Saturday, April 24, 2021

The 2021 Oscars: It's About the Music

Yes, it's about the music ... at least as far as I'm concerned.

I don't know who will win from among the five nominations for this year's "Best Original Song" at the Academy Awards tomorrow night. The odds are favoring "Speak Now," written and performed by Leslie Odom Jr. (of Hamilton fame). There are good reasons why this song is the favorite: it's a terrific piece of music by an outstanding singer, brilliantly arranged and presented in the credits scene from the movie One Night in Miami (Odom is also nominated for "Best Supporting Actor" in this film). The initially subdued R&B tone rises gradually to reach something of the intensity of the gospel music that inspired the Civil Rights era.

Ooooh! It's awesome in its conviction, and in its balance of power and restraint. And simply as a soulful piece of music.

Too bad they can't have multiple winners. I have been riding along with the rich and beautiful Italian ballad "Io Si" by Diane Warren and Laura Pausini, which already won the more internationally attuned Golden Globe Award last month. I have already written about this moving song (see here and here), and about how Laura singing any contemporary song in Italian or Spanish is, simply, the best. (Well, that's my opinion, but I'm not alone in saying this, and in any case this is my blog...😉)

Which reminds me, the best part of the part-live, part-virtual awards ceremony will be during the introductory segment that begins on television at 6:30 Eastern Time. (But does anyone really watch these shows on TV anymore? The important things always end up on YouTube in any case, though I may actually watch this segment live.) All five nominated songs will be performed and presented virtually. Four of them will come from an outdoor rooftop stage in Los Angeles.

The fifth will be performed from a small fishing village ... in Iceland.

This is where the story of 2020's movie music really takes off. "Húsavik (My Hometown)" is a "dark horse" nomination that really shouldn't be a dark horse. Indeed, if we're talking about music that is actually part of a movie, what we have in this song is nothing less than "cinema magic." And the strange events that no one foresaw when the film featuring this song was made (i.e. the COVID crises and lockdowns beginning in 2020) magnify the impact.

When I first saw previews for Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga, I was amused but not strongly motivated to make an effort to watch it. In previews and pictures of this comedy, we see Will Ferrell looking intentionally ridiculous as a middle aged man who aspires, along with costar Rachel McAdams, to represent Iceland at the world's biggest international singing competition. (Indeed, here in the USA we have no idea how big a deal "Eurovision" is every year for many nations from the Nordic to the Mediterranean to the former Soviet republics, and now even far away Australia. It has been called "the Olympics of music.") 

What I expected to be a zany and bawdy parody (and it was bawdy, but not as much as it could have been) of Europe's biggest pop stage by an American comedian, turned out to be a funny but also clever and affectionate tribute to the contest that has been hosted by different countries from one year to the next from 1956-2019. The movie was filmed in 2019, and it is set up as a fictional version of the "2020 Eurovision Festival."

Then, like so many other things, the real 2020 Eurovision was cancelled. That added some poignancy to the film (as well as providing it with the chance to occupy a unique and memorable niche in Eurovision history) but none of that would have mattered if there wasn't any good music in it. The movie could be flawed (it was) and the jokes might fall flat (plenty of them did) but it needed absolutely to have some good music.

There was, in fact, quite a bit of good music. And the climactic song was, as I said, a little piece of cinema magic. The songwriters (Savan Kotecha, Max Grahn, and Rickard Gorensson) are the primary nominees for the award, but a lot of factors make this song work. Rachel McAdams acts very well the part of the fictional (comically spoofy but also endearing) Icelandic singer Sigrit, especially at this peak moment. She also "gives a lesson" in lip-synching. 

The vocals themselves require dexterity, a variety of tonal qualities, shifts between English and Icelandic, and some big-note "heavy-lifting" at the end. A Nordic singer would be needed to lay down the vocal track. It wouldn't be impossible to find someone. Much Scandinavian pop music has, in fact, a very high artistic quality. It can be avant-garde, but generally it has a very strong foundation in solid musicianship. The writers had a good pool of talent to choose from for the actual vocalist. 

They made a terrific choice.

The experienced, skillful, musically precise, and wonderfully ardent 28-year-old Swedish singer-songwriter Molly Sandén was born to do songs like this, and she absolutely nailed it. Dang, it's gorgeous!

On Sunday night we will see Molly Sandén's own face and hear her sing the song again from the actual town of Húsavik on the northern coast of Iceland, population 2300 (some of the locals appeared in the movie). The fact that such a performance will be broadcast on the Oscars is already a "win" ... for everybody!

Swedish singer Molly Sandén recording (left) and Rachel McAdams playing the role of the singer of "Húsavik," from the movie "Eurovision, Fire Saga." It's one of the nominees at Sunday night's Academy Awards.