By Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

Adam: Last year, Best Original Song went cross-cultural, as Slumdog Millionaire’s “Jai Ho” claimed victory in what would turn out to be a Bollywood takeover. This year, the theme seems to be “expansion.” Not only are there more Best Picture nominees, but Best Song is back up to five from three as well. Song has always been a different sort of award, featuring live performances that often appeal more to the pop-culture crowd than the smug, middle-aged film buffs. For that reason, the award has assumed both a polarizing and all-inclusive role, and it has become somewhat of a fine tradition. Recently, news has broken that there will no longer be live performances. How does that make you feel, and when you look at the five nominees this year, what stands out at first glance?

Savanna: Nothing stands out at first glance, which is perhaps the most remarkable thing about this year’s nominees for Best Original Song. The mediocrity of the selections has not gone unnoticed, with many bloggers and critics questioning the Academy’s choices and declaring the lineup of songs one of the worst in Oscar history. Regarding the rather shocking decision to not invite the nominees to perform live at the ceremony, the powers that be have stated that more time is needed to showcase the 10 Best Picture contenders. But given the overall lack of interest in the five possibilities, I have to ask myself if that is the only reason…

Adam: Unfortunately, I have to agree with the popular sentiment, at least in part. The songs this year seem to lack that extra creativity and purpose. When you consider that this has been — by many accounts — a banner year for film, the weak showing of songs could very well be responsible for their performance omissions, as you suggest. The Princess and the Frog showcases two nominees: “Almost There” and “Down in New Orleans,” both the brainchildren of Randy Newman. While I find these jazzy pastiches pleasant to listen to and fitting tributes to the undercurrents of New Orleans, they still seem just a little too ordinary for any kind of prestigious award. Did you get that feeling as well?

Almost There

Down in New Orleans

Savanna: Yes, absolutely. “Down in New Orleans” is a cute number that does a decent job of evoking the spirit of the Big Easy circa 1920, but I find that it loses a lot of its magic when removed from the backdrop of the film’s lovely animation. The problem with “Almost There” is reflected in its title. It has all the ingredients for a pretty inspiring little anthem and almost hits the mark but never quite makes it; the song seems a bit too light and peppy in tone to truly reflect Tiana’s passion as she sings about the adversity that she has had to face and her hopes for the future. I highly doubt that either of these songs will win. Of course, I could never have predicted Newman’s “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc., triumphing over “May it Be” from The Fellowship of the Ring at the 2001 Oscars, so I might be surprised come March 7. Of the two nominees, I would say that “Almost There” stands the best chance.

Adam: Keeping up with the French theme, we get a delightful little homage to Paris in “Loin de Paname” from Paris 36. It is always nice to see the Academy cast its eye beyond North America, although Hollywood has frequently expressed its amour for anything associated with French cafes and vineyards. I really did enjoy this particular chanson. Like an enticing pastry, it soothes as amiable background music for a wistful mood. That being said, I wonder if it adds anything truly innovative to a well-stocked genre, and perhaps comes up short when compared with some of the more heartwarming efforts, such as Yann Tiersen’s unforgettable score to Amelie. As a person fluent in French and long accustomed to French culture, how would you classify it within the scope of the Oscars and its niche?

Loin de Paname

Savanna: I love this song. But I am also a French teacher with a penchant for Paris and the traditional chanson française. While “Loin de Paname” stands as a beautifully timeless song that could have easily been written 70 years ago and will likely be just as enjoyable decades from now, I cannot honestly say that it is the Best Original Song of the year. The lyrics, though wonderfully written, don’t necessarily bring anything new to a classic theme. As you said, it’s always nice to see other cultures and languages represented in the mix of nominees. However, with the exception of Slumdog Millionaire’s “Jai Ho” in 2008, and “Al otro lao del río” from The Motorcycle Diaries in 2004, English has reigned supreme among Best Original Song winners. I can say with complete certainty that “Loin de Paname” is loin d’un Oscar (far from an Oscar).

Adam: You make a great point, and it is easy to imagine the foreign component strangling its chances, unfair as that may be. At least stateside Francophiles like us will have something tasty to sample. The fourth nominee comes from the gargantuan bust, Nine, but that does not make its nominee for Best Original Song, “Take it All,” a flop. From what I understand, Nine was never all that popular in the musical community, and even the plethora of megastars could not revive a picture inundated by lackluster numbers. Any chance that “Take it All” can, well, take it all?

Take it All

Savanna: I don’t think so. Personally, I was never a fan of Nine, but it did win five Tony Awards in 1982 (including Best Musical and Best Original Score) and was even revived on Broadway in 2003, subsequently winning the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. There is no denying that Maury Yeston is a brilliant composer and lyricist, but “Take it All” is far too ordinary a song to win. I get the sense that it was nominated simply because the Academy felt the need to put a song from Nine on the board. Maybe I’m too much of a purist, but I’m never very impressed by new songs that are added to film adaptations of stage musicals. A few have been nominated in the past – “Love You I Do” and “Patience” (Dreamgirls) in 2006 and “Learn to Be Lonely” (The Phantom of the Opera) in 2004 – but did not win.

Adam: The last entry, “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart, might be called the favorite, if there is such a thing in this contest. With Jeff Bridges headlining the Best Actor category and the movie rooted in a musical premise, “The Weary Kind” has a couple of Oscar-friendly things going for it. Though a simple song, it seems to capture the essence of the film fairly well. Does this entry, composed by Ryan Bingham (not George Clooney’s character from Up in the Air), have the best chance?

The Weary Kind

Savanna: Yes. I would like to officially declare “The Weary Kind” the winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Original Song – by default. Of all this year’s nominees, “The Weary Kind” is clearly most deserving of the win. It is also the only nominee to boast its own Wikipedia article. With its combination of unpretentious guitar melody and thoughtful lyrics delivered by Bingham’s uniquely gritty voice, the theme from Crazy Heart seems packed with raw emotion and history and stands out from the crowd as at least somewhat original.

Adam: I think you just might be right, but if “The Weary Kind” is winning by default, should some other songs have been nominated instead?

Savanna: There were a couple of phenomenal songs that I was very disappointed to see missing from the list of nominees: “Help Yourself” by Sad Brad Smith from Up in the Air, and “All is Love” by Karen O and the Kids from Where the Wild Things Are. As a fan of Avatar, how do you feel about Leona Lewis’ “I See You” being overlooked?

Adam: Thank you for mentioning “I See You,” because I thought that was a glaring exclusion, especially when you consider the quality of the competition. Leona Lewis’ rendition may not have dominated radio stations like Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” but the chord progressions are uniquely mystical, and Lewis makes use of a professional voice to strike an aura in the listener.

It may be a down year for Best Original Song, but expect plenty of intrigue as Oscar Pools hinge heavily on this result. Have a listen and decide for yourself!

Savanna New is an associate editor at Picktainment. Email her at savanna@picktainment.com.

Road to the Oscars series:

Podcasts – Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Adam Spunberg, and Phil Wallace

February 4: Live Action Short – Kit Bowen

February 5: Animated Short – Kit Bowen

February 8: Documentary Short Subject – Christa Youngpeter

February 9: Documentary Feature – Nate Freiberg

February 10: Foreign Language Film – Paul Popiel

February 12: Animated Film – Nate Freiberg

February 15: Sound Mixing – Jeremy Martin

February 16: Sound Editing – Jeremy Martin

February 17: Original Song – Adam Spunberg and Savanna New

February 18: Visual Effects – Mallory Pickard

February 19: Original Score – Adam Spunberg

February 22: Makeup – Christa Youngpeter

February 23: Costume – Steve Neumann

February 24: Art Direction – Christa Youngpeter

February 25: Film Editing – Steve Neumann

February 26: Cinematography – Paul Popiel

February 27: Original Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

February 28: Adapted Screenplay – Jeremy Martin

March 1: Supporting Actress – Marla Seidell

March 2: Supporting Actor – Phil Wallace

March 3: Actress – Marla Seidell

March 4: Actor – Kit Bowen

March 5: Director – Adam Spunberg

March 5: Picture – Kit Bowen

March 7: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards!