Making a Muppet of the Oscars: Another sparse year in the best song category

Best Actor? Best Film? Nope. (It is unfair to put incorrect answers into your mouth without even asking the question) The2012 Oscars category which is easiest to predict is Best Original Song. Bret McKenzie’s ‘Man or Muppet’, a barnstorming power-ballad in the style of Harry Nilsson, is comfortably the best song nominated and will definitely walk away with the statuette come February 26th. The reason for such unerring certainty is due to the level of competition it faces. ‘Real in Rio’, from Blue Sky Studio’s animated aviary caper Rio, is a perfectly decent samba song forced to coexist with some unintelligible rapping from co-star His rhyme begins with repeated use of the word ‘Kinga’. We can only assume he is either referring to the Polish Saint, Hungary’s leading sprint canoeist or the least savoury incumbent of the Big Brother 6 House. None of these fit the bird-out-of-water narrative or the South American setting. In any case he chooses to rhyme the word with ‘hot wing-a’, a truly insightful choice. Such a disappointing amalgamation pails in insignificance to the metaphysical identity crisis director James Bobin has incorporated into The Muppets.

However, there was one song this year that could have run the hairier half of Flight of the Concords closer. Alan Menken may not be a name firmly lodged in the minds of the public at large but his work is. A Whole New World? Be Our Guest? Colours of the Wind? Any of these ringing bells? Menken has had no fewer than fifteen Oscars nominations for Best Song in the last twenty-five years. He has won on four of those occasions (often being nominated more than once in the same category) and has also picked up four Best Original Score awards. With eight, Menken has won more Oscars than any other living individual. You’d have thought as a result of this critical acclaim that when he writes a new movie song, even if it’s a year when Randy Newman doesn’t, members of the academy would notice.

The Star Spangled Man’ is a witty, neatly orchestrated, pastiche of George M. Cohan and the rich jingoistic vaudeville tradition of the 1940s. In the summer blockbuster Captain America the song played a clever narrative role; positioning the would-be hero as a glamorous media accessory, touring concert halls asking for public and financial support. Clever word-play, bold brass fanfares and even a punch in the face for old Adolf. What’s not to like? Many critics genuinely believe it could have run ‘Man or Muppet’ close for the gong had it made the shortlist.

Its oversight is truly dazzling though. It must have been eligible (some songs, if pre-existing in some form do not qualify) as it was long-listed earlier this year. That Menken’s name did not attract attention is also bizarre. The age-old question of whether good work in lesser films is recognised cannot even be wheeled out on this occasion as Captain America was not poor and was certainly no less innovative than Rio. The situation just cannot be explained. Pastiche a problem? Then how has McKenzie’s homage made the cut? Could it be that the Academy shied away from the mocking of nationalist sentiment? Who knows?

The man who must be laughing is Bret McKenzie who has written a fantastic song.  He deserves the Academy Award and may as well be clearing his mantelpiece already. It’s just a shame he won’t have the same thrill of competition that Gary Oldman, Jean Dujardin or George Clooney will have from knowing that theirs is truly tight category.

By Sam Poppleton