"The Academy Awards are not only a part of history," writes film critic Leonard Maltin in the introduction to The Envelope Please... Academy Award Winning Songs (1934-1993), an engaging five-CD boxed set. "They're also a mirror of their times."
If this statement is true, then Envelope--recently released by Rhino Records to coincide with the hoopla surrounding the upcoming Oscars ceremony on March 27--documents a shocking decline in the art of popular composing for motion pictures. Through 1960, the winners of the Best Song statuette (as well as many nominees that were bested in the final tally) generally represented American tunesmithing of a notably high caliber. From "The Way You Look To-Night," a Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern effort crooned by Fred Astaire in 1936's Swing Time, to "All the Way," a Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn track delivered by Frank Sinatra in 1957's The Joker Is Wild, Academy-sanctioned ditties frequently attained the status of standards--and more often than not, this honor was appropriate. Since that time, however, voters often have seen fit to laud treacle so exceptionally tepid that it rivals the least-forward-looking songwriting of the century. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but as this set proves, they have been few and far between.
Reasons for the slide can be linked in part to the fortunes of the Hollywood musical, which was born on the cusp of cinema's sound age. The 1927 Al Jolson vehicle The Jazz Singer (essentially a creaky silent melodrama supplemented with brief dialogue scenes and a few musical interludes) was the first blockbuster sound feature--and seven years later, when the Academy inaugurated the Best Song category, the wonder of hearing rather than reading a film had not yet worn off. Among the major studios' most successful offerings of the period were adaptations of Broadway musicals, as well as spectacular revues that used the flimsiest plots imaginable as a pretext for thrillingly excessive music-and-dance numbers. With artists like director/choreographer Busby Berkeley producing visual phantasmagoria on a scale beyond anything that had been seen before, composers had to come up with sonic equivalents. They responded with rousers such as "The Continental" and "Lullaby of Broadway" (Best Song victors in 1934 and 1935, respectively), which were as bold and brassy as the flicks they decorated.
In the twenty years or so that followed, the outright exuberance that marked these early works--a zeal fueled in part by the depths of the Great Depression--slowly dissipated. Before it did, however, the intrinsic importance of movie songs was firmly established in the minds of studio executives, and this fact of life resulted in a veritable avalanche of fine work. For example, 1943 saw the nomination of classics such as "Change of Heart," "That Old Black Magic" and "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To"--and they all lost (the prize went to Harry Warren and Mack Gordon's "You'll Never Know"). Contrast that to 1988, when only nineteen songs were eligible for Oscar consideration--and most of them were so obviously lame that the Academy lowered the number of nominees from five to three (Carly Simon's yawn-inspiring "Let the River Run," from Working Girl, eventually got the nod).
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The strength of this era means that Envelope's first two discs are filled with pleasures: "Over the Rainbow," "When You Wish Upon a Star," "Swinging on a Star," "White Christmas," "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "All the Way." But by disc three, which covers the years 1958 to 1969, the deterioration in quality becomes noticeable. Fewer musicals were being made then (because of waning popularity and higher production costs), and so many winners hailed from films in which the songs were comparatively incidental--e.g., "Moon River" (from Breakfast at Tiffany's) and "The Shadow of Your Smile" (part of The Sandpiper). Worse, the Academy all but ignored the rock music that was then beginning to slip into movies in favor of weak pop or big ballads that were throwbacks to days long gone. Volume 4 traces the results: two Maureen McGovern disasters ("The Morning After" and "We May Never Love Like This Again"), a pair of gruesome Barbra Streisand signatures ("The Way We Were" and "Evergreen"), Christopher Cross at his most execrable ("Arthur's Theme [Best That You Can Do]") and Debby Boone's hideous tribute to God ("You Light Up My Life"). By comparison, Volume 5 is more tolerable, but not by much: Okay hits from Disney films such as Beauty and the Beast are programmed alongside "I Just Called to Say I Love You" (Stevie Wonder's worst song), "Say You, Say Me" (by Lionel Richie--need I say more?) and "Flashdance...What a Feeling," which will leave most of today's listeners feeling nauseated.
Even worse, "Flashdance" and a surprisingly large percentage of other entries on Envelope are not delivered by the performers who sang them in the films from which they were nominated. In some cases, the cost of procuring the right to include them was undoubtedly too high; hence, Sinatra's "Three Coins in the Fountain" is heard in a version by the deservedly obscure Julius La Rosa, while Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" is growled by, of all people, Richie Havens. But in other similar instances, it's hard to understand Rhino's reasoning: Surely Ann Sothern didn't want so much money for her rendition of "The Last Time I Saw Paris" that Kate Smith's cover had to be substituted. And while there's no faulting Rhino's A-list packaging, the music here probably could have fit on three CDs, which would have made the package significantly easier to afford.
Then again, inflated budgets are a Hollywood tradition--just ask Kevin Costner, whose current aquatic epic, Water World, has spiraled past the $150 million mark, with no end in sight. Perhaps the hefty price tag on Envelope is a mirror of our times, too.