Music is a huge and vital part of contemporary movies, but you’d never know that going by Oscar nominations for Best Original Song and score. This year’s crop of nominations is a particularly dull bunch: Adele’s hit “Skyfall” is pretty much a lock since she’s only up against a blah new song written for Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables remake and numbers composed for Ted, Life of Pi, and Chasing Ice that have had little to no cultural resonance.
Best Original Song was once a vital category, and honored many tunes that have had an enduring presence in pop culture, from “Moon River” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” on through “Take My Breath Away” and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” in the ’80s and Disney’s stranglehold on the category through the ’90s. Not anymore. You have to go all the way back to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in 2002 to find a Best Original Song winner that has had a major impact and lasting presence.
Original music written for motion pictures may be on the wane, but it’s been a very good year for filmmakers using pre-existing songs in their movies. But really, when it has it not been? Many of the most memorable movie scenes over the past several decades have been centered on an inspired use of familiar music, from Tom Cruise dancing to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” in Risky Business and the group sing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous to, well, pretty much everything Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David Lynch have ever done. And yet, the art of repurposing an oldie for a movie has never been honored by the Academy. This should change!
Let’s say this category existed for this awards season. It’d hopefully look something like this:
1. Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” in “Silver Linings Playbook”
Not to get too deep into spoilers territory, but every time Bradley Cooper’s character hears this song in David O. Russell’s film, he gets totally unhinged. It’s a central element of the plot with a deep emotional resonance, and Russell’s sound team pulls off some very clever mixing tricks to get across the character’s stress every time he encounters the song. This is a great example of a director using the familiarity of an old chestnut to his creative advantage.
2. “No Diggity” in “Pitch Perfect”
Pitch Perfect offers a lot of fun a cappella renditions of old hits, but the most memorable segment of the film is some sort of a cappella street battle that peaks with Anna Kendrick’s inspired take on Blackstreet’s 1996 smash.
3. Ginuwine’s “Pony” in “Magic Mike”
Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is a film about life in a tanking economy, sure, but it’s mostly an excuse to shoot shamelessly lascivious footage of Channing Tatum dancing for women. There could be no better song to showcase this than “Pony,” the best pop song ever about objectifying the male form.
4. “Time Is On My Side” in “Not Fade Away”
David Chase’s first movie is full of expensive oldies by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones that are used to sell the reality of his New Jersey rockers in the mid-60s, but the most powerful musical moments are when the young musicians at the heart of the story attempt to play the tunes themselves. There’s a great scene in which they figure out the Buddy Holly tune that gives the film its title, but the bit that sticks with you is when John Magaro’s character finds his calling as a lead singer during an impromptu live rendition of the early Stones hit “Time Is On My Side.”
5. Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” in “Moonrise Kingdom”
Wes Anderson makes great use of Britten’s body of work in soundtracking his fanciful tween love story, but this selection is particularly memorable and nails the picture’s odd blend of stuffy sophistication and childlike whimsy.
6. Ella Fitzgerald’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” in “The Master”
Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius of building exactly the right songs into his carefully constructed epics. He doesn’t put many songs in the foreground of The Master, but there’s a particularly great and subtle scene in which Joaquin Phoenix’s emotionally disturbed character listens to this Fitzgerald classic on the radio after returning home from war, with all his darkest memories of his time in service fresh in his mind.