“Come On and Give Us a Play…”

10 Nov

Some of you might know that I do a lot of community service work in my not-so-spare time.  One activity that really keeps me busy is volunteering at a non-profit agency near downtown Dallas that serves as a safe space for marginalized and/or at-risk youth. I’m there at the center sometimes as many as three nights a week.  This involves a lot of driving and a lot of icy cold delicious beverages from McDonald’s at only $1.08 each to make the late night drive home bearable.  A few weeks back, I was driving home–it was close to 11:00, I’m sure–and the Rose Royce song “Car Wash,” from the 1976 movie of the same name (featuring Richard Pryor and Antonio Fargas) began playing on the radio. Well, I started jammin’ like crazy, so caught up in what a finely crafted piece of pop music–some might call it soul–“Car Wash” is, as well as so evocative of an era. My guess (and it’s just a guess) the title track as well as the soundtrack album outpaced the actual movie in the marketplace. The song was even popular enough that we played a slightly simplified version–some might say cheesy–in the good ole  GHS Marching Owl Band.  Good times.

Clearly, I’m not the only fan, and I’m not just referring to other members of the GHS band. Composed by the late Norman Whitfield, “Car Wash” earned considerable accolades in its day, and that includes a Golden Globe nomination for Best Song in addition to “Best Music” honors at the 1977 Cannes fest as well as a Grammy for “Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special.”  Okay, I get it: two of those three accolades are for the entirety of the movie’s score and/or full soundtrack album (including at least one track featuring the Pointer Sisters, who also appeared in the film) rather than just the one specific single, yet I think my claim still holds. Plus, those honors still show more respect than what was afforded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which overlooked Car Wash in both the Best Song and Best Original Score categories.

Anyway, back to that late night drive home. The realization that I was jammin’–that is, still jammin’–to a song that had been snubbed by the Academy more than thirty years after the fact somehow took me by surprise. I thought about that year’s Oscar winning song”Evergreen” from the incredibly popular Barbra Streisand produced remake of  A Star is Born. Okay, that one still gets played on the radio too, and I guess it’s still easy on the ears though the same cannot be said, if it ever could, about the actual film. Well, yes, “Evergreen” is  sappy, but it’s still easy on the ears. The other nominees that year included Bill Conti’s rousing “Gonna Fly Now” from Best Picture winner Rocky. Okay, it’s an anthem for good reason. As long as it’s not overplayed though lyrically, well, come on…it’s not much.

Okay, now, what about the rest? “Ave Satani” (aka Hail Satan) from The Omen? Sure, the movie was a smash, and composer Jerry Goldsmith is and was a legend, but did anyone walk out of the theatre humming that demonic ditty? The same goes for the other two nominees. Big names such as Sammy Fain and Henry Mancini, but Fain had definitely seen better days by the time he contributed to “A World that Never Was” from Half a House. Never heard of it? Exactly. Likewise, why nominate Henry Mancini for a tune from one of those Pink Panther sequels? I mean, of course, his score for the original is and was a classic, indeed well worthy of the Academy’s attention, but I can’t shake the feeling that his 1976 nod was simply a knee-jerk reaction.

Of course, it’s tempting to say that members of the Academy’s music branch, at least in the 1970s, were a bunch of old, white sticks-in-the mud. They at least seemed adverse to most anything that wasn’t exactly middle-of-the-road. You know, nothing too edgy, too loud, too urban, too rock, etc. After all, the very next year, the Academy nixed the entirety of  the Bee Gees’ mega-selling, disco heavy soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. [I know most SNF fans probably drool over “Stayin’ Alive, but my heart belongs to “If I Can’t Have You as performed by Yvonne Elliman.] Not to belabor the point, but one might also think that there was a certain amount of cronyism involved. After all, Goldsmith had been nominated eight times previously (and took home an award that year for his complete score to The Omen); Mancini had collected nine previous nods at that point, winning twice, and Fain also boasted two previous wins from a pool of seven races.  On the other hand, it was the same branch that not only nominated but gave its ultimate golden blessing to Isaac Hayes’s anything but tame “Theme from Shaft” (1971). What gives?

Here then is a tribute to some of my favorite songs–and maybe some of your favorites as well–that for whatever reason just didn’t make the grade with the Academy.

Earlier this year, British powerhouse Adele and Paul Epworth earned Oscars for the title track to Skyfall, the latest entry in the James Bond franchise–and the first Bond film to win an Oscar in the Best Song category. Incredibly, the title tracks from “Goldfinger” and  “Diamonds are Forever,” both performed by Shirley Bassey, were overlooked back in the day. Maybe these songs are lyrically simplistic, but they make a bold impression though I’ll allow that significant chunk of their appeal comes straight from Bassey. Still, the former was a huge hit and, I think, contributed to the whole 007 mystique.  (The videos are from the Divas are Forever special in 2000.)

Now take, for example, Dionne Warwick’s gorgeous rendering  of André and Dory Previn’s “Theme from Valley of the Dolls.” Say what you will about the glossy, camp-fest, the title track is still a stunner: elegantly contemplative lyrics, a melody that builds rather majestically, and an impeccable arrangement. Warwick’s delivery is stellar though performance is not officially one of the Academy’s criteria for the  Best Song award. On the other hand, the song is used to great effect throughout the entire movie rather than merely accompanying the opening titles. Instead,  it serves as an ongoing inner monologue for the character of Anne Welles, played by beautiful Barbara Parkins. This is worth noting because one of the oft-voiced concerns of the Academy (or members of the music branch) is that Best Song candidates should somehow serve some purpose by either advancing the story, developing characters, or adding meaning in some way. That’s not the way it always works, per those entries that just play over the closing credits, but that’s the goal.

Oh, and despite the common perception that the big screen adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s record setting best seller detailing the seamy underside of showbiz was a notorious flop, well, that’s just not true. Though many–but not all–critics panned it, the public bought tickets anyway, and it even earned an Oscar nod for John Williams’s score.  Meanwhile, the Oscar that year went to “Talk to the Animals” from Dr. Dolittle, a 20th Century Fox production–just like Valley of the Dolls. The scuttlebut has long been that Dolittle was a rather costly clunker for the the studio (or at least an expensive production with returns too modest for comfort), and that studio heads threw tons of money at an Oscar campaign in order to spur renewed interest at the box office. The strategy worked in that Dr. Doolittle scored not only the Best Song trophy but a Best Picture nod as well. My point being that maybe Fox downplayed the Valley of the Dolls tune during campaign season in order to bolster the chances of a victory for the Doolittle tune.

The Dr. Dolittle number was written by Leslie Bricusse, who would go on to earn Oscar nods for his contributions to the likes of Scrooge and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Then,  he earned his second Academy trophy for his combined efforts with Henry Mancini on the song score for Blake Edwards’s Victor Victoria–music by Mancini, lyrics by Bricusse. Oddly, even though Mancini and Bricusse were nominated for the entirety of their song score, no nominations materialized for any individual song, the highlight being the rousing “Le Jazz Hot” featuring Oscar nominee Julie Andrews.  I once made the claim, and I still stick by it, that “Le Jazz Hot” was like a golden ticket for beauty pageant contestants and drag queens throughout the 1980s and maybe into the 1990s.

Anyway, I think it’s more than just a tad ironic that Bricusse and Mancini would be recognized for the entirety of their score without likewise being nominated for any specific single entry, so if not “Le Jazz Hot,” maybe the gorgeous “Crazy World” with its yearning melody. Nada. Still, one thing that the Academy did right, as already noted,  was nominating Andrews for the best film role she’d had in years at that point.

Oh, and this might interest my readers. As most of you know, I worked in movie theaters for over 20 years, and at the location where I worked the longest, over 15 years, whenever engineers came to work on our sound systems, they always bought a loop of the “Le Jazz Hot” number to help monitor their work. True that. Years and years after the fact, I could hear Andrews trilling all over the building during the early morning hours.  Oh, of course: the 1982 Best Song Oscar went to the huge, huge hit “Up Where We Belong” from the smash An Officer and a Gentleman. I’m not a huge, huge fan of the song, performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, but I’m all about the Oscar winning team behind the song: Jack Nitzsche (now deceased), Buffy Saint-Marie (also deceased), and Texan Will Jennings. This one was no surprise whatsoever.

One of the most, if not THE most, egregious of all Best Song omissions has to be “Why Should I Worry,” performed by Billy Joel, from Disney’s 1988 Oliver and Company, an update on the classic Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens though set in New York City with a cast of animated cats and dogs. Okay? What’s particularly galling is that the powers that be at the Academy decided that there simply were not enough eligible entries for Best Song that year, so the slate of nominees was reduced from five to three.  I don’t know what the numbers were or how many entries it took (or takes) to justify a full roster, but I do think that if the Academy had stuck to the status quo, “Why Should I Worry” would have easily made the final cut. It’s a jaunty little number, très catchy, that perfectly plays on Billy Joel’s  “Piano Man”/”New York State of Mind” persona while also establishing the character he voices, a canine variation on Dickens’s Artful Dodger. It all makes perfect sense, right? (To clarify, Joel did not compose the song–that distinction belongs to Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight.) Oh, and like the Rose Royce tune from Car Wash, this ditty was also nominated for a Golden Globe. Furthermore, to readdress the claim that there weren’t enough worthy candidates that year, Oliver and Company also boasts a campy production number featuring vocals by Bette Midler (still at the peak of her Disney prowess) as a pampered pooch: “Perfect Isn’t Easy” by Barry Manilow (Midler’s old pianist from her, um, club days), Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman. I’ll admit that this offering is more about personality and animated razzle-dazzle than it is about music, meaning I don’t know how well it would hold up outside its context, but it’s still not “nothing.”

Oliver and Company was a modest hit and  set the stage for the dazzling next generation of Disney animation, beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, which snagged Oscars for the team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken for their righteous “Under the Sea,” a song rivaled that season only by the same film’s “Kiss the Girl.” For the next several years, the Best Song category became synonymous with Disney.  Back in 1988, however, the Oscar went to Carly Simon for her rousing “Let the River Run” from Working Girl, and I like both Simon and her song, so that’s not the issue. (That movie, though, needs work.) The haunting “I am Calling You” from Percy Adlon’s Bagdad Cafe was duly nominated; the song was eventually reappropriated as a commercial jingle, besides being covered by the likes of Natalie Cole and Celine Dion, and even though the movie might not ring any bells, it was at least popular enough to inspire a TV spin-off–albeit short-lived–starring no less than Jean Stapleton and Whoopi Goldberg. The third 1988 Best Song nominee was “Two Hearts,” by Phil Collins from the movie Buster, also starring Collins (who performed as a child actor across the Atlantic before becoming a rock star with the band Genesis). I don’t remember ever hearing Collins’s song, and I know I didn’t see Buster though I do recall when it opened.

Btw, since 1988, there have been a small handful of times in which the Best Song slate has been pared from five to as a few as two, the last time being 2010/2011 ceremony in which “Man or Muppet” (from The Muppets) bested “Real in Rio” (from Rio).

Okay, two more:

Not only did the Academy’s music branch overlook the entirety of 1977’s culturally game changing Saturday Night Fever soundtrack , the same group of voters snubbed what would eventually become the adopted theme song of New York City: the title track from Martin Scorsese’s musical drama New York, New York.  Scorsese’s film, starring Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro, was a far cry from a hit back in the summer of ’77–certainly not in the same league as Star Wars or even Smokey and the Bandit or The Deep–yet it attracted a lot of attention, and the songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb served Minnelli well, a first-rate showcase if there ever were one. Of course, the naysayers are likely to scoff that it took no less than Frank Sinatra’s 1980 cover version to launch the song into the public consciousness, and while that thought likely holds some merit, the fact is that Sinatra did not invent the song.  Kander, Ebb, and Minnelli didn’t drop the ball; members of the Academy did that.  Fortunately, the American Film Institute got it right when it ranked “Theme from New York, New York”  at number 31 on its list of top 100 movie songs.  (The accompanying clip is not from the film. Instead, it’s from a 1989 TV special: The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame 20th Anniversary…The Magic of Music, taped at Radio City Music Hall.)

Okay, despite “New York, New York”  becoming embedded in the public consciousness, Minnelli has stated for the record that of all the songs she’s sung, the one she holds most dear is “But the World Goes ‘Round,” also from New York, New York.  That’s right. Not “Cabaret.” Not “Maybe This Time.” Not “Mein Herr.”  Wow. And I just have to say that Minnelli and her song kick ass, so much so that I always want to smoke a cigarette when she finishes.  It’s so intense. Still, this was a song that the Academy also overlooked while being caught up in the record breaking swirl of Debby Boone’s warbling of the inspirational MOR classic, “You Light Up My Life” (from the film of the same name). It’s also tempting to think that between Boone’s monster smash, the Bee Gees’ chartbuster, two songs from New York, New York, and even “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me (which was nominated) that 1977 just had too damn many Oscar worthy songs from which to choose, but even that doesn’t explain how “The Slipper and the Rose Waltz” from  the non-animated The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella (with Richard Chamberlain as the Prince) copped a nod.

Of course, the Academy can’t nominate everything, so as Liza’s song goes, “Somebody loses, and somebody wins.”  But the world goes round. That much I understand.

Thanks for your consideration…

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