Listing what’s screwed up about the Academy Awards would take longer than the annual ceremony itself. But here’s one big beef. Hollywood doles out prizes for Best Song and Best Original Music Score, but nothing comparable to the Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album. Randy Newman farts into a kazoo for Toy Story 6, and he wins yet another golden statuette, while the behind-the-scenes artists who assemble best-selling soundtracks for the likes of The Royal Tenenbaums and Garden State aren’t even eligible for consideration.
But let us suppose that, come this Oscar Night (March 6), after reading some scripted teleprompter prattle, Cameron Diaz rattled off the above five titles as nominees for such a prize. How worthy of such a distinction would they be?
Unlike its poster (intentionally modeled after the bland blockbuster Titanic), the soundtrack for the gay cowboy romance flick Brokeback Mountain is a masterstroke of subtlety. And a tearjerker. After hearing Willie Nelson’s cover of Dylan’s “He Was A Friend of Mine”, and original songs by Gustavo Santaolalla including “A Love That Will Never Grow Old” (voiced beautifully by Emmylou Harris), you just know the film’s ending won’t be all hugs and smiles. Add in Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson’s buddy-buddy rendition of “King Of The Road”, one unassailable oldie (Linda Rondstadt’s “It’s So Easy”), and snippets of Santaolalla’s evocative steel guitar and pump organ score, and the result is nigh irresistible to all but the hardest heart.
Rolling Stone scribe turned filmmaker Cameron Crowe caught flak from The New York Times for leaning too heavily on the musical component of Elizabethtown to move his latest film forward. (“Mr. Crowe…has a well-established fondness for classic rock and for some newer stuff as well, but here he makes artists like Tom Petty and Elton John do a lot of the work that he and his actors should be doing,” noted reviewer A.O. Scott.) But even judged solely as a mix disc, this set feels uneven; for every genuine standout (the Hollies’ rendition of Judee Sill’s “Jesus Was A Crossmaker”, “My Father’s Gun” from Elton’s Tumbleweed Connection), there are so-so cuts by Wheat or eastmoutainsouth that seem to be included primarily to show off the director’s CD collection.
Accompanying a low-budget comedy about, of all things, improv comics, Four Dead Batteries features a nonstop set of hot jazz numbers performed by the now-defunct Hot Club Of Cowtown and its recent offshoot, guitarist Whit Smith’s Hot Jazz Caravan. The fifteen selections feature frisky renditions of Tin Pan Alley fare such as Johnny Mercer’s “I’m An Old Cowhand” and Irving Berlin’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket”. Die-hard fans may be disappointed by the absence of any new Smith originals amidst his five Cowtown compositions featured here, but otherwise, this unpretentious set warrants no grumbling.
Walk The Line faces the same challenge as did the soundtrack to the 2004 biopic Beyond The Sea, with movie star Kevin Spacey singing Bobby Darin faves. As acting exercises, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do fine work emulating Johnny Cash and June Carter, without resorting to flat-out mimicry. But divorced from the film, there is no reason for this soundtrack to exist; these tidy, polished doppelgangers can’t hold a candle to the readily available original recordings.
And the winner is…The Squid And The Whale. Assisted by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips of Luna, music supervisor Randall Poster has compiled yet another bizarre, ear-opening soundtrack stamped with encyclopedic knowledge and canny intuition. Who else could successfully program melancholy new wave (the Cars’ “Drive”), a Blossom Dearie selection from Schoolhouse Rock, and Lou Reed’s operatic “Street Hassle” on the same set? This fourteen-song disc also doubles as a painless introduction to several folkies younger No Depression readers may recognize by name but not know well: Bert Jansch, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Loudon Wainwright III. Given that Poster has more than 40 films to his credit since 1995, by time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences finally mints a Best Music Supervisor prize, they’ll probably have to call it a Randy instead of an Oscar.