Eric D. Snider December 9, 2009
Every Oscar category inspires debates over which films should or shouldn’t have been nominated. (This is where I take the obligatory jab at Crash.) But the Best Original Song category has the distinction of regularly creating arguments over which works are even eligible to be nominated.
The Academy has very strict rules for all of its awards, and it does not grant exceptions. On the rare occasions that the rules are revised, the changes take effect the next year, doing nothing to help the films whose exclusion inspired the changes. Here’s what the rules currently say about the Original Song category:
An original song consists of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the motion picture. There must be a clearly audible, intelligible, substantive rendition (not necessarily visually presented) of both lyric and melody, used in the body of the motion picture or as the first music cue in the end credits. [Emphasis is theirs.]
There is also this stipulation:
The work must be the result of a creative interaction between the filmmaker(s) and the composer(s) and/or songwriter(s) who have been engaged to work directly on the motion picture.
And this one:
The work must be recorded for use in the motion picture prior to any other usage, including public performance or exploitation through any media whatsoever.
There is some logic to this strictness. Without it, you’d have songs being considered that were written and recorded independently of the film and that have nothing to do with it other than that the director was a fan. Plenty of movies make excellent use of pre-existing songs, and they are rewarded with robust soundtrack sales. Surely “Stuck in the Middle with You” didn’t deserve an Oscar for its use in Reservoir Dogs, no matter how awesome that scene was. In that case you’d be rewarding the film’s use of the song, not the song itself.
But the requirement that a song be written, in its entirety, specifically for a film and that it cannot have been performed anywhere beforehand results in many worthy entries being disqualified. One of the most egregious in recent years was “Come What May,” the stirring love song from Moulin Rouge! that was ineligible because David Baerwald had actually written it for a previous Baz Luhrmann film. Never mind that it hadn’t been used in that film, and that it actually enhanced the story of Moulin Rouge! (rather than simply appearing over the closing credits). Rules are rules, and “Come What May” was ineligible.
This year, one of the victims is “Help Yourself,” a folksy and catchy little number by Sad Brad Smith that appears in Up in the Air. According to In Contention‘s Kristopher Tapley, Smith had to withdraw the song because “though unpublished, a portion of the song existed previously in Smith’s repertoire.” Them’s the rules: If you don’t write every note and word of it specifically for this movie, it doesn’t count.
And hey, Up in the Air has another casualty, too. It’s actually the title song, recorded by Kevin Renick. It’s ineligible for two reasons. One, though Renick wrote the song specifically with the film in mind, he hadn’t talked to director Jason Reitman before he did it. He just wrote it, recorded it, gave Reitman a tape, and hoped the filmmaker would like it. Reitman loved it — but it violates the rule that the song must be “the result of a creative interaction between the filmmaker(s) and the composer(s).”
The other reason “Up in the Air” doesn’t qualify: It appears in the film as the second song in the closing credits, and the rules say that if it’s not somewhere in the body of the film, it must be the first cue in the credits. For reals.
OK, so there are rules, and they are very strict. The rules are readily available, so if a filmmaker is really concerned about whether the songs he uses are eligible for an Oscar, he can double-check. But why make filmmakers jump through those hoops? The way the rules are written, a lot of worthy choices are excluded on technicalities. The nominees wind up being whatever’s left over, the songs that happened to meet the requirements. That doesn’t seem to be in line with the Academy’s overall goal of rewarding excellence, does it?
Then you get things like this. A couple years ago, the wonderful song “Falling Slowly,” from Once, was nominated, only to face disqualification when word got out that perhaps it had been written before the idea for the film came around. There was also talk that during the very lengthy filmmaking process, the song had been performed in a few places — another no-no. At the last minute, however, the Academy declared that the song was eligible after all, and it wound up winning the Oscar. The Academy said:
The genesis of the picture was unusually protracted, but director John Carney and songwriter Glen Hansard were working closely together in 2002 when the project that became Once was discussed. ‘Falling Slowly’ began to be composed, but the actual script and financing for the picture was delayed for several years, during which time Mr. Hansard and his collaborator Marketa Irglova played the song in some venues that were deemed inconsequential enough to not change the song’s eligibility.
Yeah, great. The song was terrific, and it deserved the Oscar. But the rules say that the song must be recorded for the movie before it’s used anywhere else, “including public performance.” The rules don’t say “including public performance, unless it’s only in a really small venue in Hungary.” They say “including public performance,” period. If “Falling Slowly” was performed in public anywhere before it was recorded for the movie, it should have been disqualified. If you’re going to have arcane, difficult rules, they need to be universally enforced.
The better solution, of course, would be to have rules that aren’t arcane and difficult. I’m not sure why that’s not an option. Just like the guy in Reservoir Dogs, the Academy doesn’t have much of an ear for music.
Editor’s Note: Here’s a one minute taste of the song, available for purchase here.
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Eric D. Snider (website) is ineligible.
Categories: No CategoriesTags: Jason reitman, Sad brad smith, Up in the air