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Oscar song race: The rules changed, but the song stays the same

January 22, 2009 | 11:18 am

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed the rules, but it didn't matter. When it came to the category of best original song, the results were as lackluster as they've ever been. A total of five songs could be nominated, and 49 were eligible, but academy voters were apparently stumped at three, and even had to pick two from the same film, "Slumdog Millionaire."

To be sure, the songs that got in were all worthy contenders. The selections from "Slumdog," both by Indian composer A.R. Rahman, are inventive, contemporary choices that capture the Eastern and Western sensibilities of the film. "Jai Ho" is the big film-closing Bollywood number, and "O ... Saya," which features Rahman's collaboration with worldly electronic artist M.I.A., is a more urban, desperate cut. With its big beats, "O ... Saya" reflects the havoc of some sort of chaos being created in an alley, and it will be a delight to see it re-created on the Oscar stage on Feb. 22.

Rounding out the small field is Peter Gabriel & Thomas Newman's "Down to Earth" from "Wall-E." Competing against two "Slumdog" cuts, "Down to Earth" may be the early favorite, as the two Rahman selections could split the vote. But that's nothing to cry foul over, as the song itself creates an entire buzzing orchestra with largely just two keyboards.

So what's the problem?

Academy voters continue to flub what should be one of the more lively categories at the awards. With the songs getting performances on the awards telecast, an opportunity to showcase one of the less appreciated -- and more tuneful -- aspects of filmmaking is lost. Granted, the Oscar song performances are seldom some of the most riveting aspects of the overly long telecast, but that should change when the likes of M.I.A. are getting the microphone.

Additionally, voters are stunningly short-sighted. Year in and year out, multiple songs from the same film are nominated. Two from "Slumdog" this year, three from "Enchanted" last year and three from "Dreamgirls" the year before.

This was excusable, perhaps, last year, when voters were forced to watch the musically relevant film clips in succession at a theater in New York or Los Angeles. But that changed for 2008, when the academy declared that DVD clips of the songs would be made available for home viewing to those unable (read: uninterested) in attending the marathon viewing sessions.

It's easy to vote for what you already know when cramped in a theater for an entire afternoon. But if voters have the opportunity to sit at home with a DVD of clips, surely they have the time to properly explore more than two or three films, especially considering that these voters are in a specific music branch. 

Additionally, the academy even took efforts to prevent one film from dominating the race.The number of songs eligible to be nominated from the same film was limited at two. But with voters this lazy, perhaps the rules need to be changed again, with a limit of song per film.

According to academy rules, voters rank each song on a scale of 1 to 10. Those tunes rated 8.25 or higher get a nomination. But this process should be changed for next year as well. Lower the bar from 8.25 to 7.25 -- or whatever it takes to get a full five songs nominated. Often, some of the most exciting songs of the year come from smaller films (see "Slumdog," "Once"), and these songwriters and composers should not be shortchanged by the Oscars.

As for the omissions, the most obvious would be Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler," which took home the Golden Globe in the song field. Perhaps this song was hurt because it plays over the end credits, but anyone who's seen "The Wrestler" knows it holds a vital role in the finale of the film -- its mix of scruffy, stubborn pride serving as the movie's last word. Also, such an argument doesn't stand up, as "Down to Earth" is largely an end-credit cut as well.

But there were a host of other fine cuts, too, led by Jenny Lewis' charming "Barking at the Moon" from "Bolt." Miley Cyrus also has a fun song in "Bolt," but more distressing was the way voters disregarded Robyn Hitchcock's "Up to Our Nex," a jangly tale of family tension from "Rachel Getting Married." Of all the films mentioned in this post, "Rachel" was arguably the most musical.

But Miley and Bruce and the others shouldn't take it personally. Academy voters were just as out of tune when it came to recognizing the year's top scores, favoring the traditionally boring music from Alexandre Desplat for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" rather than the striking, haunting score from "The Dark Knight."

-- Todd Martens

Related:  'Slumdog Millionaire' M.I.A.'s latest cultural mix

Related: Handicapping the Oscar race for best song

Related: Jenny Lewis gets a dose of Disney optimism with 'Bolt'

Related: Robyn Hitchcock on 'Up to Our Nex' from 'Rachel Getting Married'

Related: Nas? Hold Steady? Or 'The Dark Knight' score? 

Photo (top, left): M.I.A. Credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times

Photo (top, right): Bruce Springsteen. Credit: EPA