Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Adele Dazeem and Oscar's Big Music Problem

There wasn't much air left in the tires by the time the 86th Academy Awards rolled around on Sunday, and it wasn't just Putin's fault. Certainly the Olympics-mandated extended wait between the nominations and the ceremony (six and a half weeks, instead of the usual four and a half) - not to mention those two weeks the nation spent binging on winter sports and the progression of Bob Costas' pink eye - had much to do with it (although the telecast had 43.74 million viewers, the most since 2000).

The other part of this year's ho-hummitude was a combination of extreme predictability and relative inaccessibility of most if not all of the likely winners in the high profile acting, writing, and best picture categories - also known as the only categories not expected to be taken by Gravity or Frozen. And, sure enough, in those categories we got three Oscars for "slavery is bad," two for "AIDS is bad," and one for the Woody Allen movie. You could forgive any but the most ardent Oscars nut for tuning out or falling asleep after Best Original Song (I did). Not until then, of course, since this year's Best Original Song category offered one of the only semi-dramatic races, and not just (I don't think) for pop music partisans like me.

First of all, there was the mini-scandal, barely a week after the nomination announcements, that brought down one of the nominees: the Christian hymn "Alone Yet Not Alone," from the immensely obscure film of the same name that played in nine theaters nationwide for a single week in 2013. As little as two years ago, before a Hail Mary rules change that saved the foundering category from elimination, such a nomination might not even have raised an eyebrow, but disgruntled Lana Del Rey fans at least enjoyed some bittersweet justice when the Academy decided something seemed a little hinky with this one and ultimately disqualified the song on unprecedented "ethical" grounds.

Then there was the momentary non-debate among fans as to whether Frozen's big diva number "Let It Go" would be performed on the telecast by Idina Menzel, who sings it in the film, or Demi Lovato, who does the "pop version" (a tradition since Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson broke the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Beauty and the Beast," in 1991), although that was never really a serious question given that Menzel's recording was far outperforming Lovato's on the charts. As the ceremony grew closer, Pharrell Williams' "Happy" (from Despicable Me 2), also a nominee, overtook "Let It Go" on the singles charts and hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 days before the telecast (Menzel's recording has so far reached #17, though a significant post-telecast sales boost should see it spike over the coming weeks) after topping the charts in Europe late last year. (It helps that, unlike "Let It Go," it gets radio play.)

And finally, while momentum seemed on Frozen's side, the Golden Globe had gone to U2's "Ordinary Love," from the Mandela biopic nobody saw, and Disney animation had been shut out of the category since 1999, often in favor of rock and pop stars like Bob Dylan (2000), Eminem ('02), Melissa Etheridge ('06), Adele ('12), and, most memorably, Three 6 Mafia ('05), so it was impossible to predict which side the Academy would fall onto. ("Happy" and the fourth nominee, "The Moon Song," written by indie rock icon Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for Spike Jonze's Her, seemed destined for honorable bridesmaid status.)

There was a time when a musical number on the Oscars had the potential to be legitimately great (Madonna's 1991 performance of "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)," from Dick Tracy), competently pleasant (Dolly Parton's "Travelin' Thru," in 2005), memorably bonkers (Robin Williams, performing South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut's "Blame Canada," in 1999, because why not) or at least memorable (Björk's 2000 swan song, "I've Seen It All"...and I do mean "swan"). Then, as the category began truly suffering after the wacky, amazing/apocalyptic "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" incident, the telecast directors really started fucking with the show's relationship with The Musical Number, at which point music at the Oscars went into a catastrophic tailspin toward Seth MacFarlane's "We Saw Your Boobs."

In the nadir year of 2011, the two Original Song nominees weren't performed at all, replaced by Cirque du Soleil and an orchestral piece by Hans Zimmer which was inventive but so stuffily hipster-cred (Sheila E.! Esperanza Spalding! Giorgio Moroder!) even I almost got a nosebleed. Last year, several nominated songs still weren't performed in lieu of a rather successful Broadway-on-film medley that resurrected Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand finding new ways to maul "The Way We Were" (who knew it was possible), and Seth MacFarlane's...well, you know. Worst of all, the one safe bet of the night, the inimitable Adele performing "Skyfall," was botched so horrifically by the directors and sound crew it actually made Adele sound almost...bad. ADELE! BAD! I mean what the actual fuck. (At least the song won, most deservedly.)

This year, the directors didn't bother with extraneous musical numbers - they were probably too busy thanking their lucky stars (and the Academy) for the foolproof roster of nominees they'd been given. I mean, U2! Karen O.! The number one single in the country! A big showstopping coming-out anthem! Those four cover sought-after demographics without even trying (Straight men! Younger men! Everyone, especially adolescent girls! Young people!). And you've got real, tried-and-true live performers you know can hack it as well as anyone, so no need to worry about that. The directors did an admirable job placing the four performances throughout the ceremony, and in determining the performance order: Pharrell first, to energize things (he's not gonna win anyway), then Karen O. before the lighter-than-air minimalism can sag under the weight of an overlong telecast, then U2 when the show needs a jolt, and finally "Let It Go," the performance most viewers are looking forward to (and have therefore stuck around to see), at the last moment before you have to launch into the big six final awards. What could go wrong?

Nothing, and everything, it seems. Like Adele in 2013, the performers, by and large, showed up and did their duty with reasonable aplomb (some more than others - more on that later). The number that went the best was Karen O.'s, in large part because the intimate simplicity of the song was probably the easiest to pull off under most circumstances; it's hard to screw up a performance involving a singer, a guitar player, and two microphones. U2 also gave it a commendable go, Bono making the most of the lackluster staging that marked all the musical performances with a voice that always seems up to the task (he really can sing that high!).

Pharrell, on the other hand, sounded very much like a studio vocalist who hasn't yet worked out the translation of that particular song to live performance (hint: bring everything down a notch, in pitch and tempo). This was exacerbated by the return of the same ineptitude in sound mixing that railroaded Adele's performance last year. It was clear the sound guy was unfamiliar with the song, which to me seems unacceptable as a matter of professionalism on one of the most important and most-watched telecasts of the year, and even less excusable given that it's the number one single in the country ("Alone But Not Alone," I might understand). With the sound not jelling properly and a ton of colorful dancer people eventually spasming across the stage while Pharrell struggled to keep up, the whole number seemed like a frantic rush job, a hot mess that needed to take a Xanax and call it a night.

Anyone familiar with Idina Menzel's awards show live performance history would have gone into Sunday night with justified trepidation. Her 2004 Tony Awards performance of "Defying Gravity," the showstopper from Wicked, for which she won the Tony for Lead Actress, is roundly regarded as a disaster - the Tonys equivalent of Britney Spears' "Gimme More" at the VMAs. Menzel, whose massive voice truly shines in studio recordings (and, I can only surmise, on the Broadway stage), also has a disconcerting awkwardness about her in the televised performances and films I've seen her in; you can't quite tell whether it's unease or maleficent disdain, but either way you know she's uncomfortable.

While her performance of "Let It Go" on Sunday night was without question a vast improvement over the Tonys, I still would stop short of calling it "good." Some of this was outside her control: the staging, or lack thereof, gave her nothing to work with; the song was cut down, excising the second verse and forcing her to build to the dramatic, belt-y climax in half the time; and, well, she'd just been introduced as Adele Dazeem (although, let's face it, that was probably the best thing to happen to her that night). In the end, she essentially stood there looking like a ravishing deer in the headlights, managed to sing the right lyrics instead of what was surely going through her head (something like "Oh, FUCK," on a loop), mostly avoided falling behind tempo, and her high note didn't break my tv set. But I doubt she was happy with it, and I sat on my couch smiling at the tv a patronizing "Oh, it wasn' bad..." smile (not that there was anyone around to see it) and thinking about how Shoshana Bean would have murdered that song and really needs to play Elsa in the original cast of the inevitable upcoming Broadway adaptation even though it's probably beneath her at this point. And I should have been thinking about Adele Dazeem! Or at least Frozen and "Let It Go" and how passionately and deeply analytically I hoped it would win the Oscar it deserved. And it did win the Oscar, and the adorable couple who wrote it gave a mostly adorable speech that I enjoyed despite the stomach-turning half-joke about doing a Frozen 2.

Still, even if Idina Menzel had been flawless and looked ravishing and confident and done a mic drop before leaving the stage, the performance would have been a frustration; this is true of all of the Best Original Song performances (except Karen O., I suppose, since they'd really have had to try to fuck that up). The Oscars show runners and tech crew did the musical numbers disservice in specific ways mentioned earlier as well as in the staging, separating artist and song entirely from the context of their respective film by having them sing on a bare-bones stage with clunky high school pops concert microphones, undifferentiated from Bette Midler's post-In Memoriam concert recital of "Wind Beneath My Wings." "We Saw Your Boobs" was more thoughtfully rendered.

If skimping on scenery, props and choreography is the chosen way to go, why not utilize the projection screens to show footage from or related to the film, to give context (when applicable) the audience can't get watching Idina Menzel in a pretty dress thinking "Oh FUCK! Oh FUCK! Oh FUCK!" The animation sequence in Frozen to "Let It Go" is as stunning visually as the song is musically, and while the song can stand on its own (another point in its favor), it is only more effective and intense in concert with the visual element.

The Oscars directors' respect for music was summed up in host Ellen Degeneres' shout-out to the orchestra, which had to be beamed by video over to the Capitol Records building where said orchestra was cloistered for the second year in a row, performing remotely.* Yes, even with Pharrell Williams and Idina Menzel (hence the tempo issues). And thank goodness they cut the second verse of "Let It Go," because God forbid the three and a half hour show get drawn out by a three and a half minute song when Ellen could spend that time delivering pizza or we could have celebrities come out to introduce the celebrity who's going to introduce the celebrity who's introducing Adele Dazeem (don't forget your swag bag, Mr. Travolta!).

It just seems gross, and rude, and disrespectful, to mistreat the artists (pop and orchestral) who may be from outside the film ecosystem but are still part of the entertainment industry and also happen to be providing the telecast with some of the most engaging material for those millions of viewers at home the producers, directors, and network so depend on. You all know I'm no fan of the Grammy Awards, but they do know how to put on a show for the audience in a way that benefits the broadcast, the individual performers, and the music industry in general. The Oscars have almost double the viewership, yet they mostly waste it jacking off about live action shorts and how proud they are of figuring out that slavery and AIDS are bad things (and how brave it is for a straight man to play a transsexual) and we barely get to see Jennifer Lawrence do anything.

On a more hopeful note, the disregard for music among the Oscars telecast direction and production seemed to run counter to that of the voting membership of the Academy this year. Not only were this year's nominees for Best Original Song strong and thoughtful across the board, showing a not-yet-forgotten value for discretely well-crafted songs that serve actual purpose within a film (rather than just happening to be tacked onto the credits), but the one that most lived up to those ideals won the Oscar - even against U2! Frozen, a conspicuous revival of the Disney animated musical, also won for Best Animated Feature, and Steven Price's ingenious score for Gravity, which melds music and sound effects in a uniquely cinematic way, was awarded Best Original Score.

But perhaps most encouraging, and easily the biggest (only?) surprise of the night, was in the documentary feature category. Sure bet Werner Herzog Indonesian genocide documentary The Act of Killing was upset by Morgan Neville's 20 Feet From Stardom, about the lives, careers and struggles of (mostly black, female) professional backup singers. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and star of the film Darlene Love accompanied Neville to the stage to collect the statue, and she burst out into a loud, rousing chorus of the spiritual "His Eye is On the Sparrow": "I sing because I'm happy/ I sing because I'm free!" It was electric, and the crowd loved it, and for the first of several times Sunday night I found myself surprisingly approbatory toward the Academy, specifically in its choices relating to music.

Perhaps there's room to hope that those in charge of the ceremony and telecast might adjust their ways in line with the voting membership's apparent lingering appreciation for music and the vibrant role it plays in film and should play in the movie world's biggest celebration of movies. It's not that hard; future musical performers just need the same directorial and technical focus, commitment, competence, and cohesion as "We Saw Your Boobs."

*Here's a behind the scenes look at the Capitol Records setup, which makes it all sound like far more trouble than it's worth.
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