“Man or Muppet,” written by Bret McKenzie for The Muppets
“Real in Rio,” written by Sérgio Mendes, Carlinhos Brown and Siedah Garrett for Rio
How the music hath fallen. From those glory days seven decades ago when American popular song was synonymous with Hollywood sound tracks — when Oscars went to such perennials as “Thanks for the Memory,” “Over the Rainbow,” “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “White Christmas,” and the Best Original Song category boasted as many as 14 finalists — we’ve come to this: a threadbare two nominees, neither of which will be performed on Oscar Night. Music is everywhere on TV, on American Idol and Glee and Smash, but effectively AWOL in movies. The mandatory hit theme song for dramatic films (“Up Where We Belong” from A Officer and a Gentleman, “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun, You Know What from Titanic) is a discarded relic. And animated features, which for most of their history were automatically musicals, don’t often use original songs any more; Pixar did away with that requirement. In movies these days, there’s almost nothing to sing about.
It’s not as if people aren’t trying, since the Academy declared 39 songs eligible this time, including four from The Muppets, three from Rio, and two each from Winnie the Pooh, Gnomeo & Juliet and Happy Feet Two. Also submitted were love themes from Our Idiot Brother, Take Shelter, Albert Nobbs and Machine Gun Preacher. Jónsi, lead singer of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, was an early front-runner for “Gathering Stories,” which he wrote with Cameron Crowe for Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo. One seeming sure shot came from Alan Menken, an eight-time Oscar-winner (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas), and his lyricist partner David Zippel (Tony winner for City of Angels). Their “Star Spangled Man,” from Captain America: The First Avenger, is a mock-heroic anthem that asks the musical-rhetorical question: “Who will campaign door-to-door for America, / Carry the flag shore to shore for America, / From Hoboken to Spokane? / The Star Spangled Man with a Plan!” A catchy tune you can march to, the Menken-Zippel number would have expanded the list by 50%, to three. But according to the nominating committee, not even Captain America can save this category.
So we are left with this meager pair, catchy songs from a couple of very enjoyable kids’ movies. “Real in Rio” kick-starts the animated feature Rio with a vivacious, percussion-heavy samba sung and danced to by a rain forest full of tropical birds. A win would give the 71-year-old Sérgio Mendes, father of Brazilian pop-jazz, an Academy Award to augment his Grammy trove.
But the Oscar will go to… Bret McKenzie, for “Man or Muppet.” The more housebroken member of Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand’s premier folk-pop parody duo, McKenzie wrote three tunes for Disney’s revival of The Muppets, all of which could have graced the final list. “Life’s a Happy Song” is a preposterously upbeat number, suitable for warbling with a group or in a shower, or with a group in a shower. Kermit’s solo, “Pictures in My Head,” contains some unacceptable soft rhymes (“hope” with “jokes”) but suffuses the movie with the an aching amphibian nostalgia.
The Academy went with McKenzie’s richest, Conchordiest contribution, “Man or Muppet,” in which the grown human Jason Segal and his Muppet kid brother Gary peer into their conflicted souls to wonder “Am I a man / Or am I a Muppet? / If I’m a Muppet, / Then I’m a very manly Muppet. / Am I a Muppet / Or am I man? / If I’m a man that makes me / A Muppet of a man.” The song, which begins in the pensive mood of Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello,” explodes into a power-pop chorus. It’s like Satan’s yearning ballad from hell “Up There,” in the South Park movie, but G-rated — the existential plea of two innocents, and an honorable enough winner for a hallowed category on life support.
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