“My percentages aren’t great,” admitted Randy Newman on the Academy Award stage.
Before tonight, he’d been nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Song nineteen times, and only won once. Now, he’s two for twenty. “We Belong Together,” the spunky piano-rock number from Pixar’s “Toy Story 3″ earned him the golden statuette. The “Short People” singer, who last won in 2001 with “I Didn’t Have You” from “Monsters, Inc.” — another Pixar film — seemed shocked to take the award, and his halting acceptance speech was an unconventional one.
“I want to be good television so badly,” he told the audience. Newman is known for his savage irony, but he meant what he said: he’s an entertainer at heart, and he comes from a movie scoring family. Alfred Newman, his uncle, won nine Oscars; another uncle, Lionel, scored “Love Me Tender” and took an Academy Award for the music from “Hello, Dolly.” While endearing, the awkward Newman is definitely not good television. But who cares?, he’s great music.
“We Belong Together” topped “If I Rise” from arty survival flick “127 Hours,” “I See The Light” from Rapunzel biopic “Tangled,” and “Coming Home” from “Country Strong” (Newman also asked why there were only four songs nominated, which is a good point; shouldn’t there have been five?)
Jennifer Hudson introduced Gwyneth Paltrow as country music’s newest star. That’s a stretch, but her plaintive performance of “Coming Home” was certainly sincere. Paltrow sings like a poor woman’s version of Jenny Lewis: hers is L.A. country for sure. That said, “Coming Home” was penned by Nashville veterans. Hillary Lindsey, who has written with Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum, is co-credited on the song. Lindsey has also penned or co-penned Carrie Underwood’s best songs — “Wasted” and “Jesus Take the Wheel” — and “Coming Home” feels very much like an Underwood number.
“I See The Light,” the love theme from animated film “Tangled,” is a throwback lite radio ballad from 1983: you know, the sort of thing you’d plug your ears through while waiting for the deejay to spin some Def Leppard. Alan Menken, who has won eight Oscars for his music — mainly for other Disney films — penned the tune, which, while predictable, is nowhere near as dull as the words. Glen Slater’s lyrics are a twenty-car pileup of cliche. Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi, who sang the lead roles in “Tangled,” revisited their duet on the Academy Award stage. Their performance was pretty, but the song didn’t afford either singer much expressive latitude.
Randy Newman has frequently been snubbed by the Academy, but they keep bringing the wry songwriter to their big show. He pounded out “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3″ on a long piano. Newman’s sardonic wit is storied, but his songs from movies are relatively anodyne — for a guy who has written convincingly about slave traders, racist politicians, and dirty old men, he does a fine job voicing the hopes and fears of wholesome cartoon characters. It’s another example of his versatility, but it doesn’t prevent his film songs from feeling like toned-down versions of what he does so effortlessly on his studio albums.
Dido, who sang “If I Rise” in “127 Hours,” couldn’t make it to the Oscars show. The role of her understudy was played by Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, whose blissed-out Dido impression was spot-on: Dido’s verse is near-unintelligible, and so was Welch’s.
Trent Reznor has always been a rockin’ contradiction: a musician bristling with personality working in a subgenre (industrial) that thematizes depersonalization, and an anti-establishment figure whose hit choruses are as catchy as Lady Gaga’s. Now this professional outsider owns an Oscar. The Nine Inch Nails frontman won the Academy Award for Best Original Score for his work with frequent collaborator Atticus Ross on “The Social Network.” Their music for the film was atmospheric, synthetic-sounding, and affecting, and it beat out scores by A.R. Rahman (“127 Hours”), John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon), Hans Zimmer (“Inception”), and Alexandre Desplat (“The King’s Speech”).
It’s an adage among rockers that when a musical trend reaches Hollywood, it’s over. After tonight, the Gregory Brothers ought to be looking for a new angle. In a segment that was neither funny nor novel, the Academy Awards attempted to “Auto-Tune” lines from popular movies (“Social Network,” “Harry Potter,” etc.) and turn them into songs. For those who hated this trend to begin with — my hand is up — its inclusion in the Oscars broadcast is a reason to applaud. It’ll never seem cool again.