Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
This week, we get a bit musical with the two categories that fall under the purview of the Music Branch of the Academy. Below are my impressions on the Music and Song categories along with just a bit of history.
Although the advent of sound made its first limited appearance at the 1st Academy Awards and managed to breakout at the second, recognition of achievements in musical composition didn’t begin until the 7th Oscars in 1934. The category has had a serviceable list of nominees except for the 9-year period from 1937 (10th Oscars) through 1945 (18th Oscars) where the Academy seemed to take an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to nominating, often ensuring all the major studios’ films got some kind of representation.
For several years, there were multiple categories under the Best Music banner with splits for dramatic and comedy scores, musical scores, adaptations, and more. That type of splitting largely came to an end after the 1984 Oscars, but saw one set of splits, between dramatic scores on one side and comedy/musical scores on the other, for four years from 1995 through 1998.
There have been countless great scores nominated for Oscars and my list is exceptionally long. Among my favorite winners, there are: The Wizard of Oz (1939), Exodus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Mary Poppins (1964), Jaws (1975), Chariots of Fire (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Yentl (1983), Purple Rain (1984), Schindler’s List (1993), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Atonement (2007), and Black Panther (2018).
Then among those that didn’t win the award: Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), The Godfather (1972), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Carol (2015), Jackie (2016), and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Of course, the Academy’s Music Branch isn’t unknown for its crazy and questionable decisions. From determining a score is ineligible because it could be confused with other pre-existing work in the film is their greatest tool for eliminating undesirables. And yet, they also ignore some terrific scores for reasons that will always remain a mystery. Among my favorite scores that the Academy ignored, there are these: Requiem for a Dream, The Truman Show, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Lust, Caution, Driving Miss Daisy, and Jurassic Park. Almost all of these I would consider ahead of some of the scores that I did choose, which now follows:
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Whether or not you agree with the myriad caveats placed on this film and its pro-Slavery origins and stances, the film was a technical marvel of its day. And of that is that iconic opening theme that plays as the giant letters of the title scroll across the screen. Max Steiner’s score sets the tone of the film, a sweeping epic set in the lead up to and aftermath of the U.S. Civil War.
From the massive set pieces to the gorgeous costumes, Gone With the Wind remains one of the all-time greats even if its subject matter and background have become tarnished with age.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
From the moment the film’s theme starts with epic bombast, Richard Rodney Bennett’s musical underscore proves itself to be utterly unforgettable. As the red satin background statically allows the various actors’ names to proceed across the screen, the momentum builds throughout, eventually ending in a minimalist score overlooking the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong, the impetus for the film’s upcoming murder.
With numerous themes running throughout the film, the next most impressive is the waltz that accompanies the departure of the Orient Express at the beginning and its emergence from its snow-bound entrapment. It’s the perfect choice of music as it superbly times itself to the wheels of the train and their slow build up of speed. It was one of the first film scores I came to love as a child and it remains one of my all-time favorites.
Star Wars (1977)
As far as iconic scores go, John Williams’ themes for Star Wars are unmistakable. Those explosive chords instantly transport the audience into George Lucas’ vast science fiction world. The theme itself is so crucial to the film’s success that each successive film opens with the same composition, bringing the audience back into the universe with spine-tingling effectiveness.
While the theme to the film is the most recognizable theme ever written, there are plenty of other compositions in the film that are equally memorable from Leia’s Theme to the music of the cantina. Every single track generates an instant bout of nostalgia, which is the best compliment any film could ever receive.
While horror films have struggled with the Academy for recognition, it was a welcome surprise when the sweet, childlike score for Poltergeist pulled in an Oscar nomination. The film has at its core a young girl, Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke), who becomes trapped as a mysterious ethereal presence attempts to consume her.
For horror films, a theme that is heavy on minor chords is commonplace and while some elements of that exist within Jerry Goldsmith’s score, the light, almost ephemeral theme sits in stark contrast to the frights and perils displayed on screen. While only Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street have more familiar themes to audiences, they never scored an Oscar nomination. This film did and even if those themes are ever so slightly better, there’s no question that this is one of the absolute best choices the Academy ever made.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
For some, original musicals don’t really constitute much of a score. They are a collection of songs that tell a story with the underlying music as a second thought. While that is, to an extent, true of them all, Beauty and the Beast successfully blended its songs with its themes, keeping the entire work a cohesive whole.
Alan Menken’s entertaining score accompanied by Howard Ashman’s astute lyrics help make Beauty and Beast one of the most iconic animated films ever made, the first ever to be nominated for Best Picture, and taking home awards for its Original Score and its title track, “Beauty and the Beast.” Whether you consider them separate or whole, what exists within this seminal achievement is quintessential, impressive, and most deserving of awards.
The song category at the Oscars is another that took time to emerge, coming out the same year as the other music categories. While they have recognized some incredibly famous songs, they’ve also ignored many. Like the other Music categories, Song had several years of excessive numbers of nominations before setting into the familiar 5-wide fields that have been largely used for most of the category’s existence. Some years, however, there have been two, three, or even four nominated tracks total.
It’s hard not to find a lot to like among the nominees and winners the Academy did select. For winners, some of the titles I considered but didn’t select were: “Thanks for the Memory” – The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938), “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” – Song of the South (1947), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Neptune’s Daughter (1949), “Whatever Will Be, Will Be” – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), “Never on Sunday” – Never on Sunday (1960), “Moon River” – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), “Chim Chim Cher-ee” – Mary Poppins (1964), “For All We Know” – Lovers and Other Strangers (1970), “Theme from Shaft” – Shaft (1971), “The Morning After” – The Poseidon Adventure (1972), “The Way We Were” – The Way We Were (1973), “Evergreen” – A Star Is Born (1976), “You Light Up My Life” – You Light Up My Life (1977), “Last Dance” – Thank God It’s Fiday (1978), “Fame” – Fame (1980), “Arthur’s Theme” – Arthur (1981), “Up Where We Belong” – An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), “Flashdance…What a Feeling (1983), “I Just Called to Say I Love You” – The Woman in Red (1984), “Take My Breath Away” – Top Gun (1986), “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” – Dirty Dancing (1987), “Sooner or Later” – Dick Tracy (1990), “Beauty and the Beast” – Beauty and the Beast (1991), “You Must Love Me” – Evita (1996), “My Heart Will Go On” – Titanic (1997), “Into the West” – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), “Falling Slowly” – Once, “Skyfall” – Skyfall (2012), and “Glory” – Selma (2014).
On the nominated, non-winning side, we have: “Cheek to Cheek” – Top Hat (1935), “The Trolley Song” – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), “Thoroughly Modern Millie” – Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), “The Age of Not Believing” – Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), “Live and Let Die” – Live and Let Die (1973), “Candle on the Water” – Pete’s Dragon (1977), “Nobody Does It Better” – The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), “Someone’s Waiting for You” – The Rescuers (1977), “The Rainbow Connection” – The Muppet Movie (1979), “Eye of the Tiger” – Rocky III (1982), “For Your Eyes Only” – For Your Eyes Only (1981), “Maniac” – Flashdance (1983), “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” – Yentl (1983), “Footloose” – Footloose (1984), “Ghostbusters” – Ghostbusters (1984), “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” – Footloose (1984), “Somewhere Out There” – An American Tail (1986), “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” – Mannequin, “After All” – Chances Are (1989), “I Have Nothing” – The Bodyguard (1992), “Again” – Poetic Justice (1993), “Go the Distance” – Hercules (1997), “When She Loved Me” – Toy Story 2 (1999), “I’ve Seen It All” – Dancer in the Dark (2000), “May It Be” – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), “Travelin’ Thru” – Transamerica (2005), “Almost There” – The Prince and the Frog (2009), “Happy” – Despicable Me 2 (2013), “Everything Is Awesome” – The Lego Movie (2014), “Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Trolls (2016), “Into the Unknown” – Frozen II (2019), and “Stand Up” – Harriet (2019).
Then there are the songs that didn’t get nominated. Among the ones I most adore are “Love Song for a Vampire” – Bram Stoker’s Dracula, “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” – Hunchback of Notre Dame, “Reflection” – Mulan, and “Gollum’s Song” – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Of course, I haven’t mentioned many of the numerous great title themes for James Bond films that have been largely ignored by the Academy, including great works like “Goldfinger,” “Golden Eye,” and more.
Now, without further ado, here are the five I selected.
“Over the Rainbow” – The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Musical films have been a mainstay of cinema since the advent of sound. While original songs for film took time to mature, by the time The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, they were a ubiquitous part of the cinema experience, especially for films that were targeted primarily at children.
Although this film was a mainstay of children’s entertainment for decades, and still remains a potent force, plenty of adults recognize the greatness of the film beyond its perception as a kids movie. Part of that reason is the iconic song score crafted for the film by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. Harburg. The song “Over the Rainbow” is a wistful reflection on the mundanity of life and the adventures we all seek. There are few songs in history to which the vast majority of the public remember the lyrics and this is likely chief among them all.
“White Christmas” – Holiday Inn (1942)
While a sequel to Holiday Inn was titled White Christmas, it was this film in which the secular Christmas standard “White Christmas” was first sung by Bing Crosby and Martha Mears (dubbing in for Marjorie Reynolds). Irving Berlin’s holiday standard fits so well within this film, about a man running a vacation retreat that’s only open on holidays, that it almost feels like it could have been a standard long before the film was ever conceived.
“White Christmas” wasn’t the only song in the film, but it’s easily the best remembered and there isn’t an adult or child alive who doesn’t know the lyrics of the song and that’s a testament to Berlin’s brilliant work.
“Nine to Five” – Nine to Five (1980)
Losing the Oscar for Best Original Song to “Fame” from the film of the same title, many have felt that Dolly Parton’s ode to the working class, more specifically working women, should have taken the prize in hindsight. As wonderful a song as “Fame” is, there’s something about the titular song “Nine to Five” that gets you hopping and humming along.
The film about working women trying to get ahead starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Parton herself and was a testament to the kinds of insights women can bring to a work environment when they’re given the opportunity to give it direction. The lyric “Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumping, out on the street, the traffic starts jumping…” is the perfect feel for the song itself, in which listeners can feel energized just by singing along. That it opens with a typewriter clacking might be lost on younger generations, but its themes are universal and enduring.
“Circle of Life” – The Lion King (1994)
Over a year before one of Disney’s all-time most popular animated musicals released, Elton John’s iconic opening theme to the film The Lion King was showing as a trailer for the film itself. With Tim Rice’s catchy lyrics in hand, John opens the film with an African music-inspired call for all animals in the kingdom to come forth to witness the baptism of the new King of the savannah. This opening song is filled with beauty and emotion with the supporting animation a gorgeous reminder of the power of animated storytelling.
John’s music for the film is well remembered by all and was kept even into the more African-themed stage version of the musical, which remains one of the all-time most popular shows. It’s a magical experience I would encourage everyone to get out to see if they can. Part of that success is the John/Rice collaborations with this song in particular being the most significant and impactful of all, even if it lost to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from the same film.
“This Is Me” – The Greatest Showman (2017)
For those who always felt like they could fit in with any situation, a song like “This Is Me,” written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, might seem a bit of a trifle, an ode to staying true to yourself, which is always what they have done. However, for many of us who always felt marginalized by society whether because we were awkward, a minority, gay, or otherwise considered as an “other” by the ruling class, “This Is Me” takes on entirely new meaning. It’s even more fitting as it applies to the film itself.
The Greatest Showman is a revisionist musical about legendary circus maestro P.T. Barnum. A liberal voice in New York state during his time, many felt his use of “oddities” was abusive and inappropriate, yet a reading of history suggests that Barnum may have profited from them, but he essentially provided them with a safe place to get away from the hatefulness and bigotry around them. To this day, running off to join the circus is a euphemistic way of saying that the person intends to find a place where they will be unconditionally accepted. That’s what this song means to many of us. If you ever read the lyrics, that becomes evident, but reading the lyrics is nothing compared to living them and for those of us who get emotional every time we hear this track, we have most definitely lived them.