Isn’t it weird how Eminem’s “Lose Yourself from “8 Mile” won the best original song Oscar for 2002? For a moment it was if Oscar understood the relevant and new, and rewarded it justly. But no. It was just like Elton John and Madonna announcing their public support of the “controversial” rapper. The Academy was just one more crusty has-been, leaching on to the new in an attempt to appear important and young.
The following year, the Academy returned to its tradition of awarding treacle. Just as “If I Didn’t Have You” from “Monsters Inc.” won best original song for 2001, the sappy “Into the West” from “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won for 2003. This, over the jaunty “Belleville Rendez-vous” from the animated feature film, “Triplets of Belleville.”
C’mon, people! Only the most cape-wearing, Renaissance-festival-attending, EverQuest-playing, eight-sided-die-throwing obsessive remembers “Into the West.” Meanwhile, “Belleville Rendez-vous,” central to the movie plot, is impossible to forget (even if you don’t know French). Best original song winners seem as capricious as the nominees do. It’s enough to make one ask, why is there an Oscar for best original song, anyway?
The best original song nominees for 2004 don’t do much to answer the question. “Learn to Be Lonely” is a new song for the old Broadway favorite, “Phantom of the Opera.” “Accidentally in Love” and “Believe” hail from animated movies, “Shrek 2” and “Polar Express” respectively. And this year, there are two foreign-language contenders, “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” from “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Look to Your Path (Vois Sur Ton Chemin)” from “The Chorus/Les Choristes.”
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First, let’s talk “Learn to be Lonely,” composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart specifically for the film version of “Phantom.” This new song arrives during the end credits, when every one is pushing to get out of the theater. “Lonely” is the only song in the score that qualifies for the Academy Awards, since the rest of the music existed previously on stage (i.e., not “original.”) If one were cynical, one might believe this song was added to the score for the sole purpose of an Oscar nomination.
“Al Otro Lado Del Rio” also runs during the credits. Although “The Motorcycle Diaries” could be judged a more relevant movie than a musical about a disfigured guy who lives in a candle-lit sewer, how necessary is this song to the plot? To be worthy of an Oscar, best original songs should be more than good. To make sense as an award, nominated songs should advance the movie plot, or be integral to the story, not just tagged on at the end.
For example, “To Sir With Love,” the song from the movie of the same name. It wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, but it should have been. Presented when teacher Sidney Poitier is leaving the scrappy public school where he made the proverbial “difference,” “To Sir,” is a great song, sung by a gifted singer (Lulu) and serves the plot.
To be fair, Oscar has some history of rewarding the right songs. “Moon River” from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer won the Oscar in 1961. Male romantic lead, Fred (George Peppard) spies female romantic lead Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) singing this song on the fire escape, and learns there is a sad side to the New York City party girl. And what would “Shaft” be without “Theme from Shaft?” What would any of us be without “Theme from Shaft?”This memorable ditty won the best original song in 1971.
If Oscar were to uphold these standards, then “Look to Your Path (Vois Sur Ton Chemin)” from “The Chorus/Les Choristes,” should win for 2004. It’s a song that appears in a movie about music. But it won’t win. Oscar favors the American-made movie. And nobody’s seen this film anyway.
This leaves us Oscar’s favorite category for best original song, the full-length animated children’s movie. “Shrek 2” and “Polar Express” follow a tradition that began when “Under the Sea” from the “Little Mermaid” won for 1989. Since then, 10 other songs have been nominated from Disney or Disney-esqe cartoons (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” “Monsters Inc,” etc), and have lost only when pitted against Eminem, Bob Dylan or Celine Dion. Since none from that troika are nominated for 2004, no doubt this year’s Oscar will go to either “Believe” from “Polar Express” or “Accidentally in Love” from “Shrek 2.”
Surface wisdom may predict the saccharine-coated “Believe” as winner. After all, it’s from a Tom Hanks project, and nothing screams “Oscar” louder than Tom Hanks. But a closer look at Oscar’s best original song history reveals “Accidentally in Love” as the stronger contender. More people saw “Shrek 2” than “Polar Express.” As a movie, “Shrek 2” had that crossover appeal — kids enjoy the fairly tale animation, and grow-ups laugh along with the marital strife.
Written and performed by contemporary rock band, Counting Crows, “Accidentally” also has the coveted Eminem factor going for it. Stay with me here. While Counting Crows is destined for the elevator music Eminem may never achieve, it’s all kid’s music in Oscar’s crusty old eyes — another opportunity to appear hip and with it.
Introduced over an opening honeymoon montage, “Accidentally” actually works with the plot, easing the viewers from the first movie into the sequel. How’d these crazy green ogres come to find each other anyway? Here are the Counting Crows to tell you. This year, the Oscar for best original song may actually make sense.
Helen Popkin lives in New York and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.