I heard Adele's "Skyfall" on the radio this past week and couldn't help but think that the producers of the James Bond film scored big by getting one of the world's most loved music acts to write a song that not only played over the songs credits, but helped make the blockbuster a culturally relevant enterprise. Because of Adele, 007 is now an Academy Award-winning entity. "Skyfall" isn't just a great James Bond theme; it's a great song, period.
However, not all Best Original Song winners are created equal. In fact, Adele's record is the only winning song that had any impact on mainstream airwaves. True, a great movie song should serve the film its written for, which doesn't necessarily mean pop success. Unfortunately, some of the category's winners don't even manage that accomplishment. Here's a rundown of the Best Original Song Oscar winners of the past ten years, from greatest to least.
1. "Falling Slowly" (Once) Songs like this were the reason why the Best Original Song category was created. This category only makes sense when the trophy goes to a superior example of songwriting for a musical film in which songs carry the bulk of the emotional weight. Glen Hansard's and Marketa Irglová's lovely tune about making the choice to love after turmoil was the perfect centerpiece for Once, an indie musical set in Dublin that tells the story of two down-and-out musicians who find their match in each other. The dreamy melody is matched by the pair's winsome vocals. "Falling Slowly" is that rare movie song that is not only central to the film it's written for, but also functions as its own work of art.
2. "The Weary Kind" (Crazy Heart) There was nothing extraordinary about Crazy Heart, a typical run of-the-mill musician-triumphs-over-all story in the vein of Ray and Walk the Line, only fictionalized. What was extraordinary were Jeff Bridge's memorable performance as Bad Blake and this woeful song by Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett. It's an ode to the resilience of those people able who are able to survive in the desolate landscape of disappointment. In the context of the film, "The Weary Kind" functions as Bad Blake's redemption song, and marks his return to country music stardom. It's the last note the audience hears, and then one they remember the longest.
3. "Skyfall" (Skyfall) It's not uncommon for end credit songs that have no correlation to a film's content to be nominated for and even win Best Original Song. Adele Adkins' and Paul Epworth's theme, however, is quintessential 007: cool, sleek, and undeniably British. The lyrics personify the James Bond mystique without resorting to caricature, making it a savvy piece of songwriting. There's also the fact that "Skyfall" is the only winner of the past ten years to be a top ten hit on the Billboard charts.
4. "It's Hard out Here for a Pimp" (Hustle & Flow) The best original song in 2005 was "A Love that Will Never Grow Old" from Brokeback Mountain, but due to Academy technicalities, it was ruled ineligible. Three 6 Mafia's rap for the misogynistic, yet, endearing lead character from Hustle & Flow was the next best thing. The track, a testimony of a pimp's struggles to pay the rent, find gas money for his Cadillac and keep his business going amidst girls jumping ship, almost approaches the comical, but in the framework of its film, it's a startling accurate portrayal of the characters' misery.
5. "I Need to Wake Up (An Inconvenient Truth) Melissa Etheridge's liberal rock anthem has the distinction of being the first song from a documentary feature to win the award. It's also a pretty good track. Its rousing chorus admonishes listeners to wake up and shout out...against global warming. "I Need to Wake Up" sounds like it could very well be from Etheridge's early-90s glory days, but its lyrics could be used to rouse support for any number of today's social causes. It definitely underscored the film's eco-friendly message, and the world became more conscious of its carbon footprint because of it.
6. "Al Otro Lado del Rio" (The Motorcycle Diaries) This handsome, delicate song by Jorge Drexler is the first foreign language song to take home the award. It exudes the ponderous musings that fuel the young Che Guevara's motorcycle wanderings, as well as conveys his deep-rooted connection to the earth he traveled. Its win proved a smart choice, not only because it's a gorgeous piece of world music, but because it prevented the horrible songs from The Chorus, The Phantom of the Opera, The Polar Express and Shrek 2 from walking away with the trophy in a weak year.
THE BAD: 7. "Jai Ho" (Slumdog Millionaire) Just like everything about Slumdog Millionaire, "Jai Ho" is Bollywood-lite, a distillation of everything great about Indian cinema into a confection pleasing to Western audiences. A.R. Rahman is responsible for some of the genre's greatest masterpieces, so it's a bit upsetting that his Oscar legacy rests with this repetitive and simplistic song and score. (He also took home a trophy in the category of Best Original Score.) This was also the year the Academy chose three nominees and still opted to not nominate Bruce Springsteen for his excellent contribution to The Wrestler. Major fail.
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8. "Into the West" (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) This Annie Lennox, Howard Shore, and Fran Walsh collaboration is not a bad song per se, but it's a New Age snooze-fest when compared to the action-filled blockbuster it serves. A much better choice would have been the sweet, folksy "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" from A Mighty Wind or the haunting, hymn-like "The Scarlet Tide" from Cold Mountain.
9. "Man or Muppet" (The Muppets) Laugh-out-loud funny, but only in the framework of the character arc it's working for. Take the song out of the movie, and it's head-scratching at best. 2011 was without question a year the Academy should have considered cancelling the category, as only two nominees made the final ballot. The Muppets, a pretty good movie musical with some pretty good original songs, won this category hands down when it was first released, but the Academy should have been more discerning about the track it rally for. "Life's a Happy Song" is not only a fine tune on its own, it's also emblematic of the Muppets franchise and the brand's overall film legacy.
10. "We Belong Together" (Toy Story 3) Toy Story 3 is one of the all-time animated great, to be sure, but Randy Newman's traditional pop track about the glories of friendship was the least of its accomplishments. It has none of the timeless charm of "You've Got a Friend in Me," I didn't even remember the song existed until it won the Oscar. The Golden Globes had it right when they awarded their prize to Diane Warren's "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," Burlesque's power anthem performed by Cher. The song might very well be interpreted as an allegory for Cher's indomitable career, and it would have been great to see songwriting for true bonafide musicals honored. And if the Academy really wanted to go back to the glory days of animated sing-a-longs, they should have chosen "I've Seen the Light," from Tangled. Yes, it was basically a re-write of Aladdin's "A Whole New World," but Alan Menken's and Glenn Slater's song was at least integral to the movie's heart.