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Oscar 2012: Two nominated songs, lots of questions

February 24, 2012 |  4:52 pm

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With all due respect to all those involved in the original composition of this year's Oscar-nominated songs, the Bret McKenzie-penned “Man or Muppet” and the Brazilian-tinged “Real in Rio,” producers have done viewers a favor in keeping the songs off the telecast.

When music gets tangled up in award shows, the results aren't always pretty. Remember all those all-star Grammy mash-ups? Yet with only two songs nominated for an Oscar this year, the show's producers have thrown it in viewer's faces: "This is all voters could come up with?" 

It wasn't for a lack of options. A total of 39 tunes were up for consideration for the best original song Oscar. Up to five songs can get nominated, and academy rules ensure there will either be zero songs or a minimum of two. This year, the field pits "Man or Muppet," from Walt Disney Pictures’ “The Muppets,” against "Real in Rio," from the 20th Century Fox film “Rio."

FULL COVERAGE: Oscars 2012

What follows is a look at who stands to win, how this happened, who should have been nominated and what, if anything, should be done to change the process so more songs are considered.

The category at a glance. 

“Man or Muppet” was one of three songs from “The Muppets” that was on the original short list for Oscar song contention. The song is one of the more sincere pieces of music in “The Muppets,” with a newcomer Muppet named Walter and Jason Segel’s human character Gary caught in an identity crisis -- the existential question telegraphed in the song's title. Songwriter McKenzie is best-known for his work on “Flight of the Conchords.”

“Real in Rio” was also one of three songs from the animated film "Rio" that were up for consideration. The song appears at multiple points in the film, and serves as a beginning and end bookend. It originally appears as a choral piece with largely acoustic instrumentation. The song was composed by bossa nova superstar Sérgio Mendes and Tropicalia icon Carlinhos Brown, with lyrics penned by pop songwriter Siedah Garrett.

RELATED: Play-at-home Oscar ballot

In terms of pure musicality, "Real in Rio" is the more lively and adventurous tune, with its buoyant tropicalismo interlaced with multiple vocal melodies. It even manages to reflect the animated images on screen, as the flight paths of the film's birds capture the swift give-and-take of the alternating harmonies. 

"Man or Muppet" finds humor in its candor, and is the centerpiece song in the first film featuring the Jim Henson characters in more than a decade. The song should have the edge. "The Muppets" was better received than "Rio," and the Elton John-influenced piano balladry manages to find the balance between self-referential humor and old-fashioned, movie-montage seriousness. "Real in Rio," meanwhile, succumbs to its cartoonish nature when the song is revived at film's end.

• How did this happen?

By this point, there's been plenty of outrage at the Academy Awards for nominating only two songs, but viewers may have forgotten that the Oscars are generally a bit out of tune when it comes to music. This is a category, after all, that heavily favors songs in animated movies -- Randy Newman won last year for his "You've Got a Friend in Me" rewrite "We Belong Together" -- and just four years ago the field was flooded with three songs from "Enchanted." At the awards that honored 2006, three songs from "Dreamgirls" were nominated.

Much of the blame for this has been placed on what is viewed by outsiders as an overly convoluted nomination process. Here's how it works: Clips of all 39 songs in consideration were screened to voting members of the academy’s music branch, who rated them according to a point system, and nominees were determined by averaged points.

If no song receives an average score of 8.25 or higher, there will be no nominees. If only one song achieves that score, it and the song receiving the next highest score will be the two nominees. If two or more songs (up to five) achieve that score, they will be the nominees. A rule change was instituted for the 2009 ceremony, stating that a maximum of two songs may be nominated from any film.   

To be eligible, a song must consist of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the film. A clearly audible, intelligible, substantive rendition of both lyric and melody must be used in the body of the film or as the first music cue in the end credits. 

• Do the rules need to be further adjusted?

In order to allow a full five nominated songs, yes. But that could be as simple as lowering the average point score that a song must achieve to be nominated. However, one shouldn't look at the Academy Awards' original song field and think it says much about the state of original songs in film.

It's easy to look back a couple of decades and be nostalgic for the assortment of '80s soundtracks, when hallmark songs such as "(I've Had) the Time of My Life," from "Dirty Dancing," and "Take My Breath Away," from "Top Gun," became emblazoned in moviegoers' heads and went on to win Oscar gold.

The movie soundtrack tie-in hasn't gone away (see "Twilight," "Alice in Wonderland," "Country Strong," the upcoming film adaptation of "The Hunger Games"), but tweaks in academy rules, specifically the requirement that a substantive rendition of lyrics and melody must be used in the body of the film, have moved the Oscars away from recognizing the movie song that is simply a high-concept accessory.

This is why, for instance, Madonna can win a Golden Globe for her "W.E." song "Masterpiece," and still have it come nowhere near competing for an Oscar. The cut was a late addition, buried in the credits and written long after the film was completed, therefore out of Oscar consideration. This isn't a bad thing, as it's admirable for the academy to attempt to recognize songs that are more closely woven into the fabric of the films they accompany. They simply need to start doing it. 

What was missed?

Imagine watching 39 four-or-five-minute movie clips back-to-back-to-back. There are far worse ways to spend a few hours, of course, but it's easy to see which scenes and songs will make an impression. The National's very adult and melodramatic "Think You Can Wait" from "Win Win" isn't going to stand much of a chance against the rainbow-colored birds with red-hot rhythm in "Rio."

The screening process, in fact, likely puts too much of an emphasis on brief, cinematic scenes that dazzle rather than those that gently accentuate the film's themes. It's easy to overlook, then, end-of-film songs such as Mary J. Blige's understated "The Living Proof" from "The Help," or Chris Cornell's folksy "The Keeper" from "Machine Gun Preacher." Even the pretty, vintage strut and light orchestral touches of "Winnie the Pooh's" "So Long," performed by Zooey Deschanel's She & Him, is going to have screening audiences bored once the credits start rolling.

It's not that the right songs weren't in the running. The academy has even taken measures to ensure that one film doesn't dominate the category, and the songs that do get nominated played a significant role in the film. At this point, it's simply waiting for voters to catch up.  

ALSO:

'The Secret World of Arrietty' has a fairytale in its music

Elton John, Lady Gaga among pop stars snubbed in Oscar best song category

The Oscars: Hans Zimmer and Pharrell Williams know the score for the telecast -- they wrote it

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Jason Segal, Amy Adams and Muppet pal Walter in "The Muppets." Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

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