Best Original Song is one of those categories at the Oscars that confuses people. Why is it even a category? Who cares about these songs? Why is Beyonce singing every song in a Liza Minelli-styled medley, complete with bowler hat and excessive glitter? I previously went through the cryptic and mysterious voting process and an analysis of this year's nominees. That is not my focus today. My focus is on the most important aspect of this award: the live performance at the telecast.
Nothing, save sending an Indian rights activist onstage to reject your Academy Award or calling out Hollywood for supporting a war for oil, puts the brakes on the Oscar telecast like a bad Original Song performance. It's water on the fire or burnt coffee on the stove. No one enjoys it and the rest of the night becomes interminable as you rack your brain trying to erase the image of Beyonce trying to turn an Andrew Lloyd Webber song into an R&B power-ballad.
See what I mean? Why Beyonce? Why is Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber allowed on the stage, but not the same stage as Beyonce? Who died and made her Queen of the Oscars?
Fortunately, after last year's horrible decision to not include Original Song performances, the Academy Awards will see some combination of A.R. Rahman, Florence (minus the Machine), Randy Newman, Alan Menken, Mandy Moore, and Gwyneth Paltrow perform live. Whether or not they get more than the ninety seconds allotted two years ago has yet to be decided.
So what makes a good Original Song performance at the Oscars? I think I've narrowed it down to a few key issues.
1. Reflect the Movie Your Song is In
You think this would be an easy one, right? A song written for a film should already be connected to the film. Sadly, so many of the Original Song performances bear no resemblance to what happens in the film. For example, how does Beyonce singing a school choir song as an R&B superstar in place of a bel canto choir singing style from the film Les Choristes, about a school choir, reflect the film??
But there are issues beyond the Beyonce in this performance. What school choir gets to spread out, lounge, or sit during a performance? Would it have killed the producers to get these kids costumes that resembled something from the film? Or perhaps some more appropriate lighting than Midnight Lounge at a Reno buffet?
Here's the original track. Note how it's a much more multi-faceted youth choir performance accompanied by appropriate classical instruments. Would it have been that hard to let those kids in the American Boys Choir that sang behind Beyonce actually perform this is as a choir?
Not all performances mess this up. Who can forget when Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy came out in full character, as Mick and Mickey, to sing their Academy Award nominated song "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow?" Sorry about the static. The recording I normally link to has disappeared.
2. But Don't Recreate the Film Onstage
I, like many Americans, loved Enchanted in theaters. Amy Adams was so charming as the transplanted Disney princess and the music had all the charm of vintage Disney. When I heard the Oscar performances of the three nominated songs were going to try and recreate the mixed animation/live action element of the film, I got anxious. This could not end well.
And I was right. Poor Amy Adams tried her best to sell those songs live, but without the flash and sparkle of Disney magic, it became a futile mess. You don't try to recreate a hundred+ person production number set in various NYC parks (but only acknowledges as being Central Park, but that's another post entirely) with animation and hoops and bells and whistles on an otherwise blank stage. You will walk away looking foolish. Thankfully, the performance of "That How You Know" is one of the targets of Academy take-down efforts, so I can leave you with Kristin Chenoweth trying hard to sell the concept of performing this song at the telecast.
Did Amy really not want to do both of them or did the producers decide someone not named Beyonce isn't allowed multiple performances in one telecast? This was a disaster. Image for proof. Now picture that, plus every other group shown however briefly in the film (dancers, a wedding party, hula hoopers, business men, children, construction workers) running around the stage like maniacs to try and recreate a huge outdoor extravaganza. The polite description would be scattered; more accurate, bizarre.
Compare that to a performance from another film that couldn't possibly be recreated onstage. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut became a surprise Academy Award nominee when the song "Blame Canada" somehow hit it off with voters. What were they going to do? Show up with paper masks on in front of a cardboard set and try to recreate the film frame for frame? No. They cast average looking people of all shapes, sizes, and ages in wacky costumes to back-up Robin Williams as he took on the lead vocals.
To briefly clarify, Robin Williams only performed the song because the original voice actress, Mary Kay Bergman, lost her battle with depression shortly after recording the film. I can guarantee you Trey Parker and Matt Stone would have fought for her to perform the song live at the Oscar telecast.
But look at that performance. It captures the feel of the film without doggishly trying to copy everything about it.
3. Whenever Possible, Use the Real Singer Not Beyonce. The real singer. That means I'm not exactly looking forward to Florence (without the Machine) singing "If I Rise" in place of Dido at the telecast. Florence's voice is too powerful to work the nuances of Dido's vocal on that song and it will most likely fall apart under the strength of her performance. If you only hear the vocal on that song, you aren't hearing a true reflection of the song.
It does mean I support performances like Bjork singing "I've Seen it All" (the movement of the train is reflected nicely in the lighting and her solo staging forces the audience to realize what the song is about) and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova singing "Falling Slowly" (which was close to perfect in execution).
4. Create a Compelling Stage Image
Having the real singers and a performance that reflects the film is one thing; having a compelling stage image is another. If the song reads as boring, it's not going to go over well with the audience. Take, for example, Melissa Etheridge performing "I Need to Wake Up." It's a great little song, but the performance is a snore. She's standing in front of her band and a projection screen singing the song. I don't know, maybe if the project screen was images from the film, it would have worked. The preachy activist text fell flat when the audience was already head over heels in love with An Inconvenient Truth.
Compare that to how well the Original Song performance can make a strange little song more accessible. Without a doubt in my mind, my favorite Academy Award Original Song performance is "Belleville Rendez-vous" from Triplets of Belleville. From the demonstration of musical bicycle wheels and vacuum cleaners to the backing trio, this performance is flawless. The audience got into the spirit of the song by the end and I distinctly remember people asking me what the film was like the next day in class. I had been preaching its merits since I saw it and that performance made the mostly dialog-free film a bit more interesting to a wider audience.
The only way to improve on that would have been to let them perform the whole song at the real tempo in the original French. I like to pretend that if the voters saw this performance before they mailed in their final ballots, this song would have easily won the category. I don't think anyone thought they actually used vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, newspapers, and bicycles in the soundtrack unless they read otherwise.
Now can we please have good performances this year? It's not that hard to reflect the film (but not recreate the film), use the real singers whenever possible (already screwed that up), and create a compelling stage image. For goodness sake, don't be afraid of color, projection screens, choreography, and performance.