Popcorn music

Do you have any idea the kind of shit I’m going to get on Oscar night? The magnitude will approach that suffered by the poor bastard who scotched the $100 question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? a couple months back. My pain has a name, and it’s Phil Collins. Actually, it’s Disney, but we’ll get to that.

See, most tenderhearted suburbanites who grew up imprisoned in the radio kingdom of No Jacket Required have long since loosed their chains. But on my CD rack, nestled next to Edwyn Collins, Leonard Cohen, the Chills, and other estimable acts, I have retained a tie to my misspent youth. And when Collins wins his Oscar for Best Original Song, my friends — half of whom say, “I hate that fucking song”; the other half, “I fucking hate that song” — will make sure that I pay for my sins. (The dry run was the Golden Globes, where Collins accepted his award, wearing a silk scarf over his tuxedo, and I took a beating from a friend who physically assaults me when a Collins song is broadcast within earshot.) There will be hoots, e-mails, and phone calls from those who hold me liable for the FM evils wrought by post-1980 Phil.

The song category, of course, is usually the gimme in the Oscar pool. Disney, a titan of treacle in the modern pop marketplace, has dominated the award for the past decade. While some producers make popcorn movies, Disney makes popcorn music — all butter, no grain. This year’s especially weak competition means Collins’ Tarzan ditty, “You’ll Be in My Heart,” is a lock. A nod for the South Park song “Blame Canada” is encouraging, but the Academy will never give a trophy to a song they can’t even figure out how to perform for the ceremony. Aimee Mann’s “Save Me,” from Magnolia, is the least memorable cut on an otherwise brilliant disc. Perennial Oscar loser Randy Newman wrote his sappiest song ever for Toy Story 2 (“When She Loved Me”), making him the runner-up, unless you count Diane Warren’s “Music of the Heart,” which contains neither of its titular elements.

But wait, there’s more mud a-comin’ my way. As if being outed as an unrepentant Genesis fan doomed to suffer adult-contemporary purgatory weren’t enough, I also really, really love movie scores. The good news is that John Williams isn’t nominated for his work on that other backlash magnet, Star Wars: Episode 1. The bad news is that nobody believes me when I say that his nominated score for Angela’s Ashes is wonderful. I’m not sure I believe me either, because the soundtrack disc is cluttered with brogued natterings from the book’s pages.

Instead, I’ve been playing Rhino’s new restored two-disc set of Williams’ 1978 score for Superman: The Movie. I had it on vinyl twice and wore out both before age 10; even more than Williams’ Star Wars, Superman represents the reasons to enjoy film scores outside the theater. First, when a soundtrack works (which is, as it always has been, infrequently), it can function apart from the parent movie as a convincing musical text. Even when the main theme is recognizable and inseparable from the images it first accompanied (as with Superman, Star Wars, and Williams’ third crown, Raiders of the Lost Ark), the development of that motif and others is often stirring.

Williams, the most sought-after film composer, has taken grief of his own lately. His low-key work for Saving Private Ryan was criticized by those who disliked the movie, although it’s featured in only 50 of the 165 minutes. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone mentioned last month that Williams is the most-Oscar-nominated living person of any stripe, hinting that this alone is reason to distrust him. Yet his influence is audible in the work of many emerging composers, some of whom are on this year’s score ballot. Gabriel Yared’s sawing strings for The Talented Mr. Ripley oscillate between the Bernard Hermann sound of Hitchcock films and the modern terror of Williams’ Jaws. His perfect score also gains momentum when placed beside choice jazz cuts of the movie’s era, as does the movie. Thomas Newman is nominated for American Beauty, a bandwagon choice that ignores his more traditional work for The Green Mile. Both are excellent, but Beauty relies more on savvy song placements — notably the Who’s “The Seeker,” which made paunchy dads everywhere dust off their Nikes — minimizing Newman’s score.

These frontrunners point to the need for an award to recognize those who arrange borrowed tunes so that they seem custom-made for the film. While most movies peddle soundtracks built on corporate synergy (nothing says Godzilla like Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page), films such as Ripley, Beauty, and the recent Wonder Boys use previously released songs (and originals, such as Dylan’s sterling Wonder Boys song, “Things Have Changed”) to establish mood and subtly comment on plot and character. Michael Mann, whose strong instinct for this was demonstrated when he produced Miami Vice but was corrupted in two TV soundtracks, has also helped to restore music-driven sensibility with his current nominee, The Insider. (Of course, its intriguing soundtrack, largely built around Dead Can Dance siren Lisa Gerrard, was ignored by the Academy, which hasn’t flirted with nonorchestral scoring since Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire in 1982.)

Maybe backstage, Collins can strike a deal with the winning composer, ensuring at least one more Oscar telecast during which I’ll have to drug the guests before the music awards are presented. Like the man says in “Against All Odds,” which got shafted in 1985, it’s a chance I’ll have to take.

Categories: Music