‘La La Land’ and ‘The Greatest Showman’ aren’t the only game in town.
The Best Original Song Oscar at the 89th Academy Awards was always going to go to La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s third film had it locked up pretty much as soon as it premiered in August at the Venice Film Festival. It was a charming ode to Old Hollywood musicals, with a jazzy score and lyrics by industry up-and-comers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. How could the Academy resist? The eventual category was the most uncompetitive of the night; the only question was which song from La La Land would take the trophy.
Part of the certainty in 2016 centered around the idea that the less high-profile categories tend to go to whichever film has the best shot at Best Picture. But the Academy, and Hollywood as a whole, also has a very limited perspective on what a musical can be. Typically, that idea is big and bombastic and schmaltzy, something that recalls the classic films that defined the genre. More intimate, nontraditional films get left by the wayside. The Academy (which still trends towards an older age range, 63 years old in 2014) still isn’t particularly interested in breaking new ground. Singin’ in the Rain? Sure. That Thing You Do!? Probably not.
Two of the best examples of this kind of wilful erasure came the same year as La La Land. While the Academy has been happy to acknowledge the work of Disney songwriters like Alan Menken (four Oscars as of 2018), they have a harder time giving any credit to musical comedies that aren’t animated. Biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was casually snubbed in the Best Original Song category, in a year where not one, not two, but three songs from Enchanted were nominated. And in 2016, history repeated itself, with The Lonely Island’s brilliant Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping receiving no attention from the Academy whatsoever.
Universal had no idea what to do with Popstar. Its marketing campaign was muddled and confused, largely focusing on gross-out gags that out of context just seemed in poor taste. Sold largely as a Justin Bieber spoof, there’s a lot more going on under the hood of Popstar than initially meets the eye. Yes, there are plenty of canny cultural jokes, including an extended TMZ riff that on its own deserved an Oscar, but the film has an emotional core that’s missing from a lot of modern comedies, and it’s what brings the filmmaking on display to new heights. The jokes here come a mile a minute, and the performances are universally excellent, from Bill Hader’s brief cameo as a Flatliners-loving guitar tech to Jorma Taccone’s incredibly sweet sidekick.
But Popstar is also a Spinal Tap-esque musical that packs dozens of original songs into its tight 90-minute runtime. And those songs aren’t funny throwaways; they’re superb pieces of songwriting, dense with jokes and incredibly catchy. From the incredible shock value of “Finest Girl” to the cutting Macklemore satire of “Equal Rights,” this is easily a better pound-for-pound soundtrack than La La Land‘s.
So why wasn’t it more successful? Well, for starters, the Academy is notoriously unwilling to recognize comedies in any category, even the lower-stakes options. It’s a borderline miracle that something like “Everything Is Awesome” was nominated at all, and it would have been even more surprising if a crass, absurd song from Popstar snuck in. Most Oscar-nominated comedies are also incredibly successful; Popstar, which bombed at the box office to the tune of less than half of its production budget, had no such luck. It wasn’t surprising that a Sting song from a documentary snuck into the category over “Finest Girl” or “Mona Lisa,” but it was disappointing all the same.
The failure of Sing Street was slightly more surprising. It was a word-of-mouth hit, an infectious Irish musical that did quietly well at the U.S. box office and built up a sustained following of supporters among critics and audiences who managed to see it. On top of that, the film was from director John Carney, whose debut Once had won Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly,” and had gone on to be adapted into a successful Broadway musical. Sing Street‘s soundtrack is a pure delight to listen to, a pop confection that weaves between plaintive U2-esque slow-builds and goofy 80s synth-rock in the same fashion that its young protagonists weave between styles. It’s a pure-hearted blast, and the whole thing builds to the song that should have won Best Original Song in 2016, the film’s climactic jam “Drive It Like You Stole It.”
It seems likely that Sing Street‘s Oscar hopes were doomed by its small but passionate fanbase; up against powerhouse box office phenomena like La La Land and Moana, it dwindled to the background. But the Academy is often happy to throw an Original Song nomination to some little-seen obscurity; in 2016, the fifth nomination went to “The Empty Chair,” from Jim: The James Foley Story, a documentary that wasn’t even nominated for Best Documentary. In that case, the tipping point was probably performer Sting’s star power, not some rush to nominate a fairly mediocre song. The same goes for Justin Timberlake’s Trolls anthem “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which managed to nab a nomination despite not even being the best pop song with “The Feeling” in its title.
In the end, the Academy, and audiences as a whole have a history of ignoring musicals that tread outside the bounds of what the genre has been painted as since its genesis. The strictest definition of “musical” excludes movies like Popstar and Sing Street because the characters in the films have professions that explain their propensity to burst into song. Musical purists insist that true movie musicals exist in a heightened realm where bursting into song is a means of expressing yourself, not a way to make a living. I would argue that this definition is limiting, unhelpful, and damaging to the genre as a whole. God help us all if every musical is defined by the grating insistence on empty whimsy that permeates something like The Greatest Showman.
Musicals of the Old Hollywood era were breaking new ground, but today, too many filmmakers are content to tread that ground over and over, never bursting out of the boundaries of their genre. Even in La La Land, a great modern musical if there ever was one, songs occasionally feel like they exist simply because they need to be there, not because the characters need to sing them. It’s a relic of a formula that filmmakers shouldn’t need to follow. In Sing Street, Popstar, and other movies like them, every song is consequential, and music changes character instead of vice versa. That’s what we should expect from our musicals, and it would be nice if that’s what the Academy would expect too.