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Songs hope to hit a high note at Oscars again

December 06, 2012|By Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times
  • "Suddenly" was added to the songbook for "Les Miserables."
"Suddenly" was added to the songbook for "Les Miserables." (Mitchell MacNaughton /…)

The Academy Awards haven't been kind to songs of late. The last few years, the category has been treated as an after-thought, with either one film dominating the slate of nominees or voters struggling to find five songs worthy of contention.

After the nadir that was 2012, when only two songs were recognized, the academy has promised change. Five songs will be nominated for the upcoming awards, and once again the rarely showcased art of cinematic songwriting will be handled with grown-up respect. Not since 2009 have the full five songs been nominated.

With this embarrassment of riches, The Envelope provides a shortlist of some songs that may catch voters' ears.

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The pop star: Perhaps it's cheating to include a song from a concert film, but rare is the movie song these days that sells more than 2.6 million downloads in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Wide Awake," from "Katy Perry: Part of Me," closes the film, and it walks the same line as the 3-D documentary itself. It's alternately bubbly and revealing, as this serious ballad boasts synthesizers that are as colorful as Perry's wigs.

The animated contender: Disney always has a strong showing in this field, and "Touch the Sky" from "Brave" gives this unconventional princess tale a song that fits nicely within Disney's fairy-tale traditions. This song is shiny, upbeat and whisked along with Scottish whistles. And that says nothing of Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, whose vocals are brimming with confidence throughout.

The quirky one: As with much of Fiona Apple's recent work, her "This Is 40" song "Dull Tool" is a workout — an emotional one. The lyrics unfold like one side of an argument, but there's no way anyone else could get a word in anyway, as Apple's words have a tendency to spill out. Musically, "Dull Tool" is slightly more prettied-up than the songs on her newest album, as Apple here has a small orchestra shadowing her bile.

The country song: Keith Urban's "For You" was a Top 10 hit on the country charts, but this song from "Act of Valor" is pure adult pop. There's no slide guitar, but there is a string section. Yet what it lacks in twang it makes up for in earnestness. "I wonder," sings Urban, "could I give my life?" The song attempts to probe what it means to sacrifice one's life for the military, and it spares no heartstring in doing so.

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The soundtrack as mix-tape: Music is all over "Silver Linings Playbook," and it strikes a vibe that's alternately indie and romantic. The Diane Warren-penned "Silver Lining" represents the film at its most pop, riding an electronic groove courtesy of British pop singer Jessie J. The cut, however, could face stiff competition from its own film. Alt-J's "Buffalo" is alternately sparse and tense — it's part folk song, part computer glitch — while a rousing soul-rocker from the Alabama Shakes ends the film with an exclamation point.

The musical: The songs in "Les Misérables" were sung live on set and taken directly from the theatrical production by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, with one exception. "Suddenly" was written specifically for the film and was said to be tailored for Hugh Jackman's baritone, a sound described as "very muscular" by director Tom Hopper. Boublil and Schönberg wrote and composed the number for the noble ex-convict and protagonist Jean Valjean. And yes, it's emotional.

The underdog: It could be argued that Scarlett Johansson the singer isn't as respected as Scarlett Johansson the actor. The J. Ralph-penned "Before My Time" from the documentary "Chasing Ice" could change that. With little more than a melancholic piano and a graceful violin from Joshua Bell, the composer has put the emphasis on Johansson's patient phrasing. Never before has her voice sounded this lavish, this dusky.

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Henry Jackman's 8-bit trek from the Commodore to 'Wreck-It Ralph'

todd.martens@latimes.com

 

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