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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Do Oscars Need an Additional Music Category?

Music Oscars

By Steven Rosen

Crazy Heart features a powerful, evocative composition that seems likely to be recognized during movie awards season – its “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart),” by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett, is a strong candidate for an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

But, really, the whole mix of music assembled for the film’s soundtrack by Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton is effective. It uses, for instance, Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” Sam Phillips’ “Reflecting Light” – even a snatch of co-star/producer Robert Duvall singing Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever.”

So why not Oscar consideration for its overall soundtrack? Actually, there are those who actively work in finding existing pop songs – source material – for movies wish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would do so with a new Oscar category.

The Academy has three Oscar music categories – Original Song, Original Score and Original Musical. In the past, it has had other categories – Prince won an Original Song Score Oscar for 1984’s Purple Rain – but they have all honored music made with the film in mind.

Yet The Graduate, way back in 1967, changed movie music forever by using pre-existing Simon & Garfunkel songs. One of the classics of modern American cinema, it has a traditional score of sorts – Dave Grusin wrote instrumental passages that evoke the lifestyle of the upper-middle-class California adults young Benjamin Braddock was rebelling against.

But Grusin isn’t thought of as the film’s primary musical auteur. That honor has always gone to Paul Simon, who allowed director Mike Nichols to evocatively use several existing songs in the film, especially “Sounds of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair.” But Simon wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. (While The Graduate was the origin of “Mrs. Robinson,” only snatches were actually used in the film – Simon hadn’t written the verses yet.)

But ever since, movies have used source material – especially older rock and pop songs – to help convey the emotional tenor of individual scenes.

“Most of us hear source music and it already has power from how its been assimilated into our lives,” says Joe Henry, the singer-songwriter who has worked on music for movies in several different capacities, from producing cover versions of Bob Dylan songs for I’m Not There and writing for Knocked Up with Loudon Wainwright III, to composing the score for the upcoming film Motherhood.

“It’s like hiring a particular actor, say Jimmy Stewart,” Henry says. “You didn’t have to do a lot of work to prove your character was a good guy. It’s telegraphed instantly by his presence.

“Music wasn’t used that way in the early days of the Academy,” he says. “But it has slowly found purpose as a significant way to aid storytelling. To not have a way of acknowledging that when appropriate is like not acknowledging an editor or a light designer.”

It’s an interesting question, concedes Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy. But he doesn’t expect a change anytime soon. “It is undeniable that preexisting music has made very effective contributions to many pictures over the years, but that’s not what we do at the Academy,” he explains.

“The Oscars are about the creating of stuff,” he says. “I know a score completely made up of preexisting music has a creative aspect to it, but there’s nobody writing the music and that’s what we focus on.”

Randall Poster, who supervised the selection of Dylan covers for Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, believes the work deserves award consideration. “It was a monumental task because we were dealing with one of the greatest icons in pop culture,” Poster says. “It would be nice if somehow, someway, there was an acknowledgement of the best musical element in a movie,” he says.

Crazy Heart’s Burnett, who produced the soundtrack of mostly new recordings of American traditional music for O Brother Where Art Thou? that garnered five Grammys, is more cautious. He says he understands that the Academy needs first and foremost to keep the Oscar for Best Score “pure” – meaning it’s a “substantial body of music that serves as original dramatic underscoring,” according to Academy regulations.

“Maybe there could be a couple more music categories, but it doesn’t feel like the Oscars are short of categories,” he says. “The reality is you write these songs and people carry them in their hearts. That’s about as far as you can go with it.”

(This ran in the March, 2010, issue of American Songwriter)

(Photo of T-Bone Burnett)

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