Why There Should Be an Academy Award for Music Supervision

By  · Published on January 29th, 2013

A few weeks back, Matthew Perpetua of Buzzfeed wrote a post arguing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should consider an award for “Best Use of an Old Song,” citing the memorable instances of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” in Silver Linings Playbook and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” in Moonrise Kingdom as possible contenders in this imaginary category. I could not agree more.

It’s been a long time since a Best Original Song or Best Original Score winner made a major cultural impact, and the Music Supervisors who find the best existing music (within legal and budgetary constraints) for the greatest effect deserve their day in the spotlight for making us think about old songs in a new memorable audio-visual context or introducing us to great music that we didn’t know was always out there.

Here are the reasons why such a category doesn’t already exist.

The Limitations of Limited Categories

While the Academy Award for Best Original Song has stayed roughly the same for nearly 80 years, the award for Best Original Score has been an absolute mess since One Night of Love became the first film to receive the award in 1934. At this time, the award was simply termed Music (Scoring) without any indication of the music’s specific origination or its function within genre. Thus, several years later, once the Hollywood musical first began to gain traction, traditional orchestral scores made for dramas like The Life of Emile Zola competed with musicals like Something to Sing About.

Thus, in 1938, two separate awards were created, and this is where the Academy’s focus on “originality” began, with the creation of the Music (Original Score) and Music (Scoring) awards. The former honored the best off-screen orchestral score, while the latter recognized musicals, regardless of whether or not the songs had existed previously elsewhere or were composed “originally” for the film. This is an interesting distinction made by the Academy in terms of the function of film music. The former recognizes music that audiences are supposed to notice but not pay much attention to, music that illustrates the emotional lives of the characters but isn’t part of the world of the film. And in this case, originality is key to the “invisible” effect of classical Hollywood film scoring. By contrast, the latter award recognizes films that overtly include and are about music, movies in which music structures the film.

In the early 1940s, “originality” was thrown out the window and the Academy framed the awards by genre, Golden Globes style: one for Dramas or Comedies, the other for Musicals. This served the Academy well until the early 1960s, when traditional Hollywood musicals began to go out of style. In 1962, instead of dividing the awards by genre, the Academy divided the Awards by source, with Music (Substantially Original Score) and Music (Scoring of Music Adaptation or Treatment). With their notable use of the term “substantial,” the Academy recognized here the blurry line that can be waded through during the creation of an “original” piece of music. Musicals that originated in the medium of film (like Mary Poppins, which, as a children’s book adaptation, was nominated in both categories) could now compete with traditional orchestral scores within the former award.

Meanwhile, a variety of categories of film music could compete for the latter award. In 1964, A Hard Day’s Night competed with Broadway adaptation My Fair Lady for the honors (the latter won), while later nominees like Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (which adapted a range of pieces, from Bach to folk/blues singer Odetta) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (which used performed jazz/ragtime music to stage an oppressive Depression-era competition) exhibited the incredible range of such an openly-defined category.

In the 1970s, the Academy altered the categories once again, separating Original Score from Original Song Score and Adaptation. While equating the use of “songs” in a film (as opposed to an overarching score) with the limitless notion of “adapted” music, traditional musicals as well as more inventive films like Phantom of Paradise, The Buddy Holly Story, and The Muppet Movie were nominated. Perhaps realizing that these categories were always subject to inevitable changes in taste and the oscillating popularity of the film musical, the Academy finally got rid of the binary award system in 1985, and we’ve been left with the singular category of Best Original Score since.

Creating More Than Two Awards

While there have been many scores and a few original songs worth recognizing in the past few years (Go, Adele!), having only the Best Original Score and Best Original Song categories obscures a great many of the powerful uses of music in film. And as this year has proven, it also creates an incentive for studios to make songs simply to fill the nomination slot. The overall score for Les Miserables, for instance, is by no means “original,” but in order for this year’s most widely seen musical to be recognized by its music, a rather arbitrary song titled “Suddenly” was shoehorned into the already-packed production.

Moreover, while “original songs” can sound genuinely inspired (Go, Adele!) or become culturally pervasive (Make it stop!), they are more often than not simply works of commercial synergy and cross-industrial promotion. Sure, the song “Before My Time” from the documentary Chasing Ice might be one of the best original made-for-film songs of the year (it’s certainly one of the most on-the-nose), but does it really hold a candle against other non-original songs used in movies this year? Even as far as documentaries go, how can the Academy recognize Chasing Ice for its music and not, say, Searching for Sugar Man, which is surely one of the most engrossing employments of songs of any film in recent years?

Redefining a Song We All Know

One might argue that the Academy’s insistence on originality is important because the Oscars ostensibly recognize important original work done in filmmaking. But as the ancient, qualified category “Substantially Original Score” and the Academy’s ever-shifting definition of “Adaptation” indicated, a great deal of inspiration comes to artists via materials that already exist. More to the point, when an existing piece of music is used in a film to great effect, it’s no longer simply that piece of music anymore.

The film intervenes in music, changes it, makes it into something new; think about “As Time Goes By” as played by Sam (Dooley Wilson) in Casablanca, Richard Strauss’s “Sunrise” from Thus Spoke Zarathustra for the opening and closing moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Dean Stockwell’s lip-synching of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet. These are hardly examples of simply “plugging” a popular song into a movie; rather, they speak to the production of art as a process built through existing inspirations by prior artists, where existing meanings are used to create new meaning.

So it’s time for the Academy to revive the long-dead “Adaptation” category and place it alongside the “Best Original Song” category. Or perhaps the Academy could model an award similar to the Grammys’ “Best Compilation Soundtrack Album” (but this might entail the arbitrary requirement that the nominated song appear on the album, a process that inevitably requires a lot of legal hogwash).

Perhaps it should be an award for Music Supervision, or more generally an award for “Pre-Existing Music” that could permit the original artist to be recognized as a recipient. Either way, honoring the cinematic power of existing music would properly recognize the intertextual nature of the creative process as well as honestly acknowledge the many profound ways in which we experience music in films.

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