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Philip Moross

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The Toughest Job in the Movie Biz: Writing the Original Song

Posted: 04/18/2012 1:17 pm

This has not been the greatest two months for original songs in movies.

In February, the august body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed that no original song was worthy to be performed at its 2012 awards show (this after the Oscar music branch only allowed two original songs to be nominated for an Oscar). A month later, the cultural tsunami known as The Hunger Games debuted to an opening weekend domestic box office of $153 million. That's the good news. The bad news for fans of original songs is that Hunger, albeit a great audience pleaser with a fine score by James Newton Howard, has no original song included in the body of the film (three original songs were ganged up to play in the end titles).

For anyone who works at the intersection of the music business and the film business like I do, it is fantastic to find a great original song, get the right artist to perform it, and to put it in a spot of the movie that creatively helps the finished film. It can be an expensive proposition, eat up time when a movie's opening date is breathing down a filmmaker's neck, and there is absolutely no guarantee that anyone who bills themselves as an arbiter of movie taste is going to give a damn about all your efforts.

Ultimately, an original song can be held to an unparalleled standard: If the movie works without the song, and if the song is not pitch perfect to the film's story and characters, that song can stick out like a sore thumb -- and really hurt the audience's enjoyment of the film.

And that's why out of the hundreds of films submitted for Oscars last year, only two films got a nomination for Best Original Song. ("Man or Muppet," penned by Bret McKenzie and sung by Jason Segel and Peter Linz for Disney's The Muppets, won.)

I run a company, the Cutting Edge Group, that services the "music" requirements of filmmakers and, wherever possible, invests in movies in exchange for getting certain rights to the films' music. My business owns the music rights and soundtrack to the 2010 The King's Speech, and in 2011 we put money into Drive so we could get the rights to Cliff Martinez's score and publish the majority of the music on the Drive soundtrack. This year we are placing bets on more than 50 films, including films such as the upcoming sci-fi thriller Looper, starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

All of us working at Cutting Edge are constantly trying to find a way to put a great original song into a movie. Having a popular recording artist record a song specifically for a film can add a level of prestige for the film and compliment the work of the film score composer. The ideal scenario is when the composer and recording artist work together to create a song that works to enhance the emotional resonance of the film. And as the custodians of the James Bond franchise can attest, the marketing of a film can get a tremendous boost when the right artist plugs in a fresh original song for a single film, or, better yet, for each installment of the franchise.

But, lately, there seems to have been a rise in opposition to expending the effort to find that original song. In the wake of the onslaught of iTunes singles sales, the financiers are decreasing music budgets across the board as sales of movie soundtracks decrease from the glory years of the 1984 version of Footloose (nine million units sold) and 1983's The Big Chill (six million units sold). Meanwhile, the business of licensing hit singles to films and TV shows has never been better. Copyright owners and artists continue to earn well when pre-recorded music is licensed into a production. Synchronization revenue is one of the few remaining profitable segments of the music industry.

I am one of those who, when the gods of cinema are turning elsewhere, still cares about finding an original song for a movie.

Why? It's simple. At the end of the day, I don't want to work in a business that even entertains the possibility of not recognizing the artistry of a song composer like Don Black, Randy Newman or an Alan Menken or has no place for a "Moon River" or a "Streets of Philadelphia."

Bruce Springsteen may be a rock god, but as any student of his lyrics can attest, he's a movie fan, too. And if you want to understand why it's so hard to pen a great original song for a movie, examine the mournful music and lyrics he penned for the 1993 film Philadelphia.

The film, written by Ron Nyswaner and directed by Jonathan Demme, tells the story of a dying lawyer (Tom Hanks in an Oscar-winning turn) who, with his last bit of strength, wages a legal war against the law firm that fired him because he had AIDS.

Springsteen's original song played over the opening credits. Later in the film, the song's melody underscored the unforgettable scene where the character played by Hanks has his job discrimination case rejected by the lawyer played by Denzel Washington. The Hanks character then walks alone onto a Philadelphia street.

Here is the first verse of Springsteen's song:

"I was bruised and battered, I couldn't tell what I felt.

I was unrecognizable to myself.

I saw my reflection in a window, I didn't know my own face.

Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin' away

On the Streets of Philadelphia..."

Springsteen's song, which won an Oscar, tells us what the Hanks character cannot. The lawyer is dying heartbroken in an unjust world and needs help. And the lyrics not only tell a story, but they tell it via laser-like imagery... all in the very first verse.

So, a great original song for a movie not only has to have great music and lyrics, it's got to tell a narrative just as well as the screenwriter and director are telling their story. And the better the movie's story, the more pressure there is for the original song composer to produce up to that standard.

It's a very a tough job.

Am I looking for the next Springsteen and the next "Streets of Philadelphia"? Every day. Will I be successful? I don't know.

What I do know is the art and craft of the composition of original songs for movies must never die, no matter how imposing the task can be. And this art and craft must continue to be funded by those who draw up the budgets for movies. And original songs must be given their due by the music branch of the Academy, and those who broadcast the Academy's awards show.

Somewhere, maybe over the rainbow, I pray there are those who share my passion.

 
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