Movie soundtracks glittered at the Grammys last month, with the roots revivalism of ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and the pop collage of ”Moulin Rouge” snagging trophies. But neither of these soundtracks — which boast some of the most vital movie music in recent memory — is eligible for an Oscar. And that has some in the film music world calling for a new set of rules.
”As great as the Oscars are, everyone knows they’re a little behind the times,” says Immortal Records CEO Happy Walters about Academy rules that favor new ballads penned by the likes of Diane Warren, Enya, Paul McCartney, and Sting over soundtracks featuring remakes of older songs like ”Lady Marmalade.” Adds ”Moulin Rouge” music supervisor Anton Monsted: ”There should be recognition of the best use of music in a film regardless of where the music came from.”
As the rules now stand, Oscar’s Best Song category honors only tunes written specifically for the movie in which they appear, a technicality that exempts both ”Moulin Rouge” and ”O Brother” (Released in 2000, ”Oh Brother” was passed over at last year’s Oscars.) Walters, who put together the groundbreaking rap-rock crossover soundtrack for 1994’s ”Judgement Night” and the rap/techno meld of the upcoming ”Blade 2,” thinks that broadening the rules would help the Academy better recognize current trends in movie music. ”The category should be best soundtrack for a movie, or even best [group of songs] written for a film,” he says.
But Charles Bernstein, head of the Academy Awards’ rules committee, says the category is designed with an eye towards ”original achievement.” And by the Academy’s reckoning, a soundtrack of previously existing songs — like Christina Aguilera & Co. singing Patti LaBelle’s ”Lady Marmalade” or Dan Tyminski revving up the folk standard ”Man of Constant Sorrow” — just doesn’t cut it. ”’Moulin Rouge’ and ‘O Brother’ are musical films, and the recognition should go to the film and to the director, because there is no original contribution [in the music],” says Bernstein.
Still, Bernstein (a film score composer whose credits include ”Nightmare on Elm Street”) thinks those who make pop soundtracks shouldn’t feel neglected. ”There are many, many wonderful people who work on films in fields in which Oscars are not given,” he says. ”There’s no Oscar given for the choreography in ‘Moulin Rouge,’ for instance. That’s part of the nature of Oscar — it’s only given for very, very few and very particular kinds of achievements.”
But even if the rules WERE to change, does that mean we’d see fewer of those familiar old faces singing their nominated music on Oscar night? Not likely, says Ark 21 Records president (and former Sting manager) Miles Copeland: ”Change in these awards tends be a very slow process. The same people keep getting nominated because they’re known to voters. Most people voting aren’t familiar with the hottest acts in music.”
But Bernstein disagrees, arguing that songwriters like Diane Warren (6 nominations) and Randy Newman (16 nominations) crop up again and again in the Best Song category simply because they’ve mastered the very specialized art of writing tunes that capture the essence of movies. ”It’s not so much a factor of how current the artist is, but how relevant the song is to the drama of the film,” he says. In other words, Diane Warren better clear more space on her Oscar shelf.