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The Songwriters: From 'Tangled' to 'Burlesque'

Alan Menken, A.R. Rahman, John Legend, the 'Coming Home' team and Diane Warren discuss their songs.

December 07, 2010|By Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times

Oscar's best song category sometimes feels like the field that gets no respect. Two years ago, only three songs were nominated, and the prior year much of the music recognized by the academy came from one film, Disney's "Enchanted." In 2010, a long-standing tradition was done away with, as the contenders for best song did not perform on the telecast.

But what feels like a lack of attention from the academy isn't reflected in the films themselves. The likes of Randy Newman, Christina Aguilera, Cher, Carrie Underwood and John Legend were among the many who lent their vocals and musical talents to films this year. Below is a small sampling of some of this year's contenders.

The Disney factor

Alan Menken is a veteran when it comes to delivering music to Disney films, but for "Tangled" he had to retrain himself. A snappy digital update of the classic princess fairy tale "Rapunzel," "Tangled" is a musical that isn't song-driven. That meant few long expository songs with grand landscapes and colorful characters.

"Marrying the contemporary tone of the book to a classic Disney fairy-tale score was a challenge," Menken says. "There was a tendency to want to put the kitchen sink in every song."

With eight Oscars to his name, including awards for "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," Menken is one of the company's most decorated musicians. "Tangled" shows off his more stripped-down side, as Menken turned to folk heroes of the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne for opening number "When Will My Life Begin." "Tangled's" younger fans can be forgiven, though, for hearing more Taylor Swift than Mitchell in the peppy acoustic guitar number.

"I wrote five numbers for the opening scene," Menken says. "The one we used established a song reality, but it was compatible with the scene. It didn't carry the scene. On a gut level, '60s folk rock felt like a fresh, interesting place to go to."

The meditative one

A.R. Rahman can do celebratory. American audiences saw a glimpse of his talents with " Slumdog Millionaire's" "Jai Ho," a festive and rousing Bollywood number. Working with director Danny Boyle once more for "127 Hours," the Indian superstar was again called upon to marry song with a moment of triumph. Although his "If I Rise," a collaboration with English pop artist Dido, strikes a more meditative tone this time.

As a character on the verge of falling victim to the elements, James Franco's Aron Ralston summons a final burst of courage, turning recent memories of new acquaintances into dreams of better days to come. "Somebody was offering him something of a future," Rahman says. "That gave him a hope and the energy to liberate himself."

Light and ambient, "If I Rise" builds delicately, with Dido's soft voice lending an angelic presence. With layer upon layer of guitar, the song has a magical feel, as it's grounded in real instrumentation but not exactly organic, either.

Boyle, says Rahman, had one request.

"Danny said, 'I want your voice too,' so I had to put my voice on it," Rahman says. "I initially wanted it to be just Dido, but the main character is a male voice. It's a very simple tune, very innocent, very much from the heart."

The star

If Davis Guggenheim's education documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" didn't exist, R&B crooner John Legend likely would have created it. In the midst of recording "Wake Up!" with hip-hop act the Roots, a project that sees the artists re-interpreting civil rights era protest songs from the likes of Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers, among others, Legend wanted a documentary to accompany the album.

"The idea was to take all the artists that we covered from this album, 'Wake Up!,' and then go back to the cities where they grew up and the schools they went to," Legend says. "We wanted to see what state the schools were in at this point."

The artist's manager met with Guggenheim to see if he'd be interested in taking on such a film, discovering that Guggenheim already was working on a documentary that addressed issues facing today's public school system. Legend asked to participate.

Legend cut the prayer-like "Shine" after seeing a rough cut of the film. It's an unadorned ballad with an intricate piano arrangement, and it is topped with an impassioned vocal performance from Legend. By song's end, Legend has practically sung himself hoarse.

"You are weeping by the point the song comes on," Legend says. "It's right at the end, and it's somewhat hopeful, but it's melancholy. That was on purpose. I didn't want a rah-rah song. The chords are more optimistic, but the verses are more melancholy."

The country heartbreaker

There's a reason Gwyneth Paltrow promoted "Country Strong" by singing the title track at the Country Music Assn. Awards this November. Not only is it an uplifting, guitar-driven cut, it's one that doesn't contain any spoilers.

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