BOB GARFIELD: Movie musicals may be box office poison, but movie music is big business. If this weekend's Oscar nominees for Best Song are any indication, the movie song has passed firmly out of Tin Pan Alley and into the guitar-picking hands of gravel-voiced bards. Things Have Changed was penned by Bob Dylan. It appeared in the movie Wonder Boys and is up for the Oscar. So are songs from such rock and pop and folk luminaries as Bjork and Sting and Randy Newman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jon Burlingame is the author of Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks. Welcome to On the Media.
JON BURLINGAME: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well let's talk about "Best Song." Is there any miscarriage of Oscar justice that particularly sticks in your craw -- a song that should have been awarded and wasn't in favor of a piece of just indescribable schlock?
JON BURLINGAME: I'm sorry to say there are any number of examples of that down through the history of the Academy Awards. [SONG: YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE] I think the one that people tend to cite a lot is the case of 1977 when You Light Up My Life won the best song award -- a year when none of the best-selling songs from Saturday Night Fever were nominated; songs that everyone can remember now: Stayin' Alive and Night Fever and How Deep Is Your Love. All of those tunes were totally ignored and weren't even nominated that year. [SONG: YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE] Historically the Academy Awards have sometimes not been in touch totally with what's going on in popular music, so in that particular year it's possible that the music branch simply felt well this is disco -- it's going to be here today, gone tomorrow -- they're not really songs in the vein of a Cole Porter or a Richard Rogers or a George Gershwin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that why they completely missed the Beatles' Hard Day's Night in 1964 in favor of Chim Chim Cheree from Mary Poppins?
JON BURLINGAME: Perfect example. [SONG: CHIM CHIM CHEREE]
JON BURLINGAME:And in fact that trend continues to this day. If you look down through the list of best song winners of the late '80s and into the mid-'90s - things like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin continue to win!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I can't help giving another example now. In 1972 Super Fly by Curtis Mayfield was passed over for that enduring hit The Poseidon Adventure's [LAUGHS] The Morning After. Now that's schlock if there ever was schlock.
JON BURLINGAME: Boy, was it controversial. People -- not necessarily on the inside of the Academy Awards organization but certainly outside --said how could you not nominate this great Curtis Mayfield song? [SONG: SUPER FLY] But if you look again at the circumstances, what you're talking about here is a very popular singer-songwriter from the R&B field who, rumor had it, could not actually write down notes, and so therefore was not necessarily considered a quote "songwriter" unquote. So Super Fly which was, let's face it, anthem for a pimp or a pusher was not considered all that classic a song as far as the Academy goes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Why is it that frequently the Academy seems to pick the least enduring, least memorable and sometimes just most excruciating song of the year for their prize?
JON BURLINGAME: I think it's several factors. The people who actually do the voting are the entire 6,000-member membership of the Academy, and that includes a lot of actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, production designers, costume designers. These people by and large are not musical, shall we say, geniuses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I grant you that it was a lot easier back in the '30s when there seemed to be an abundance of great songs. For instance in 1936, Cheek to Cheek was passed over, but Lullaby of Broadway won. And in 1937, I Got You Under My Skin and Pennies from Heaven didn't make it but Just the Way You Look Tonight won. [SONG: THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT]
JON BURLINGAME: Oh, 1937 is the classic example of an amazing collection of songs that were not nominated. The Gershwins that year did A Foggy Day, Let's Call the Whole Thing Off, Nice Work If You Can Get It. Johnny Mercer wrote Hooray for Hollywood which is an anthem to Tinseltown. And Cole Porter wrote In the Still of the Night for a movie! None of those now-classic American songs were nominated. I just think -- I fear actually -- that the kind of quality of the great American songwriters really -- they had their day --and the Academy is somewhat reluctantly moving on with the times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What does it mean that last year Blame Canada from the South Park film was nominated?
JON BURLINGAME:In the case of Blame Canada I think it was a kind of consolation prize, because it was one of the more popular choices among young voters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this another indication that the Academy is indeed getting younger?
JON BURLINGAME:I think it is. Remember a couple of years ago when Danny Elfman, the former Oingo Boingo rock star who had gotten into movie scoring with pictures like Batman and Edward Scissorhands -- he went for years and years without a nomination. The assumption was the aging membership in the music branch simply wasn't going to reward a rock and roller who, in their minds, quote "got lucky" unquote -- and yet a couple of years ago that changed when he was nominated twice in the same year for Good Will Hunting and Men in Black, and I think that was the first real indicator that the music branch was starting to get a little younger; people were joining the music branch who'd come out of rock and roll, who appreciate more contemporary kinds of music-making.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That brings us then to the present. What are some of the other songs that are up this year and what do you think their chances are?
JON BURLINGAME: I tell you that I think that there's no chance that Bob Dylan will lose. [LAUGHTER] I think that Bob Dylan is going to win the Oscar for Things Have Changed from Wonder Boys. It's the kind of thing that the Academy would love to do - would be to honor Bob Dylan - a guy they respect - a guy they love - and who hasn't written a film song since Knockin' on Heaven's Door I think in 1972.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
JON BURLINGAME: Well, thank you Brooke. It's great to speak with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jon Burlingame is the author of a new book called Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks. [SONG: THINGS HAVE CHANGED] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Alicia Zuckerman and Katya Rogers; engineered by George Edwards and edited by Brooke. We had help from the Keefe brothers, John and Dylan; David Serchuk and Kathleen Horan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. Punditron 2000 services provided by Truthco International. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. See you at the movies!