Last year the Oscars was, well, it was something. Coming off the Anne Hathaway and James Franco hosting debacle, we had undead marionette Billy Crystal emceeing the ceremony, doing his signature medley of all the Best Picture nominees as soon as the red carpet pre-show wrapped. That was about it for musical performances, other than the "In Memoriam" reel and some other crazy A. R. Rahman thing that no one really wanted.
That's because there were almost no Best Original Song nominees last year, and neither one was performed. Well, the category is back in full swing, and host Seth McFarlane — who has more jazz hands than a dance school in West Topeka — is sure to do some sort of bombastic production number. Oh, and there's going to be an ode to movie musicals too, featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Hudson, Anne Hathaway, and the rest of the We Won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress by Singing in a Musical Club.
Musicals numbers are back, so let's take this time to look at the best and worst (and a couple of so-good-they're-bad and so-bad-they're-good) from awards shows past.
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[Photo Credit: AP Photo]
Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose sing "Love You I Do," "Listen," and "Patience" from Dreamgirls
It's not often that you get this many vocal powerhouses on stage at one time, so when you do, it's best to make the most of it. This 2008 clip (sorry the quality is so crappy, but someone is trying to keep this off YouTube) will go down in Oscar History, even if J Hud was the only one to walk away with the trophy.
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Snow White and Robe Lowe sing some ungodly creation.
This is the Platonic ideal of an awful Oscar opening number. In 1989, Eileen Bowman played the animated heroine in an odyssey that included dancing stars, Merv Griffin, and a scandal-plauged Lowe singing strange tunes with the words all jumbled around. It's a travesty and you can't take your eyes away. For a full recounting of the whole incident, check out this amazing article.
Next: The King of Pop Gets Mousey
Michael Jackson sings "Ben" from Ben
Look past the cheesy '70s set and the awful glittery jump suit. Forget that this is a song about a man who is in love with his pet rat. When all that goes away, we're left with the pristine quality of Michael Jackson's voice before he messed it up with years of drugs and before he messed up his face with more plastic surgery than a Real Housewives of Everywhere reunion. This is one of those instances where talent gets past all of that, and we still love it.
Next: Oscar's Worst Swan Song
Bjork singing "I've Seen It All" from Dancer in the Dark
I have no problem with the swan dress. In fact, I kind of love that Bjork opted to wear something so different and daring that we still talk about it 12 years later. What I can't abide is her squawking around the stage and stamping her feet and singing this weirdly-cyclical, boring song. I know she can do so much better, and I'm sure most of the audience at home was as befuddled by the performance as they were the attire.
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Madonna singing "Sooner of Later" from Dick Tracy
Let's face it — it's best that Madonna never win an Oscar for acting. Really, we don't need to give her one more reason to make another movie. But as far as performing at the Oscars go, she is a champion. This is how you can captivate an audience while standing practically still in the middle of a stage. This is Madonna at the height of her fame and prowess in 1991, singing a beautiful Steven Sondheim song that won the Oscar later that night. To prove Madge is Oscar gold, check out her second performance of "You Must Love Me," from Evita. Not as good of a song, but still a top-notch performance.
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Gwyneth Paltrow singing "Coming Home" from Country Strong
Gwyneth Paltrow thinks that everything about her life is great, including her singing ability. She is often wrong.
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Celine Dion singing "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic
Yes, this is an iconic song. Yes, Celine Dion is a very proficent singer. Yes, in 1997 Ms. Dion was everything and her song won the Oscar. But why do I hate this so much? Why do so many people think that she sounds like a bleating goat standing there on stage with a trillion-dollar diamond (the same one from the movie) on her turtlenecked frame (you can take the girl out of Canada but...)? This is one of those numbers that you either love or hate. I fall in the latter camp.
Next: What the Heck?!
Pilobolus doing God knows what
This isn't exactly a musical number, but there's dancing, so I'm counting it. The members of this dance troupe figured out how to turn their bodies into iconic shapes from the year's movies. I still wonder just how they achieved this fate today. Amazing. Also amazing: Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars. Remember that?
Next: A True Crash and Burn
Kathleen Bird York singing "In the Deep" from Crash
2003 was a crappy year at the Oscars. Not only did Crash steal a statue from the far superior Brokeback Mountain, we also had to endure this abomination of an New Age song from the film that was nominated for Best Original Song. What do a burning car, slow-motion dancers, and enough dry ice to power every production of Phantom of the Opera in the entire universe have in common? I hate them all.
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Sheena Easton singing "For Your Eyes Only" from For Your Eyes Only
This year, one of the highlights of the show will be Adele getting up to sing "Skyfall" from the James Bond flick of the same name. She will wear a tasteful dress and belt for the rafters and everyone will applaud. It will look nothing like this other Bond number from 1981, which features 007 driving on stage and kicking the asses of a bunch of dancing ninjas while his car shoots a laser beams. And can we talk about Sheena's hair which is straight out of one of the worst Nagel paintings I've ever seen. This this is so incredibly awful. Isn't it amazing!? Even with the crappy video quality, you still can't look away. They just don't make camp like they used to. Sure Adele will be nice, but it's not going to be anything like this.
Next: How Not to Do an Opening Number
Hugh Jackman's Opening Number
I love Hugh Jackman. Of all the celebrities in Hollywood, I would like to see his huge ackman over anyone else's. However, his 2008 stint hosting was marred by this rather dreadful opening number. The joke was that the recession made him scale everything down, which is a cute gag but doesn't work for the whole eight minutes. Combine that with Anne Hathaway giving one of those falsely modest performances that make people hate her and, well, I couldn't even watch it all the way through. However, the joke about not seeing The Reader almost makes the whole thing worthwhile.
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Neil Patrick Harris' Opening Number
Sorry, Hugh, this is how you bring in the show. NPH, who isn't even really a movie star, is better at the awards show game than just about anyone else. He sings a quick song, does some great dance moves, gets us ready for the show with a big extravaganza and then hands it over to the hosts. Just simply distilled perfection. Leave it to a gay to know how to kick off a show. (I'm sure he's not the one who had the Best Actor nominees come out on stage for one full minute of thunderous applause that they did not need.)
Next: Drowning in a Sea of Awful
"Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" from The Little Mermaid
As soon as you heard that the dancers were choreographed by Paula Abdul, you knew this thing would be a mess. What's so awful about Samuel E. Wright's performance of these two nominated songs ("Under the Sea" won) is that he just stands in the middle of the blank stage for the first one, and for the second one it's like a sea anemone was stuffed with glitter and then exploded. There is an octopus chandelier, tap dancing scuba divers, and more midriffs than all of Britney Spears' early videos combined. The funny part is this looks like an even worse version of Disney's infamous Broadway version of the show, which was also a giant bomb.
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"Belle" and "Be Our Guest" from Beauty & The Beast
Looks like Disney learned a lot two years after The Little Mermaid, because this two-song medley was much better. The first song is busy and costumey, sort of like the wonderful Broadway version of the show, but then it dissolves into Jerry Orbach (RIP) and some chorus girls doing a top-notch, grounded version of the crowd pleasing "Be Our Guest." Still this wasn't enough to beat the title track for the Oscar, which had a snoozer of a performance (Angela Landsbury can't do a kick line like she used to), but is probably a better song.
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Three 6 Mafia singing "Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from Hustle and Flow
This isn't a bad song, and is, to its credit, the only hip-hop song to win an Oscar. It's just, well, the Academy ain't got no swag. Sure, this bootleg living room is supposed to be reminiscent of the movie, but it looks like a cast-off from an old season of Roseanne. Plus, Taraji P. Henson in a full-length gown while the rest of the guys wear street clothes makes the whole thing feel just... off. And they can't even say "bitches"! They had to change it to "witches," which is the silliest thing to happen since The Doors couldn't sing "Girl, we couldn't get much higher" on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Next: Once Upon a Time
Glen Hansard and Market Iglová singing "Falling Slowly" from Once
Plain and simple: how can you not love everything about this?
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.