Monday, June 06, 2011

Oscars of the '80s: The Best Original Song Project

At some point during the ramp up to last year's Oscars, I made the observation either here or any of the other places where I blathered on about the Oscars that I would be quite happy if the Best Original Song category would go the way of Best Black-and-White Cinematography and die a noble death. Because as of 2011, the age of the Movie Song is pretty much dead. Even the big Disney movies lack truly dynamic tunes, and while musicals have made a big-screen comeback, they're all Broadway transfers and at best offer up pale add-on songs just so they can beg for honor of a nomination from a category that has lost all its luster. All due respect to quality winners like "Falling Slowly" and "The Weary Kind," but original songs in movies are just nothing like they were back in the '80s. (Hey, there are few things we can say were undeniably better in the '80s. Let's go with this one!)

So, because Rooommate Mark and I get very easily obsessed with things like Oscar nominees of old and hit songs, we decided to take a look back at the Best Song categories of the '80s and dig into how many truly classic movie songs there were back then.

We'll be flipping entries back and forth between here and The Critical Condition, starting right here with 1980.


"Fame" -- Fame [Music: Michael Gore; Lyrics: Dean Pitchford] WINNER

Joe: A legitimate classic, even though it's neither the best song in its movie nor the best song from the movie in this category. Still, with an indelible hook and Irene Cara's brilliant voice, how can you lose? I also love that while the fame-seeking sentiment would seem to be prescient of today's youth culture, lyrical details show how we've changed. Nobody's taking the time to learn how to fly in 2011. You guys, remember when fame cost? And you paid in sweat??

Mark: This song launched Irene Cara's brief run as the queen of Oscar songs, and I'd imagine that back in 1980, it seemed like it was launching her journey to superstardom. (Since I was one year old for most of 1980, I don't trust my memories from that time.) I can understand the impact on both counts. Though Michael "Brother of Lesley" Gore's disco-synth production is as dated as an old pack of luncheon meat, Cara's voice still roars and the melody still kicks ass.

"People Alone" -- The Competition [Music: Lalo Schifrin; Lyrics: Will Jennings]

Joe: Did you know that The Competition was a movie where Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving play classical pianists who become lovers? Did you know Dreyfuss was nominated for a Razzie for his performance? I mean, I'm sure you knew all that, I was just checking. Anyway, if you look at the Oscar-nominated songs of the '80s, they tend to fall into some distinct categories. The soaring power ballads. The cheesy rockin' number. The story-driven musical number. And then there are these watery, easy-listening, filler entries penned by your Carole Bayer Sagers and the like. Guess which category "People Alone" fits in?

Mark: It's cute of Joe to pretend like there are people who don't know this movie. See you guys at CompCon! But seriously: I can't even find a recording of this song on YouTube, a website that readily proffers the main theme of the Garbage Pail Kids movie. I doubt we've lost a classic here.

"Out Here On My Own" -- Fame [Music: Michael Gore; Lyrics: Lesley Gore]

Decidedly the better of the two nominated Fame songs, and achingly performed by Irene Cara. I'm much more interested to learn that Lesley Gore -- she of "You Don't Own Me" and "Judy's Turn to Cry" fame -- wrote the song decades after her own pop star had faded.

Mark: I saw Fame for the first time a few weeks ago, and I was startled by how many things it did that would never happen today. If High School Musical featured a scene of a teenage girl taking her top off for a seedy "film producer" and then weeping as he recorded her shame, people would lose their fucking minds. Also? No modern movie would ever handle a song the way that Fame handles "Out Here On My Own." Irene Cara just goes to the piano and sings for about five minutes. There are no cuts, no characters fighting in the background... nothing. Just a great singer belting a great ballad. It boggles my 2011 mind, but since the song is outstanding, I appreciate the simplicity.

"On the Road Again" -- Honeysuckle Rose [Music and lyrics: Willie Nelson]

It seems almost unfathomable that there was ever a time before "On the Road Again" existed. Doesn't it just seem like that song was always there, waiting to score a montage about the protagonist moving across the country? Nobody remembers the movie (which starred Nelson himself, along with Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving, who really made some forgettable-yet-tuneful movies in 1980), but the song is iconic enough to be woven into the national fabric, so kudos to the Academy.

Mark: Joe, you may want to get a research grant and investigate this song's origins, because I'm pretty sure it was written at the dawn of time. I swear I've heard it in Chevrolet commercials from 1950. But maybe that's just a sign of how deeply it's embedded into our culture.

"Nine to Five" -- Nine to Five [Music and lyrics: Dolly Parton]

A home run! Brilliant song (the clackity-clack percussion! Dolly's common-sense airing of workplace grievances!) by an equally brilliant artist. I can never decide whether the movie makes the song better or the other way around, but I have a really hard time imagining Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda's comedy being remembered as fondly without Dolly's title track.

Mark:Do I even need to say it? There are three great songs in this category, but there's only one work of transcendent work pop genius. Dolly Parton devised that clackity-clack rhythm by tapping her acrylic fingernails on a countertop, for Christ's sake. That distills the 80s!

Final Assessment

My guess is that Fame being more of a musical film was still seen as an advantage in 1980 (we were well past the golden age of movie musicals, but I bet that genre preference had endured in this category), and just as pilot episodes are kind of the presumed favorites at the Emmys, my guess is that "Fame" being the title song helped it win. Much as I love "Out Here on My Own," though, I'd have given the award to another title song: "Nine to Five." Then we'd get to call Dolly Parton an Oscar-winner to this day!

Mark: I think Joe is spot-on with the reason "Fame" won the Oscar. It also helped that Fame was regarded as Real Art (check that year's nomination for Best Original Screenplay). Voting for "Fame," then, meant voting for a pop hit with prestige. But still... "Nine to Five" is one of the best songs of the decade and should've won. (Fun fact: Sheena Easton's hit "Morning Train" was known as "9 to 5" in England, but the title was changed in America to avoid confusion with Parton's track.)


Adam said...

I tracked down The Competition a while back and called that song an "easy-listening snooze."

I'd rank the category like this:
01. Fame - "Out Here on My Own"
02. Nine to Five - "Nine to Five"
03. Fame - "Fame"
04. Honeysuckle Rose - "On the Road Again"
05. The Competition - "People Alone"

par3182 said...

"...being more of a musical film was still seen as an advantage in 1980..."

if only they'd made room for the title tracks of 'xanadu' and 'can't stop the music'...

i watched these oscars (i'm so, so old) and was surprised 'fame' won over 'out here on my own', but since i loved everything about 'fame' (the movie) as an overly enthusiastic teenager i was happy

but '9 to 5' is the undoubted classic of the bunch - "they let you dream just to watch 'em shatter" is a line i wish i'd written (plus i still refer to coffee as "a cup of ambition")

NicksFlickPicks said...

Already elated by this series, and this one race is enough to explain why we still have this category. If only it could be this good again. I love that Dolly stood up in the aisle when the Fame guys won and playfully refused to let them pass.

Chaz said...

Now this is a rich bunch of nominees for my 80s soul. Two revered national treasures with solid songs--love 'em both. But I too would go with the superb "Out Here on My Own."

Eric said...

I know "Xanadu" was a flop, but the songs were fantastic! And why wasn't "Call Me" nominated?

My top 5
1) "Fame"
2) "9 to 5"
3) "Out Here on My Own"
4) "Xanadu"
5) "Call Me"