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Handicapping the Oscar race for best song

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Finding music worthy of an original song nomination wasn't much of a challenge the last two years.

As evidence, three selections from "Enchanted" were nominated in 2008 and three from "Dreamgirls" in 2007. But in early summer, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences altered the rules, allowing only two songs per film to be nominated, thereby ensuring that voters will have to dig -- at least a little. And that may be harder than it sounds.

This year hasn't produced an Eddie Vedder-penned soundtrack ("Into the Wild") or a bevy of light pop tunes from singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche ("Dan in Real Life"). That's not to say some front-runners haven't emerged.

Here's a look at five of 2008's notable film songs.

THE FAVORITE

Bruce Springsteen
's "The Wrestler." Already a critical sensation, Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" scored, perhaps, the ultimate music coup. There's no doubting Springsteen's appeal to academy voters -- he's already won for "Streets of Philadelphia" in 1993. With "The Wrestler," Springsteen contrasts plaintive guitar strumming with prideful, street-tough lyrics. It's full of simple but evocative imagery -- one-legged dogs and broken bones illustrate the survival tale. This song will be featured on Springsteen's upcoming release, "Working on a Dream."

IN DANGER OF BEING OVERLOOKED

Jenny Lewis' "Barking at the Moon."
Having one of the two songs in an animated Disney film would seem to be prime placement. But when the other song in "Bolt" happens to be a duet between Miley Cyrus and John Travolta, it's easy to guess which one will grab headlines. But Lewis' "Barking at the Moon" is a sweet country-pop ditty, complete with some animal references ("I may not have nine lives") and irresistible singalong woo-woos. But it's Lewis' comfortable, conversational phrasing that carries the tune. "I think it has a nice sentiment," Lewis says. "It's just the basic idea of making it back home, and it's a bit of a love song -- a love song from the perspective of a dog."

THE POP STAR

Mariah Carey's "Right to Dream."
In need of a guitarist for "Right to Dream," Carey aimed high, going straight to country legend Willie Nelson. Written for " Tennessee," in which Carey plays an aspiring singer, "Right to Dream" is restrained elegance, with some light, finger-picked guitar flourishes and a dash of late-night soul. "I was humming different melodies while I was on the set and stuff," Carey says. "I was just thinking that Willie Nelson would be somebody fabulous to collaborate with. I reached out to him, and we met after one of his concerts."

THE ONE WITH BUZZ

M.I.A. and A.R. Rahman's "O . . . Saya." Early in Danny Boyle's " Slumdog Millionaire," "O . . . Saya" sets the tone, its kinetic rhythms giving way to a more traditional Eastern chant -- a chant that soon becomes digitally enhanced. Random urban noises become part of the music, and electronic effects skitter around the beats. When the vocals from M.I.A. arrive, she sings soft and fast -- the sound of someone on the run, but not wanting to attract too much attention. "A.R. was the most established, amazing producer," M.I.A. says of the collaboration. "He works with 100-people orchestras, and his sound is huge. Then on the other end of the room was me, making music on [a laptop], just playing Danny really gritty, badly recorded MP3s."

THE CROWD PLEASER

Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman's "Down to Earth." The spacey sound effects of this "Wall-E" cut were lifted directly from Newman's score. That was director Andrew Stanton's directive, Newman says. "Andrew was interested in having me bring some of the music I had used in the movie to Peter, so it wouldn't appear to just be a left turn," he says. But the futuristic sheen that underlies the cut received a wallop of warmth from Garbiel's vocals, as well as the grand, gospel finale, courtesy of South Africa's Soweto Gospel Choir. It's largely a pair of keyboards that comprise the instrumentals, but the textures are deep enough for an orchestra. Nearly every sound, for instance, is manipulated just enough so as to not be easily identifiable. It's all a bit out of this world.

This article originally appeared as part of the print edition of The Envelope. More on the race in the weeks ahead.

--Todd Martens

Photo credit: Associated Press

 
Comments () | Archives (1)

The Academy are absolute idiots for leaving this song out of the race. Are they kidding? A superb song, beautifully crafted and voiced by one of the great singer songwriters of our time. One of my favorite Springsteen songs ever. Not nominating this song is the equivalent of leaving Slumdog out of the best picture race. Travesty, stunning omission. Should leave best song to musicians and members who have some musical background. Embarrassing.


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