Music and the Oscars

Music and the Oscars. They go together like… like… peanut butter and orange juice. Er… like Reese and Ryan? Hmm. It’s a shame; apparently they used to have such a nice relationship. I heard an old-school Hollywood techie reminiscing about the good old days last week on NPR. The scene he described made the old Oscars show sound like a Vegas showgirl revue, and it probably was. Girls! Costumes! Lights! Song! Dance! Tap dancing, even — and not Savion Glover, either! When was the last time you saw that — and don’t say Happy Feet, because that was Savion grafted onto a penguin body. Seriously, he is the only person allowed to tap dance in North America, as far as I can tell.

Well, there was a little of the old razzle-dazzle in this year’s Oscar ceremony, courtesy of three talented guys who can’t really dance but can actually sing: Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly. OK, Ferrell can’t sing very well, but he was not — to quote Randy Jackson, “too pitchy.” Black, on the other hand, can belt it, as any fan of Tenacious D knows. And Reilly displayed his old Chicago theater roots by singing out in a classic Broadway show tune style, jazz hands and all. They were responsible for the best musical performance of the night, by far, in “A Comedian at the Oscars,” their hilarious ode to the impossibility of comedic material ever receiving an Academy Award. Reilly offered hope in the example of his own career: “I chose to do both Boogie and Talladega Nights,” he reminded them, but Black nevertheless threatened to beat Peter O’Toole (“you’re all legendary and stuff,” he snarled) with his Nickelodeon Award anyway.

Of course, none of those three guys were up for an award, so the threat of the Oscar Song Performance lingered on. It was fully realized in all its boring, corny cheesiness, by Randy Newman and James Taylor, singing a quiet little song about “Our Town,” from the heinous animated film, Cars. I didn’t actually see the movie, but my four year-old friend Elsa did, and she walked out, so I’ll trust her judgment. It’s incredible to me that James Taylor, a former mental patient and drug addict, and Randy Newman, a songwriter whose subversion is without peer in his field (if you don’t believe me, check out his classic “God’s Song,” in which God sings to mankind: “I recoil in horror at the foulness of thee… How We laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer Me.”), can come up with something so lame. I guess they figure the Older Crowd will be happy to see Sweet Baby James, but he’s a long way from “Fire and Rain.”

One thing giving me hope this year was the fact that three songs were nominated from one film, Dreamgirls, which meant that they would be compressed into one performance, and they were. Unless you counted the performance of Jennifer Hudson’s cleavage, which deserved its own stage. Or at least a sturdier bra. Still, it was nice to see Beyonce in her element. She sounded great and looked amazing, too. And that other, forgotten Dreamgirl, Anika Noni Rose? She doesn’t get much press, but she is the only member of the cast, as far as I can tell, who has won a Tony Award. And San Franciscans, take pride: she’s an ACT grad, too.

Unfortunately, Ennio Morricone received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, which meant that Celine Dion would be performing. Somehow they always manage to squeeze her in. (No offense to Ennio, who should have gotten a Nobel Prize at least for his theme to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly 41 years ago.) At least this time Celine was not wearing a backwards tuxedo or a fedora. And in fact, after watching so many American Idol contestants try to “do” Celine, it was a relief to see her doing herself. She was pretty convincing. The weird thing was that Ennio looked more Botoxed than Celine. It’s probably just another sign of the Apocalypse.

Finally, there was Melissa Etheridge. I was dreading this one: “I Need to Wake Up,” the theme to An Inconvenient Truth. Nothing about that pairing suggests a good time. And yet… I came away from her performance thinking, “that was better than I thought a song about climate change could be.” The fact that she was backed by a giant PowerPoint presentation was a nice touch; as my friend Matthew said, An Inconvenient Truth is “basically the best PowerPoint presentation you’ll ever see.” And what do you know, An Inconvenient PowerPoint Presentation carried the night, winning not only Best Documentary Feature but Best Original Song, too! Turns out global warming is a feel-good concept after all! Ahh, Hollywood, you little minx. You can spin anything.

Winners at the Oscars come in two flavors: Official and Un-. Alan Arkin was the Official Winner of the Best Supporting Actor award, but clearly Jackie Earle Haley was the Unofficial Winner in this category due to his incredible comeback story as the former child/teenaged actor best known for his roles in The Bad News Bears (1976) and Breaking Away (1979) whose career had basically dried up until a few years ago. Dude had actually moved to San Antonio, Texas, if that gives you any idea.

And thus in the Best Musical Performance at the Oscars category, officially Melissa Etheridge won, but anyone who watched knew that Ferrell, Black, and Reilly’s “A Comedian at the Oscars” was hands-down the best crafted and most entertainingly performed tune of the night. With a lyric like, “I’m gonna lose forty pounds to play Ralph Nader/ I’m gonna do that gay coal-mining movie with James Spader,” who could touch it? No song moved you more.

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