Last week, a story came out in Variety that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would cut the best song performances from five down to two in this year’s Oscar telecast. It was a bid to save time and present a more efficient show, nominees were told.
Viewers who crave brevity — I admit to being one of them — rejoiced, although AMPAS, which reportedly caved to “nominee solidarity," eventually announced that all the nominated songs would get a chance to be heard.
It would have been ironic if the academy had not reversed its initial decision, though, because music was such a profoundly important movie component in 2018. In fact, I can’t remember a time, at least recently, when music was employed so creatively in film and contributed so much to the movies’ themes and emotional impact.
The nominations reflect that: It’s conceivable, for instance, that three of the major acting awards will go to performers playing musicians — Mahershala Ali for best supporting actor in Green Book, Rami Malek for best actor in Bohemian Rhapsody (or Bradley Cooper for A Star Is Born), and maybe even Lady Gaga for best actress in A Star Is Born.
It was a year for actors to play musicians, musicians to act, and movies to blur the lines between classic musicals (Mary Poppins Returns) and movies (A Star Is Born) that made the creation and performance of music part of the story.
When I talked to Cooper in September, he spoke about writing, commissioning, and curating music for his story of musicians who fall in love — music that would occur naturally in the movie and also serves an indispensable narrative purpose.
"The music is a character in the movie. It’s not just an interlude where you’re bedazzled by some big production number. It forwards the story. Every lyric influences the story,” he said.
You could find old-fashioned bedazzling in traditional musicals like Mary Poppins Returns and its Oscar-nominated song “Where the Lost Things Go,” a classic, high-style piece of songwriting and staging that would have been at home in the golden age of the Hollywood musical.
So, in its own goofy way, is the Oscar-nominated western number “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from in Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The song, written by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, follows a gunslinger to heaven after he loses a duel to a black-clad rival (played by Willie Watson from the Old Crow Medicine Show, which explains why he sings as well as he shoots).
The Coen brothers have included musical numbers in their films for years — the bowler’s dream in The Big Lebowski, the Esther Williams homage in Hail Caesar — and they’ve made organic, crypto-musicals like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis, where the music occurs naturally in the narrative.
Scruggs has elements of both. The movie is an anthology of six western stories, and it opens with Buster’s mini-musical, featuring three full-on production numbers. Five episodes later, it closes with a macabre story of five souls on a stagecoach bound for what may be the Great Beyond. On the ride, Brendan Gleeson suddenly launches into an a cappella Irish folk song called “The Unfortunate Lad,” better known by its Americanized version, “The Streets of Laredo,” a tune picked up and embellished by composer Carter Burwell as the movie’s melancholy farewell.
It’s a startling moment, not only for Gleeson’s soulful singing, but for the way it reveals the movie’s theme — how the transatlantic journey of a simple song traces the arc of the westward movement of people and cultures that form the spine of the movie.
A similar idea is used brilliantly in Cold War from Poland, up for best foreign language film and best director (Pawel Pawlikoski, who may have displaced Cooper in this category).
» READ MORE: Postwar turmoil divides lovers in ‘Cold War’
His movie follows two musicians (Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig), refugees from postwar communist Poland who seek and ultimately find (after tortuous trips) freedom in Paris. They take with them a Polish folk song (“Dwa Serduszka”), first heard from a farm girl in their homeland, then rearranged for orchestra and choir, then reinvented as a jazz tune, and ultimately translated into French.
The song’s roots and transformation mirror the fortunes of the main characters' love story and herald the troubles in their relationship — as the music becomes more sophisticated, it becomes less like itself and loses its authenticity and purpose.
The song is beautifully performed in different incarnations by Kulig, who, by the way, was a singing star in Poland before she was an actor, a la Lady Gaga, and both women show an ability to combine the craft of singing and acting effectively.
“The singing scenes, there’s a lot of acting going on,” Cooper told me of Gaga. “Like her last song (“I’ll Never Love Again”), I think you really respond to her performance as an actress in that scene, besides her voice.”
The motion picture academy concurs, as do movie and music fans. A Star Is Born surpassed $200 million in North America, only recently edged out by Bohemian Rhapsody, which has made a whopping $800 million worldwide and is now the most successful musical biopic of all time (and the most conventional of this year’s lot, almost a reversion to the Dewey Cox formula. If you want to know why Hollywood sticks to convention, here are 800 million reasons).
Gaga helped turn the Star Is Born soundtrack into one of the top-selling albums of the year, joining the Black Panther soundtrack, the soundtrack from Bohemian Rhapsody (in turn sparking a rebirth of Queen’s album sales), and even the Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again soundtrack.
In that context, it’s a little disappointing that Green Book didn’t revive more interest in the music of Don Shirley, whose unique fusion of jazz/pop/classical on piano plays a starring role in the film, the story of the fraught relationship between Shirley (Ali) and his racist driver Tony (Viggo Mortenson). Tony doesn’t know what to make of the musician until he hears him play, and the first barriers between the two men begin to fall.
I’d say Ali is a shoo-in for best supporting actor.
Best song? Beats me. I expect Cooper and Gaga’s “Shallow” to win, but you never know.