Sunday, December 20, 2015

Best Song: "Theme From Shaft" (1971)

Scene from Shaft
Welcome to Best Song, a new weekly column released on Sunday dedicated to chronicling the Best Original Song category over the course of its many decades. The goal is to listen to and critique every song that has ever been nominated in the category as well as find the Best Best Song and the Best Loser. By the end, we'll have a comprehensive list of this music category and will hopefully have a better understanding not only of the evolution, but what it takes to receive a nomination here. It may seem easy now, but wait until the bad years.

The Preface

The year is 1971 and The Academy is celebrating its 44th year. This was the year that director William Friedkin's police drama The French Connection won Best Picture. The ceremony featured out of the last public appearances of Betty Grable, of whom was battling with cancer at the time. Meanwhile in the Best Original Song category, things got funky as "Theme From Shaft" won and told all of us to shut our mouths for the better.

The Nominees

Song: "Age of Not Believing"
Film: Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Performers: Angela Lansbury

I am not familiar with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but I am familiar with this song. It's quick and to the point in the most endearing ways. With a simple melody and Angela Lansbury giving her all, she manages to paint the picture of childhood innocence disappearing as something both wonderful and tragic. Sure, it lacks a deeper emotional core, but it's such an immediately catchy song with lyrics that you're likely to remember just as fast. Overall, a very strong song. I understand why it made the cut, even if many would consider this to be second tier Disney music.

Song: "Bless the Beasts and the Children"
Film: Bless the Beasts and the Children
Performers: The Carpenters

Okay, this is another example of not playing fair. As I have stated over the past few weeks, there's a lot of "contemporary" folk rock songs that I generally enjoy from this era. Among the higher up is The Carpenters. Karen Carpenter's got a great voice and even if the song sounds familiar, she manages to fill it with wonderful soul. It's hard for me to really hate this song because it's The Carpenters doing what they do best. The melodies are tight and the instruments are on key. I generally like the song, even if I think that they have done better. I'm going to try not to just give this one the edge because of the bias, but it's so hard.

Scene from Kotch

Song: "Life is What You Make It"
Film: Kotch
Performers: Johnny Mathis
Listen here.

Just when I thought that it would be a shoe in for The Carpenters, this song came along and reminded me also why I like Johnny Mathis. Everything about this song is beautiful and elegant. I love how his voice swings with the beat, capturing the silliness of life while adding a profundity to the subtext. It's a generally well constructed song that may hit all of the familiar beats, but the production is just too solid. Of course, it's partly because Marvin Hamlisch is on staff here, and his work for the next decade (and so on, actually) is just wonderful in how it added sentiment to personality and still made something wholly satisfying. I really like this song and feel that this may be one of the strongest years so far that I've heard in quite a few weeks.

Song: "All His Children"
Film: Sometimes a Great Notion
Performers: Charley Pride

This year is an embarrassment of riches. We have The Carpenters, Marvin Hamlisch, AND Henry Mancini. Speaking as I haven't heard any of these songs before, it is more impressive how each of them work. While I consider this my least favorite of the bunch, it's still a very good song that plays into the familiar country rhythm and adds a pleasant melody. I also like that it's among the more optimistic sides that I've heard. It's embracing of everyone in a way that feels often ignored by The Academy. Charley Pride also has a great voice that makes the song feel special. I don't know that it stands out from how I perceive most good country songs, but it's still a good country song, and that may be enough in the end.

The Winner

Song: "Theme From Shaft"
Film: Shaft
Performers: Isaac Hayes

I make it a rule to only (if possible) share video of recorded versions of these nominees. To me, it's all about getting the purest interpretation of them. However, I had to include this Oscars performance because, it's one of the most iconic moments in ceremony history. Everyone remembers that routine when Isaac Hayes came out and sang that song. It's also amazing to hear this song in context to the Best Original Song nominees. While I have pretty much gone on record many times of saying "We haven't heard a nominee like this before," I definitely think this is one of few that actually earns it. The beat is immediately iconic, those backing vocals are great. Even Isaac Hayes' voice is on point. Most of all, it's jarring in comparison to the past 30 winners and their overwhelming whiteness. Even if the song lacks elaborate lyricism, it does have the energy and power to be one of the immediate bests. I'm impressed that this won because of how different it is. Maybe that's actually why it did.

Best Loser

A comprehensive list and ranking of the songs that were nominated but did not win. This is a list predicated on which song that was nominated I liked the best.

1. "The Green Leaves of Summer" - The Alamo (1960)
2. "That's Amore" - The Caddy (1953)
3. "A Town Without Pity" - A Town Without Pity (1961)
4. "The Man That Got Away" - A Star is Born (1954)
5. "The Sweetheart Tree" - The Great Race (1965)
6. "Carioca" - Flying Down to Rio (1934)
7. "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" - Buck Privates (1941)
8. "Charade" - Charade (1963)
9. "Pieces of Dreams" - Pieces of Dreams (1970
10. "Wild is the Wind" - Wild is the Wind (1957) 
11. "(Love is) The Tender Trap" - The Tender Trap (1955) 
12. "Pass That Peace Pipe" - Good News (1947)
13. "They're Either Too Young Or Too Old" - Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943)
14. "Cheek to Cheek" - Top Hat (1935)
15. "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" - Orchestra Wives (1942)
16. "Gegorgy Girl" - Georgy Girl (1966)
17. "The Trolley Song" - Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
18. "Ac-Cent-U-Ate the Positive" - Here Comes the Wave (1945)
19. "Come Saturday Morning" - The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)
20. "Life is What You Make It" - Kock (1971)
21. "Thoroughly Modern Millie" - Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)
22. "Where Love Has Gone" - Where Love Has Gone (1964)
23. "Zing a Little Zong"  - Just For You (1952)
24. "Walk on the Wild Side" - Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
25. "Almost in Your Arms (Love Song from Houseboat)" - Houseboat (1958)
26. "Build Me a Kiss to Dream On" - The Strip (1951)
27. "Star!" - Star! (1968)
28. "Wilhemina" - Wabash Avenue (1950)
29. "Through a Long and Sleepless Night" - Come to the Stable (1949)
30. "Waltzing in the Clouds" - Spring Parade (1940)
31. "Strange Are the Ways of Love" - The Young Land (1959)
32. "Ole Buttermilk Sky" - Canyon Passage (1946)
33. "Julie" - Julie (1956)
34. "Dust" - Under Western Stars (1938)
35. "The Woody Woodpecker Song" - Wet Blanket Policy (1948)
36. "I Poured My Heart Into a Song" - Second Fiddle (1939)
37. "Remember Me" - Mr. Dodd Takes the Air (1937)
38. "I've Got You Under My Skin" - Born to Dance (1936)

Best Best Song

A comprehensive list and ranking of the songs that won this category. 

1. "Moon River" - Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
2. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" - The Wizard of Oz (1939)
3. "The Way You Look Tonight" - Swing Time (1936)
4. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
5. "Swinging on a Star" - Going My Way (1944)
6. "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)" - The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
7. "Theme From Shaft" - Shaft (1971)
8. "For All We Know" - Love and Other Strangers (1970)
9. "All the Way" - The Joker is Wild (1957)
10. "Never on Sunday" - Never on Sunday (1960)
11. "Chim Chim Cher-ee" - Mary Poppins (1964)
12. "Talk to the Animals" - Dr. Dolittle (1967)
13. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" - Neptune's Daughter (1949)
14. "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" - Here Comes the Groom (1951)
15. "Born Free" - Born Free (1966)
16. "Three Coins in the Fountain" - Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)
17. "High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin')" - High Noon (1952)
18. "Love is A Many Splendored Thing" - Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955)
19. "It Might as Well Be Spring" - State Fair (1945)
20. "White Christmas" - Holiday Inn (1942)
21. "Thanks for the Memory" - The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
22. "The Last Time I Saw Paris" - Lady Be Good (1941)
23. "High Hopes" - A Hole in the Head (1959)
24. "Gigi" - Gigi (1958)
25. "Mona Lisa" - Captain Carey, U.S.A. (1950)
26. "The Days of Wine and Roses" - The Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
27. "The Shadow of Your Heart" - The Sandpiper (1965)
28. "Buttons and Bows" - The Paleface (1948)
29. "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" - Song of the South (1947)
30. "When You Wish Upon a Star" - Pinocchio (1940)
31. "The Windmills of Your Mind" - The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
32. "Secret Love" - Calamity Jane (1953)
33. "Call Me Irresponsible" - Papa's Delicate Condition (1963)
34. "You'll Never Know" - Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)
35. "On the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe" - Harvey Girls (1946)
36. "The Continental" - The Gay Divorcee (1934)
37. "The Lullaby of Broadway" - Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)
38. "Sweet Leiulani" - Waikiki Wedding (1937)

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