Best Original Song is one of the categories at the Academy Awards that seems to confuse people the most. Constantly changing rules mean anywhere from two to five songs can be nominated in a given year for the Oscar. In a two song year, the Internet (as a whole) denounces the category as useless and tries to strike up enough discourse to eliminate it. In years where lesser known songs are nominated, the Internet does the same. I believe it is confusion over the category that causes this rhetoric and not the actual quality of the music itself. Therefore, I will be first explaining how the voting process works, then exploring the four nominated songs at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. The first and most important rule for Best Original Song is eligibility. The song must be submitted by the songwriter or songwriters with an application available from the Academy. If the songwriter chooses not to submit, they will not be considered for the award. All those great songs you heard written for films that aren't even on the long-list were most likely not even submitted for consideration. That's the burden of the songwriter (same with Original Score--the composer must submit herself for consideration).
Second, as if having to submit the paperwork themselves was bad enough, if the forms are not received 60 days after a qualifying Los Angeles release, the songwriter is ineligible. Songwriters can submit for the category in anticipation of the release, but all entries must be received by December 1 of the release year. This is because the music branch has to wrangle up all its voting members into a special screening to vote on the possible nominees. Again, technical loopholes like this could trip up some possible nominees.
Third, the song must be used in a substantial way in the film. If the Music Branch deems it insignificant, it's out. If it's only used in the credits, it has to be the first song or it's disqualified. If the Music Branch deems it unintelligible, of poor audio quality (even as an intentional device in the film), not strong enough in lyric and melody, and used later in the closing credits, it's eliminated. Songs not containing lyrics are ineligible for not having substantial lyrics. Those instrumental songs, if not part of a larger score by the composer of the film, cannot be recognized at all for an Academy Award. Only two songs from a film can be nominated even if more than two songs meet the eligibility requirements.
Fourth and finally relevant to the quality of the music, the song must be an original work written specifically for the film. It must serve an important dramatic purpose in the film and show collaboration between the songwriter and the filmmaker. Fair enough. It finally sounds like an awards category.
As if the eligibility requirements weren't enough, there's a cap on how many nominees can come from a given song. No more than three songwriters can be considered for Best Original Song. That means, even if a team of four writers could prove they had equal input on the composition, only three could be nominated. Furthermore, at most, two statues will be made for a song. Most of the time, it is only one. It must be such a great burden to have to actually print the awards for all the winners that the music categories have a tight cap of one trophy for up to three people. A songwriting team of three people has to petition the Academy to get three statues.
When a song is put under such scrutiny to determine who the eligible songwriters are, there's a good chance the Academy can find a way to disqualify the work. Did they hear a hint of a Protestant hymn? Goodbye. Maybe the songwriter references some of their earlier work? See-ya. Perhaps the songwriter picked up a theme from an earlier film in the series? Don't let the door hit you on the way out. The more attention you draw to yourself, the more likely you are to be disqualified from the category entirely.
With an understanding of the rules, we can move onto the mysterious voting process. If there are less than twenty five songs on the long-list of potential nominees, the Music Branch can recommend that there only be three nominees. If there are less than nine songs, the Music Branch can recommend no nominees.
Once the potential nominees are capped, all the Music Branch voters are invited to a screening. This screening plays the eligible songs in the context of the film. By context, I mean the voters see the scene the song is in, literally from cue point A (song begins) to cue point B (song ends). From this glimpse, the voters give the song a numerical rating between six and ten. The scores are averaged to determine the nominees.
While I applaud the Music Branch for adding the screening and forcing their members to vote based on the song's use in a film, I take issue with how it is presented. There is no way a short song (under two minutes) will ever be nominated, even if it is the crux of the film. The use of "substantial" makes those potential nominees seem insignificant in the context of the screening. Also, how much can the voters tell about the use of the song in the film from just the use of the song in the film? If the leaders of the Music Branch determine a song eligible that really does come out of left field, it could block a song from being nominated that could have been the key moment of a better film. That's a hypothetical situation, obviously, but it's one that I keep thinking of when I go over the rules in this category.
When the votes are tallied and averaged, the following decisions are made. If no songs score at least an 8.25 average, there are no Original Song nominees. If one song scores at least an 8.25 average, that song and the next highest scoring song are nominated for a total of two Original Song nominees. If two to five songs score an 8.25 average, they are the nominees for Original song. If more than five songs score an 8.25 average, the top five songs are the nominees.
That means, for the 2010 film year, the Music Branch voted that only four songs were of sufficient contextual quality to be nominated for the Original Song Academy Award. Perhaps they were right. While I’m a fan of some of the songs that didn't get nominated, they didn't all serve an essential function in the film. These songs that were nominated were all used in context, rather than in the closing credits, which I think is a good direction for the category. What reason, other than tricking people into staying in their seats, do filmmakers put a song over the closing credits? It's technically in the film, but can't be compared to songs sung by characters in the film or used in the background of critical scenes.
The first nominee for Original Song is "Coming Home" from Country Strong, written by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges, and Hillary Lindsey. The country almost-musical starring Gwyneth Paltrow did not fair particularly well with critics or audiences because of the plot, but the original songs and musical performances were always praised. "Coming Home" is a somber country/pop ballad that encapsulates the theme and tone of the film Country Song. This is not that silly song that Gwyneth "danced" to in the leaked promotional video; it is a substantial composition that elevates the film in a significant way.
The second Original Song nominee is "I See the Light" from Tangled, written by Alan Menken and Glen Slater. This Disney fairy tale, remarketed to appeal to a wider audience beyond the princess films, featured strong Menken-pop music and solid vocal performances from leads Mandy Moore, Donna Murphy, and Zachary Levi. "I See the Light" is one of the most beautiful moments in the film, where Rapunzel shows Flynn a magical waterway filled with floating candles as far as the eye can see. It is a lovely pop duet with simple orchestrations, heartfelt lyrics, and a memorable melody.
The third nominee for Original Song is "If I Rise" from 127 Hours, written by A.R. Rahman, Dido, and Rollo Armstrong. This song is used in a very different way from the other nominees. It is a recurring theme in 127 Hours as trapped mountain climber Aron Ralston tries to find his way out from underneath a large rock that has crushed and trapped his arm. For such a grim subject, the tone of the film is rather hopeful. This song, about contemplating the power of change, is a haunting and moving reflection of the reason the film exists. While I think the use of a children's choir to show hope is rather cliche for a song that is otherwise so ambitious, it is still a very good and inventive composition.
The fourth and final Original Song nominee is "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3, written by Randy Newman. Randy Newman has written the theme songs to all three Toy Story films and they always establish just the right tone. This song, about how the strength of a friendship can only be defined by how much time the friends spend together, is brilliant. It's a perfect pop song. Forget how clearly Newman defines the theme of Toy Story 3. The song is a great doo-wop influenced pop song. It sounds like it belongs in an animated film and that animated film is Toy Story 3. This is a man that understands how much a song can influence a picture and he never fails to impress in his film work.
Who will win the Academy Award for Original Song? Country Strong will most likely not be seen by enough Academy members to get enough votes, and Tangled will be pushed aside because it wasn't nominated for Animated Film. That leaves "If I Rise" from 127 Hours and "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3. "If I Rise" has the benefit of being used multiple times in a film, in different contexts, actually evolving the storyline. It's also written by the Music Branch's newest darling A.R. Rahman, who broke out in a big way with Slumdog Millionaire and can probably be a regular nominee for his US film work. "We Belong Together" has the advantage of being the only up-tempo song in the field. Sometimes, it just takes being different to win. Randy Newman is a big name in the film world and there is a lot of love surrounding Toy Story 3 and Pixar. I think "If I Rise" will win in the end because the film is also nominated for score, but I won't be surprised if "We Belong Together" is takes the prize.