let it go oscar

The winners of the Most Adorable Acceptance Speech at last night’s Oscars  were Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who won for Best Song (Frozen’s “Let It Go”). The Lopezes demonstrated their craft with their tightly scripted speech, beginning with a clever joke (“To our fellow nominees, you are all rock stars…literally”) and proceeding to thank everyone in rhymed couplets. You’d expect nothing less from Robert, the co-lyricist and co-composer of The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q and now only the 12th EGOT ever. This songwriting team was winning in every sense of the word, including Charlie Sheen’s.

But more than being the latest in a long line of Broadway-forged Oscar winners, the Lopezes harkened back to the glory days of the movie musical. Musicals once routinely competed for Best Picture (winners included My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Gigi, and West Side Story). There’s even a Best Musical category lying dormant in the rulebook, but it hasn’t been activated since 1984, when Prince won Best Song Score for Purple Rain. For a while in the 1990s, the only standard bearer were  Disney’s  animated films and their knock-offs. So it’s fitting that a Disney product return to the podium. Best Song remains a lone vestigial reminder of what was once a vibrant genre.

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Which prompts the question of why even keep this category around? While Cinematography, Acting, and Original Film Score are stable categories, original songs are not. It has shifted from “Scoring of a Musical-Adaptation or Treatment” to “Adaptation Score” to “Original Song Score,” never seeming to agree on what was being honored. And if the film in question is not a movie musical, why would a song ever have to be written expressly for the film? You could argue dramatic need, but the rules say the song has to appear once in the film and the closing credits count! Under those rules, isn’t it true that the category itself will produce songs only designed to win an Oscar and thus constitute cynical awards hoarding?

Veteran composer Bruce Broughton knows the bitterness of this scenario very well. He became the first person ever to lose a nomination for unfair campaigning. His song for the indie Christian film Alone Yet Not Alone was stricken from the record when the Academy found out Broughton had emailed 70  out of 240 voting members of the music branch. Such emails are common, but Broughton’s status as a former Academy governor gave it the tint of favoritism and also offered an explanation as to how he was able to beat out stars like presumed contenders Paul McCartney, Jay-Z, and Lana Del Rey.

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Truth be told, the Academy’s very attempts at impartiality seem unfair. For example, the music branch is asked to vote on nearly 75 original songs clocking in at 4 hours in total length from watching a DVD of clips of the movies. The clips are randomly numbered and do not contain the names of the composer or lyricist. While big names might unfairly influence some, it’s also easy to forget that anonymity actually helps Bono and Pharrell Williams, because they are still recognizable from the top 40. Scarlett Johansson’s voice is equally unmistakable in the film Her. Rather than helping indie choices, this favors more famous voices and/or songs from big recognizable films most people want to reward.

Indeed, when the nominations came out and Broughton’s name was called, there was immediate outrage. How had he beat out better-promoted contenders? A snubbed songwriter’s PR firm hired a private investigator who alleged the film was disqualified because it had not advertised its theatrical run. But its showtime listings counted. Next came attacks on the film itself and allegations of racism towards Native Americans, its right-leaning Christian message, and plain old bad filmmaking.

Finally, Bruce’s offending email was discovered. In this email, Broughton didn’t promote his song, but merely asked for consideration, which isn’t against any rules. By comparison, a couple of years ago when one of The Hurt Locker’s producers sent an email to ask for votes against Avatar, his Oscar ticket was revoked, but the nomination was allowed to stand. He received his Best Picture award at a later date.

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Meanwhile, despite all the bitterness Broughton has aired about getting a nomination revoked, the scandal has brought him the attention he wanted for the song. He reported in a letter to Deadline that the song has charted on Billboard at #2 in Christian Digital Songs and #8 in Hot Christian Songs. It’s perhaps the silver lining for Broughton, who unlike U2, Pharrell, Karen O, and the Lopezes, has devoted his life to film and TV. His 10 Emmys and one surviving Oscar nomination attest to that. It’s unfortunate, but perhaps the most convincing reason Broughton was made an example of comes from the title of a Robert Lopez song from Avenue Q, “Schadenfreudeand.”

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