The Cynic’s Oscars: The Sorry Desperation of the Original Song Category

By  · Published on December 1st, 2012

If there’s anything I hate most about the Oscars it’s the way the movie awards have the power to influence filmmaking. This time of year it’s more and more difficult to tell if certain films are even meant for us, the audience, or if they should solely be shown to the Academy in exchange for little gold men. Of course, one of the purposes of baiting for Oscars is to receive nominations and especially wins, which will presumably help earn more money at the box office (or, more likely, from the cable outlet). This still excludes satisfying the audience as the primary impulse and objective of making movies.

In theory, accolades should indeed motivate Hollywood to make the best pictures they could possibly make. There’s still something to be said for art being the best when not aiming for praise and prizes, but in terms of studio product, which is more craft and entertainment than art and expression, such goals can be positive inspiration. Without the Oscars we probably still would have seen a profit-aiding progression of special effects technology and artistry, but surely some production values have improved over time as a result of sound recordists and costume designers and art directors and composers and songwriters striving to be known as the best in their field.

Songwriting is where I want to focus my attention now, as the Best Original Song category is the place to find the worst offenders of Oscar baiting. While I haven’t seen the new film version of Les Miserables nor any stage production of the original musical, it makes me uncomfortable knowing there’s a song in the movie that isn’t in the Broadway version. Unless I listen to the soundtrack beforehand and look up the title of the added track, I’ll have no idea which is the surplus tune obviously written solely to qualify for original song contention. But I’ve been made aware of the fact that it has been done and that immediately soils my appreciation of the movie on its own.

In its defense, there is nothing wrong with changes made between source and adaptation. In fact, I tend to prefer non-faithful takes on novels, remakes that go somewhere new and song covers that sound completely different. But there’s a difference between adding a song that necessarily makes sense for a cinematic incarnation of a story and adding a song for the sake of increasing your nomination count. And most of the time with musicals translated to the screen in recent years, the change is made without a doubt for the wrong reason.

Adding songs isn’t a new concept. When Paint Your Wagon was turned into a movie, for instance, tons of alterations were made, including the adding and subtracting of songs. Doing so was an attempt to improve the material, which wasn’t exactly a hit on Broadway. The purpose was to make something more commercially viable, which didn’t turn out the case. One song was surprisingly a #1 hit in the UK, but it was “Wand’rin’ Star,” which had been a part of the stage version (albeit not sung by Lee Marvin). But this was in a time when musical adaptations were more faithful. In decades past, it wasn’t uncommon for song swapping to occur with film versions, such as in the cases of Rose Marie’s second and third adaptations, none of which earned Oscar nods.

The recent trend, however, is hardly to offer something fresh or to rework things for the expanses of the film medium. Sometimes it has worked, as in the Oscar-nominated additions written for Chicago, Nine, The Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls (three of them), but it’s worth noting that none of these six recognized songs were winners. The same is true for earlier nominated added-in songs – whether intended to bait the Academy or not (who would admit to such a thing?) – in A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors and Grease. One film from the past decade that threw in a new song and failed to even receive a nomination was The Producers. But the same thing happened decades earlier with Cabaret.

The Oscar-bait song is not only a part of musicals, either. Any documentary featuring an original song written for the film and performed by a major recording artist or celebrity also reeks of such desperation. This year the big culprit is Chasing Ice, a good movie on climate change that really doesn’t need to have Scarlett Johanson singing over the end credits. But thanks to An Inconvenient Truth, another climate change doc, which features a song by Melissa Etheridge that actually won the Academy Award (beating all three of the added Dreamgirls tracks). In recent years, similar songs include John Legend’s “Shine” in Waiting for “Superman” and Bono and Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today” from Darfur Now. It might be the case that docs not nominated in their own category won’t be nominated in the song category either, which would mean the ScarJo song will likely not be recognized this year.

Could we also say that songs written for non-musical animated movies are likely Oscar bait, as well? It’s possible any songs that don’t have a diegetic purpose in their films are extraneous and might just exist for Academy recognition. More likely the case is that they’re on there to sell soundtracks, though, especially soundtracks that are otherwise just motion picture score albums. The most worthy – or at least most qualified – Oscar nominees in recent years therefore have been those from the films A Mighty Wind, The Muppets, Country Strong, Crazy Heart, Enchanted, 8 Mile, Hustle & Flow, Dancer in the Dark and The Princess and the Frog.

After last year’s sorry showing of only two Best Original Song nominees, many wondered if the category is due to be retired. I think that would be a shame given the above examples of qualified contenders and there should probably be something done to keep other popular eligible songs from being snubbed so easily through the Academy’s rules. Although it’s harder and harder to find proper original numbers with stage and film musicals recycling old material, as with Rock of Ages and Pitch Perfect. But among this year’s possible appropriate nominees (good or not) are songs from The Hobbit, Joyful Noise, Ted, Sparkle and “Still Alive” from – yes, a documentary – Paul Williams Still Alive (maybe Katy Perry: Part of Me, too). But it is hard to see much else as being suited for a night meant to celebrate movies.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.