award for playing her on film in La Vie en Rose, Marion Cotillard, is the singer (no lip-syncing this time) of the next nominated tune. Written by Maury Yeston, who won a Tony for his score of the original stage version of Nine, “Take It All” replaces the similar number “Be On Your Own” in the film adaptation. Both songs serve the same function in the story: Luisa, the oft ignored and cheated on wife of celebrated film director Guido Contini, has had enough of it and is leaving him.

But whereas the original song is an overwrought ballad, the new tune is a fierce showstopper delivered fearlessly by Cotillard in a stark striptease number that will hopefully be recreated for the Oscar ceremony (where it will probably be paired with “Loin de Paname”). Nine's other all-original tune, the catchy-but-fluffy “Cinema Italiano”, may have received nominations from the Critics Choice, Golden Globe and Satellite Awards, but the Academy favored the more dramatic option.

The song that beat “Cinema Italiano” for all those early awards is also the favored to win the Oscar: “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)” composed by T Bone Burnett (who was previously nominated for “Scarlet Tide” from Cold Mountain) and Ryan Bingham (no relation to this Ryan Bingham). If it does prove victorious, it will follow in the footsteps of such other recent low-key "singer/songwriter" winners as “Falling Slowly” from Once and “I Need to Wake Up” from An Inconvenient Truth.

The plaintive “Weary Kind” is heard throughout Crazy Heart, a by-the-numbers drama about a washed-up country singer played by Best Actor front-runner Jeff Bridges. Bridges' character, Bad Blake, writes the song during the course of the story, and Colin Farrell (as Tommy Sweet, Blake's protégé-who-is-now-more-famous-then-he-is) performs it, in part, in a concert at the end of the film. However, the complete version of the song, sung by co-writer Bingham, is heard over the end credits (so much for no end title songs).

While Bingham will most likely perform the song solo on the Oscars, it would be kind of cool if Bridges and even Farrell joined him on stage for a Grammy-esque jam session. We will see on March 7, when the 82nd Annual Academy Awards will be broadcast live on ABC.

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