Strange that no record company thought of this before: Package versions of every Academy Award-winning song since 1934 and serve it up to an Oscar-rabid public in the weeks just before the ceremonies.
The idea behind Rhino Records’ “The Envelope Please: Academy Award-Winning Songs (1934-1993)” is as obvious as the transition from black and white to color and back again in “The Wizard of Oz,” which, incidentally, is represented here by Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow,” the Oscar winner for 1939.
“It’s way overdue,” says Tom Whitlock, who wrote the lyrics for “Take My Breath Away,” the 1986 Oscar winner from “Top Gun.”
“It’s one of those things where I can’t believe nobody did it before. It’s like, ‘why didn’t I invent the Pet Rock?”’
After nearly three years of tracking down licensing rights for the 60 tunes, Rhino figures it knows why no one previously did this.
“It’s really a huge undertaking - 60 years’ worth of these songs. It’s a pretty daunting experience,” says James Austin, Rhino’s director of special projects. “It takes a lot of crosslicensing, but that’s what we’re good at.”
The five-disc boxed set is about as eclectic as any compilation could be, featuring crooning (Bing Crosby on “White Christmas”), sappy pop (Lionel Richie on “Say You, Say Me”), classic jazz singing (Billie Holiday’s “All the Way”), children’s tunes (“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “Talk to the Animals”) and pure funk (Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft”).
This is the incidental music of the big screen, a lot of the best and a little of the worst of American pop over the last six decades.
The scope of the set is as dizzying as an evening with drunken billionaire Dudley Moore in “Arthur,” which, incidentally, is represented by Christopher Cross’ “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” the Oscar winner for 1981.
Whether the songs are indelibly associated with a film (Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) or have taken on a larger life (Doris Day’s theme song, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be,” from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much”), this mishmash of tunes truly offers something for everyone.
“It really spans the gamut of movies, from
Fred Astaire to Tom Cruise,” says author Will Friedwald, who co-wrote the liner notes. “Giorgio Moroder and Jerome Kern in the same package. I can’t think of a wider range.”
The comprehensive notes list the losing songs and provide background about the winners, including who performed them at the Oscar ceremonies. There’s also loads of trivia, such as the first film to produce two Oscar-nominated songs (“Fame”) and the only movie with three songs nominated (“Beauty and the Beast”).
In most cases, Rhino uses either the version of the song that appeared in the movie or the rendering that did best on the charts, for example, Maureen McGovern’s take on “The Morning After,” a No. 1 hit after the movie version from “The Poseidon Adventure” won the Oscar for 1972.
Also included is McGovern’s “We May Never Love Like This Again,” the Oscar winner for 1974 from “The Towering Inferno.”
“I’m the disaster-theme queen,” McGovern says.
Music from stage and screen makes up “a huge amount of the songs in the great American songbook,” McGovern says. “A lot of our greatest music has come from Broadway and film.
“The great thing about these songs is that they do conjure up the movie scenes. Think of the great movie music. You hear ‘The Way We Were,’ you see the whole scene happening. The songs are so evocative of the times.”
In a few cases, Rhino was unable to acquire the rights to some Oscar winners or chose to substitute obscure versions for songs that are almost too widely known. Rather than using Nat King Cole’s best-selling cover of “Mona Lisa,” the 1950 Oscar-winner from the film “Captain Carey, U.S.A,” Rhino slipped in a lesser-known version by Art Lund.
Unable to get the rights to last year’s winner, Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” Rhino hired Richie Havens to record a soulful new version.
“It’s a song I’d always wanted to sing anyway because it’s an important song,” Havens says. “There’s a general yearning for brotherhood in the song. It touches everyone’s life. It may be from a movie, but it’s the universality of the song that lasts. We don’t get a lot of those.”
In many cases, the song has outlived dated films such as “The Big Broadcast of 1938,” which, incidentally, produced the very memorable “Thanks for the Memory,” the Oscar-winner by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross, for, you guessed it, 1938.
“They are period-specific, but that doesn’t keep them from being timeless in the same way that you watch a classic film over and over,” Friedwald says. “Like the films, they’re kind of the best and most representative songs of their era.”
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