The 87th Academy Awards take place this Sunday, February 22. As usual, the nominations in the musical categories are a mix of exciting and underwhelming (including the strange return of a former recluse). But, in a year when music played a huge role in some of the year's biggest films (Whiplash, Birdman, Boyhood), the safeness of Oscar voters and conservative rules of eligibility have left some of the most memorable music and film moments out of the discussion.
So we threw out all the rules to only focus on those interesting intersections between these two media. And, what the hell, we created our own Oscar categories.
Best Score Disqualified for Nefarious Reasons
Birdman (Original Soundtrack), Antonio Sanchez
Let's start with the most obvious oversight. The score for Alejandro González Iñárritu's visually fluid meditation on celebrity desperation, popularity and prestige was ruled ineligible because the movie uses pre-existing bits of classical music from Mahler and Tchaikovsky (the decision was appealed to no avail). But that's clearly not what resonates about the film's brilliant jazzy drum score.
The most striking thing about Birdman is the visual language it creates, condensing the entire time period leading up to Michael Keaton's character's theatre debut into one seemingly continuous take, is the visual equivalent of music. The way it plays with form is lilting and rhythmic, which is why Antonio Sanchez's percussion-driven score is so perfectly suited and so integral to the film: in a film with no cuts, the score has more work to do to keep the film flowing. Without it Birdman wouldn't be nearly as impressive. - Richard Trapunski
Least Jazzy Movie About Jazz
If someone asked you what kind of film Whiplash is, you'd probably say it's a movie about music. But Whiplash is not a "music movie," at least not how that genre has come to form. This is music as intense, painful military discipline — the Full Metal Jacket of Juilliard. The film's soundtrack is ineligible because it's mostly made up of pre-existing jazz songs, but even with that concrete connection to the jazz world, Whiplash is not a popular movie among drummers or jazzbos. And there are good reasons why.
When people romanticize jazz (as jazz fans are wont to do), they talk about improv, teamwork, the spontaneous magic musical geniuses conjure in a room together. Whiplash has none of that. Instead, it centralizes the lone figure (in this case the aspiring young drum master played by Miles Teller, who idolizes the not-always-respected-in-jazz-circles Buddy Rich) and individual talent, whipped into shape with furious, focused, bloody, borderline abusive discipline (provided by Best Supporting Actor lock J.K. Simmons as the hardass, homophobic instructor).
It distorts an anecdote about Charlie Parker getting a cymbal whipped at his head (it was actually tossed on the floor in front of him) to fit its central question: whether artistic genius is worth sacrificing personal life, relationships and sanity. Unlike many peoples' readings of the film, though, those pervasive questions remain ambiguous right to the final who's-screwing-who showdown between the young prodigy and the old instructor that becomes the most nailbiting jazz performance you'll ever see.
Music does not look fun in Whiplash. But it is a fantastic film. - Richard Trapunski
Best Collection of Songs Underused In The Film It Soundtracks
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
It’s no wonder why Lorde was tapped to curate The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 soundtrack: She’s the pop star equivalent to Katniss Everdeen — they’re both cool, famous and badass. It’s also no wonder that The Academy didn’t nominate Lorde’s hit song “Yellow Flicker Beat” into the Best Original Song category. Although it made the long list, Lorde’s ominous, bold, and cinematic track only appeared in the credits of the film. In fact, it was the only song along with the awkward, Jennifer Lawrence-sung ballad “The Hanging Tree” to make it into the teen-obsessed quadrilogy.
But even though the Lorde-curated soundtrack was more of a marketing tool than an integral soundtrack to the film, the 18-year-old New Zealand singer did a fine job with compilation. It features Major Lazer, The Chemical Brothers, and Charli XCX and she even got Kanye West to remix “Yellow Flicker Beat.” But above all else, the soundtrack features a majority of female singers and musicians (Tove Lo, CHVRCHES, Tinashe), which only makes sense to be paired with a film all about female empowerment. All in all, it’s a pretty cool cast of music’s elite to be featured on one of the biggest movie franchises to exist. - Simone Zucker
Best Feel Good Mix Tape Made By A Fictional Superhero
Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1
Disqualified from official Oscar contention for obvious reasons: Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, and his ragtag crew kick (and get kicked) around the universe to the tune of one of those Sounds of the Seventies-type master collections they used to sell in late-night infomercials. “Feel good” songs like Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” or The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” provide a campy counterpoint to the Guardians’ starship-battling, planet-saving, outer space hijinks — undeniably, a large component of the fun, light-hearted, distinctly anti-Dark Knight atmosphere that helped this behemoth sell popcorn.
But the music of Quill’s Awesome Mix Vol. 1 also makes up the film’s emotional thrust. A gift from his dying mother, Quill’s mixtapes were his last connection to his family, his home planet, and a warmer, more innocent time in total. A stunning piece of music direction because, yes, the songs are personally significant to the Quill character, but also because they occupy a similarly soft and fuzzy spot in our cultural memory. The masses obviously agree. It's the first soundtrack consisting entirely of pre-existing music to shoot to #1 on the Billboard 200. - Chris Hampton
Most Simultaneously Alluring & Creepy Original Score
Under The Skin (Original Soundtrack), Mica Levi
A well-established musical theme becomes a device uniquely capable of ratcheting up suspense and telegraphing horror. Think The Shining, Halloween, Jaws. For Under the Skin, Mica Levi of Micachu and the Shapes fashioned a set of abominably chilly, minimal soundscapes for Jonathan Glazer’s tale of seduction, predation, and tremendous violence, but it's that squealing three-note motif (heard most prominently on tracks like “Death”) that will continue to haunt.
Sure, Levi gorged herself on avant-garde masters like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen while writing the score, but it’s the influence of strip club music that plays especially large. What she’s achieved is unforgettable — alluring and dangerous and utterly alien. In our opinion, her exclusion basically voids the Best Original Score category. - Chris Hampton
Best Musical Overshare
Boyhood, Ethan Hawke
In a movie that is fundamentally about the passing of time, music plays a big role in how those passages are denoted. With no "one year later" markers, the audience is left to know what general year they're in by its musical signposts: Coldplay and Outkast and Blink-182 and about a million other songs that would have played at school dances in their eras.
One of the things that gives Boyhood its sense of realism and authenticity is how much it was inspired by the real life experiences of its cast. The titular boy's father is played by Ethan Hawke, a musician, and a couple of the country songs he performs in the movie are actually written by the actor. And that gives those lyrics about divorce an extra bit of cringe. Hawke also compiled the homemade Beatles "Black Album" collection made of the individual members' post-Beatles careers for his real life daughter after his divorce from Uma Thurman.
Boyhood's acting is spectacular, and that has a lot to do with the unparalleled level of collaboration that Richard Linklater allowed his cast. They almost deserve writing credits of their own. - Richard Trapunski
Most Likeable Song Ever
Frank, Michael Fassbender
Music played a big role in a number of this year's Best Picture nominees, but this lesser-seen Ireland/UK production was the most intriguing music movie of the year. Michael Fassbender plays a fictionalized version of real life outsider musician Chris Sievey (a.k.a. Frank Sidebottom), but you'd never know it if you hadn't checked the credits: he spends almost the entire film under a giant papier-mâché mask. So the nature of celebrity and artistry is one of the central examinations of the film, but more interesting are the questions of whether creative genius comes from hardship and alienation, how we valourize mental illness in artists, and the corruption of popularity and populism in music.
The weirdo psychedelic songs performed by the movie's central band (with the unpronounceable name Soronprfbs) are an alluring pastiche of outsider figures like Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston. But hands down the funniest moment of the film comes when, having gained a plum spot at SXSW, Fassbender's Frank writes his "most likeable song ever." It starts with the lines "Coca Cola / lipstick Ringo / dance all night" and only gets better from there. - Richard Trapunski