Pop & Hiss goes to the movies: A look at the year's Oscar-contending movie songs
Oscar's best song category sometimes feels like the field that gets no respect. Two years ago, only three songs were nominated, and the prior year much of the music recognized by the academy came from one film, Disney's "Enchanted." And this year, a long-standing tradition was done away with, as the contenders for best song did not perform on the telecast.
But what feels like a lack of attention from the academy isn't reflected in the films themselves. The likes of Randy Newman, Christina Aguilera, Cher, Carrie Underwood and John Legend are among the many who have lent their vocals and musical talents to films this year. Below is a small sampling of some of this year's contenders.
The Disney factor
Alan Menken is a veteran when it comes to delivering music to Disney films, but for "Tangled," he had to retrain himself. A snappy digital update of the classic princess fairy tale "Rapunzel," "Tangled" is a musical that isn't song-driven. That meant few long expository songs with grand landscapes and colorful characters.
"Marrying the contemporary tone of the book to a classic Disney fairy-tale score was a challenge," Menken says. "There was a tendency to want to put the kitchen sink in every song."
With eight Oscars to his name, including awards for "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," Menken is one of the company's most decorated musicians. "Tangled" shows off his more stripped-down side, as Menken turned to folk heroes of the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne for opening number "When Will My Life Begin." "Tangled's" younger fans can be forgiven, though, for hearing more Taylor Swift than Mitchell in the peppy acoustic guitar number.
"I wrote five numbers for the opening scene," Menken says. "The one we used established a song reality, but it was compatible with the scene. It didn't carry the scene. On a gut level, '60s folk rock felt like a fresh, interesting place to go to."
The meditative one
A.R. Rahman can do celebratory. American audiences saw a glimpse of his talents with "Slumdog Millionaire's" "Jai Ho," a festive and rousing Bollywood number. Working with director Danny Boyle once more for "127 Hours," the Indian superstar was again called upon to marry song with a moment of triumph. Although his "If I Rise," a collaboration with English pop artist Dido, strikes a more meditative tone this time.
As a character on the verge of falling victim to the elements, James Franco's Aron Ralston summons a final burst of courage, turning recent memories of new acquaintances into dreams of better days to come. "Somebody was offering him something of a future," Rahman says. "That gave him a hope and the energy to liberate himself."
Light and ambient, "If I Rise" builds delicately, with Dido's soft voice lending an angelic presence. With layer upon layer of guitar, the song has a magical feel, as it's grounded in real instrumentation but not exactly organic, either.
Boyle, says Rahman, had one request.
"Danny said, 'I want your voice too,' so I had to put my voice on it," Rahman says. "I initially wanted it to be just Dido, but the main character is a male voice. It's a very simple tune, very innocent, very much from the heart."
The unexpected anthem
Icelandic artist Jón Þór Birgisson (stage name: Jónsi) likely wouldn't be thought of as the go-to-guy for a major animated film. Known best for his work in Sigur Rós, Jónsi has long been an architect of dreamy, technology-enhanced orchestral pop. In short, they're compositions more fit for a serious score than a children's film.
His solo work, however, has taken a more melodic approach, and that's what Dean DeBlois, a Disney vet who co-directed Dreamworks' "How to Train Your Dragon," had in mind when he tapped the artist to write a song for the film. Of course, DeBlois had also directed the Sigur Rós documentary, "Heima," and no doubt had a sense that Jónsi could pull off a magically uplifting rocker.
The cut, "Sticks and Stones," was recorded largely by Jónsi and his partner, Alex Somers, on an iMac in Jónsi's kitchen in Iceland. It's an adrenalin rush of rhythms and digital textures -- a stop-and-start four-minute workout that ends "How to Train Your Dragon" with an optimistic exclamation point.
"I saw the movie at a London screening, and I really liked it," Jónsi says. "I thought it would be more for kids, but I really enjoyed it and became excited. Then they needed the song quite quickly."
Jónsi, who says 2011 will be spent working on the next Sigur Rós album, wrote most of the lyrics while watching the film, jotting down notes in the darkened screening room. "I knew the energy the song should be after seeing the movie," Jónsi says. "I recorded the melody for the song on my iPhone at the airport. I wanted to convey a feeling of freedom and relief. I wanted it to be a burst of energy."
Jónsi pauses and adds, “That sounds really cheesy.”
If Davis Guggenheim's education documentary "Waiting for 'Superman' " didn't exist, R&B crooner John Legend likely would have created it. In the midst of recording "Wake Up!" with hip-hop act the Roots, a project that sees the artists re-interpreting civil-rights era protest songs from the likes of Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers, among others, Legend wanted a documentary to accompany the album.
"The idea was to take all the artists that we covered from this album, 'Wake Up!,' and then go back to the cities where they grew up and the schools they went to," Legend says. "We wanted to see what state the schools were in at this point."
The artist's manager met with Guggenheim to see whether he'd be interested in taking on such a film, discovering that Guggenheim already was working on a documentary that addressed issues facing today's public school system. Legend asked to participate.
Legend cut the prayer-like "Shine" after seeing a rough cut of the film. It's an unadorned ballad with an intricate piano arrangement, and it is topped with an impassioned vocal performance from Legend. By song's end, Legend has practically sung himself hoarse.
"You are weeping by the point the song comes on," Legend says. "It's right at the end, and it's somewhat hopeful, but it's melancholy. That was on purpose. I didn't want a rah-rah song. The chords are more optimistic, but the verses are more melancholy."
The country heartbreaker
There's a reason Gwyneth Paltrow promoted "Country Strong" by singing the title track at the Country Music Assn. Awards last month. Not only is it an uplifting, guitar-driven cut, but it's also one that doesn't contain any spoilers.
Coming later in the film is the more downbeat "Coming Home," a glistening, bring-the-audience-to-its-knees Nashville ballad. The song is also sung by Paltrow's character, Kelly Canter.
"There was a moment within the script where they were specifically asking for a song with the title 'Coming Home,' " says Hillary Lindsey, one of four credited songwriters on the cut. "It was really interesting for me, since Gwyneth's character is pretty dark and twisted, yet she's also honest, raw and real. The song had to have quite a few layers to it."
Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas and Troy Verges round out the A-list songwriting team on "Coming Home." Separately, the four have written for the likes of Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, Swift and Tim McGraw, among others. "Coming Home" is a song that starts innocently enough but one that takes a wide-angle view toward heartbreak.
"We wanted a movie within the song," Douglas says. "The song has a thematic arc. It starts at 35,000 feet, and then gets narrower and narrower and more specific.... We did want to start targeting a little the tragedy that was going to be awaiting Kelly. There's a lot of heartache in this song."
Diane Warren estimates she's written about 20 songs for Cher. She counts "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," a hearty rock ballad for "Burlesque," among the strongest. Think of it, Warren says, as a bookend to the 1989 Cher-sung, Warren-penned hit, "If I Could Turn Back Time."
"That moment in 'Burlesque,' when they're about to take the club away, she's defiant," Warren says. "But I wanted to write something that was also Cher. We never see the last of Cher. She does the farewell tour that goes on 10 years, and we wouldn't want it any other way. Cher is eternal."
Much has been written about "Burlesque" being a vehicle for pop star Christina Aguilera, but it's Cher, arguably, who sings the film's heftiest number. "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" starts with just Cher and a piano but follows the vocalist as she reaches heights no one older than 60 has any business hitting.
"That's Cher," Warren says. "She'll be 100 years old and in a wheelchair and still be better than all the 20-year-olds."
The never-lose-hope, never-give-up anthem was written early for "Burlesque" but was almost cut from the film. Lobbying from Cher, says Warren, helped get it back in.
"She's singing better now than she was when I worked with her back in the day," Warren says. "This song is her truth. I think I tapped into who she is and where she is in her life. Also, a lot of people are going through really tough times right now. I think this is the kind of song that will resonate."
The one that never had a shot
First off, the songs for Edgar Wright's comic-book adaption "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" were supposed to stink. Then the rock 'n' roll action-romance, though critically lauded, was a commercial disappointment. Awards recognition, therefore, is slim to none, yet one would still be hard-pressed to find a film this year that has given music a bigger role than "Scott Pilgrim."
Local hero Beck was called upon by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to compose the songs for the film's fictional garage band, Sex Bob-Omb. His mission, according to the artist: "We talked about bands where the sound was so distorted, and the mix was washed out with noise, where you can’t really hear what’s going on ... I've always had a fondness for the idea of rock 'n’ roll taken to an absurd extreme. It’s that sound you have in your head when you’re a kid and pick up a guitar."
Early in the film, Beck's "Garbage Truck" gets a showcase slot. The minute-and-a-half self-deprecating punk rock tune is seen in its near-entirety. It's a cut that opens with a swampy sludge, and then gradually builds, walking the line between brilliance and trash.
Of course, Beck isn't one to brag. "The lyrics to this were improvised on the microphone," Beck says. "There was no time to sit and think and write things, so most of these songs were just improvised. I thought this was a throwaway song, to be honest. I was surprised they picked it."
Sure to be overlooked
With LCD Soundsystem's 2010 release "This is Happening," James Murphy composed a set of expertly detailed dance pop that seemed to be anticipating a midlife crisis. Miscommunication and a lonely sense of nostalgia manage to worm their way into even the most revelrous of tracks. With Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg," Murphy was asked to score a film in which the main character is seemingly always on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The cut, "Please Don't Follow Me," appears twice in the film, with the fully produced edition closing the movie. Even more fleshed out, "Please Don't Follow Me" is a melancholy piano tune, with Murphy tapping his most vulnerable falsetto. The song eventually builds to a more uplifting, horn-enhanced trot, but almost peters out at first. Baumbach used a rough of the song earlier in the film, one that simply featured Murphy humming the melody. "It sounds noncommittal," the director says of the demo.
"That was the first piece he wrote for the movie, and it was partially cut, so he was going off of instinct," the director continues. "I kept trying that track in different spots, and it fit a later part of the movie when he's mailing letters and doing errands. There’s a jaunty sort of sadness to it."
Also of note: Randy Newman gave his "You've Got a Friend in Me" an energetic rewrite for "Toy Story 3" with "We Belong Together," Underwood has the ballad "There Is a Place for Us" in the latest Narnia flick, Janet Jackson has "Nothing" in Tyler Perry's "Why Did I Get Married Too?" and John Hawkes' “Bred and Buttered” wowed in "Winter's Bone." Are there songs we left out? Probably. Holler below, and expect more music & movie coverage on Pop & Hiss.
-- Todd Martens
Images: Gwyneth Paltrow (Getty Images); "How to Train Your Dragon" (DreamWorks); "Tangled" (Walt Disney Animation); James Murphy (Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times); Cher in "Burlesque" (Screen Gems).