Sunday, March 7, 2010

Richard Burton 0, Three Six Mafia and Eminem, 1 Each

Back in the good old days, music was used in the movies as just one of many coexisting visual and aural methods of storytelling, whereas nowadays even the finest film score can usually be referred to at its best as mood music, a helpful sort of aural "applause" sign of guidance for the viewer (harsh, deep bass, quick repetitive chords in minor key = "tense;" violins = "emotional moment;" pizzicatto strings = "shopping spree;" and so forth), since God forbid screenwriters actually build mood and emotional investment into the screenplay - that might mean having to write something that isn't a remake, ripoff, biopic or sequel, and that just wouldn't do! Pop in an old Disney animated classic like Cinderella (1950) and observe how while in those days, pizzicatto meant not "shopping spree" but specifically "Jacques' hurried footsteps as he attempts to escape Lucifer," the closest we really come to that now is something like "'Suddenly I See' plays whenever dowdy and/or clueless girl obtains career position at fashion magazine."

 Did I hear KT Tunstall?

This shift in music as filmmaking device has invariably led to the annoying fact that a good deal of nominees nowadays for Best Original Song and a handful of winners as well, even, don't even appear in the movie itself, instead showing up just in time for the end credits to roll (and indeed, the Academy was compelled at one point to amend Rule 16, which covers music awards, to specify that an eligible song must have been "used in the body of the motion picture or as the first music cue in the end credits." Often, a certain year's Best Original Song nominee crop requires selecting the song that best sums up or represents its film (i.e. "Which songwriter actually read the screenplay first, and which did so the best?).

This is not to say that in this field a songwriter cannot reach various levels of success that almost justify themselves as award-worthy on rare but existant occasions. One such occasion in 2003 turned out to be significant for numerous reasons, the biggest of which as far as the film world is concerned is that it marked the moment that The Oscars Meet Rap Music, the first indication of the Academy's fascinated schoolgirl infatuation with hip-hop: it makes it uncomfortable, it feels a bit wrong, the elders definitely don't approve, but something is so irresistible that you can't escape it and almost want to embrace it to become one of the cool kids you so despise. "Lose Yourself," controversial rapper Eminem's theme song from his first (and last?) starring film vehicle, the Curtis Hanson-directed 8 Mile, rather neatly summarizes the plot of the film and appeared as the exit music over the end credits of the film, and in a relatively weak year of competition (a bland new song for the Chicago film version, something from a Rugrats-related film by Paul Simon, and some song by U2 (i.e. a song that sounds exactly like everything else U2 has released since 2000) it became the first rap song to win the Oscar, something so supposedly unexpected by the white rap diva that he skipped the ceremony, even to perform (the truth of his reasons for doing so are probably more closely linked to unresolved issues regarding censorship for the live performance during the Awards).

And yes, news anchors uttering the phrase "rap song won the Oscar" flagged some items somewhere across the country, as music purists began to denounce the title of "song" as oxymoronic while others defended the hip hop songwriting method and its legitimacy, and the rest simply tried to get over the fact that Eminem had won more Academy Awards than Peter O'Toole (and, at the time, Martin Scorcese). The Grammy Awards added a new writing category to that year's ceremony for "Best Rap Song," which Eminem won for "Lose Yourself." But what all of that change and shock managed to obscure for the skeptics was that it actually was a pretty great single on its own, not to mention an end credits single; a good relationship with mainstream content and style allowed Eminem great commercial and chart success (the single went 2xPlatinum) which became a large contributor to votes, as did the pure curious thrill of wondering what would happen if Eminem were to win an Oscar.

Not only did the Academy give hip hop the old college try one year, three years later it took its plate back eagerly for seconds, and this time it was rewarded with an actual life performance during the telecast (and several minutes of utter delight to all of those who had for years wondered how to fit the word "pimp," the noun not the adjective, into the Academy Awards without getting Nipplegated by the Schoolyard Censors of the FCC. Poor Dolly Parton, who really did have a great Oscar-bait tune that year, "Travelin' Thru," that she'd written for the fabulous indie road flick Transamerica (starring Desperate Housewives' Felicity Huffman as a pre-op MTF transsexual, in a performance similarly robbed of an Oscar by a flavor of the moment victor), was like a beauty queen up against a gorgeous deaf-mute for Miss United States ("You can't beat that!"), because somehow the only thing in ManWorld (and a good deal of the voting Academy is still male) that beats a really nice rack is a pimp suit and personal harem of bitches to loan out for a fee at one's discretion.) Hence, therefore, the Oscar going instead to a rap duo known as the Three 6 Mafia for their admittedly entertaining and thematically appropriate theme song to Hustle and Flow, the now legendary "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." In the year with The Tranny Movie, The Gay Cowboy Movie, The Black and White Movie About the Commie-Hating Guy, The Hunky Jews Kill Some Arabs Movie, and The Movie About Really Bad Racist Drivers (which in the end eked out a Best Picture win over longtime fave The Gay Cowboy Movie), somehow the second time around didn't seem as life-changing, although it did inspire a nice dig for host Jon Stewart: "For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one."

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