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OSCARS 2000

Not the Same Old Song

Seemingly everyone's been talking about rude, crude 'Blame Canada' in the musical nominations, but don't forget about the rest of the eclectic field.

March 26, 2000|JON BURLINGAME | Jon Burlingame regularly writes about film music for Calendar and other publications

The Oscars' best song category, usually a predictable collection of ballads from hit movies, has been known to raise an eyebrow from time to time.

To this day, no one can quite explain how "Ave Satani," a hymn to the devil sung entirely in Latin in "The Omen," got a best song nomination in 1977. "Ben," a No. 1 hit for Michael Jackson in 1972, was an ode to a rat.

"Blazing Saddles," nominated in 1975, was a sendup of traditional western tunes sung with complete seriousness by Frankie Laine. Novelty tunes like "Swingin' on a Star" ("or would you rather be a mule?" from 1944's "Going My Way") and "High Hopes" (with the "rubber tree plant" lyric, from 1959's "A Hole in the Head") even won in their day.

This year's most offbeat nominee, however, ups the ante considerably. "Blame Canada," the satirical march from the animated feature "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," contains language that most newspapers deem unprintable.

"Blame Canada," written by the film's director and co-writer, Trey Parker, and his musical director, Marc Shaiman, is heard after the "South Park" tykes sneak into an R-rated movie starring their heroes: foulmouthed, juvenile Canadian TV personalities Terrance and Phillip. When the kids come home uttering all sorts of expletives, a concerned mothers' group decides to shirk parental responsibility by pointing fingers at our neighbors to the north, using words like "fart," "bitch" and a particularly vulgar four-letter one.

"It's not the most outrageous song," notes Parker, who admits to being stunned by the complexity and political realities of the nomination and voting process. "I was like, well, aren't all of our songs up [for awards]?" Four-time nominee Shaiman explained the necessity of choosing a single tune to avoid a possible split vote. Fans were hoping for "Uncle F--ka," the dirty ditty that Terrance and Phillip sing that launches the entire plot, but the song was never seriously considered.

Both think the nomination for "Blame Canada" is not so much for the song itself as it is an acknowledgment of the success of the entire movie. "It represents the whole score," says Shaiman.

"That is the achievement, that we pulled off a musical that really works as a musical," adds Parker.

The irony that "South Park" attacks the MPAA code, assorted celebrities (including Anne Murray, who is maligned in "Blame Canada") and Hollywood itself, yet is being honored by the movie industry's most prestigious organization, is not lost on Parker. "Obviously the academy members have a total sense of humor," he says. "They get it. A lot of them enjoy this stuff. They can laugh at themselves just like anybody."

While "Blame Canada" and its rude lyrics have been the most talked-about, this year's best song crop is actually more diverse than in many years. Two songs are from animated Disney musicals: One is a lullaby, the other a paean to lost love. A third is a chart hit from a Meryl Streep movie, and a fourth is a plea for emotional rescue written by a folk-pop cult artist.

"I applaud the eclectic nature of this year's nominations," says film historian Leonard Maltin. "My gripe with the song category is that so many of the songs in recent years have either been shoehorned arbitrarily on the soundtrack for promotional, ancillary purposes, or they've been performed while people were racing up the aisle and turning over their ignitions in the parking lot, with little real connection to the movie."

Oscar rules demand that the song be written specifically for the film and have both "creative substance and relevance to the dramatic whole." Composer Charles Bernstein, a governor of the academy's music branch, sees this year as "a perfect example of that principle at work. All five songs have a particular relationship to the dra matic content of the film." Even within those guidelines, he adds, "there's a lot of room for people to disagree about the quality of the [individual] song."

Songwriters, seemingly without exception, agree with Oscar winners Marilyn and Alan Bergman (who won for their lyrics for "The Windmills of Your Mind," "The Way We Were" and "Yentl") about the nature of the job. Says Marilyn: "Ideally, from our point of view, and the academy's point of view as well, the song should serve the movie." Adds Alan: "And what happens outside of the movie is gravy."

David Shire, who won in 1980 for the touching "It Goes Like It Goes" from "Norma Rae," says "the song should feel like it's part of the script in the sense that it's organic to the movie. It really is a little bit of playwriting." His song, he points out, "sets up the movie" with a first-person lyric (by Norman Gimbel) that seems to be Norma's own conscience finding voice.

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