There are many songs that the Academy could put forth for this year’s Oscar for Best Original Song, but only one has been called “magical” (New York), “gleefully precise” (The New Yorker), and “one of the catchiest and most delightful songs released in 2013 … a mini-masterpiece” (The Huffington Post).
I speak, of course, of “Please Mr. Kennedy,” the musical high point of Inside Llewyn Davis and a musical high point in cinema in 2013. While the movie’s soundtrack was produced by T Bone Burnett and features a number of folk standards, it’s “Please Mr. Kennedy” that first got the audience bursting into spontaneous applause at Cannes. It’s “Please Mr. Kennedy” that inspired its own oral history. It’s “Please Mr. Kennedy” that has been covered by no less than Elvis Costello. And it’s “Please Mr. Kennedy” that features Adam Driver saying things like “Outer,” “Space,” and “Shoo-oot."
And yet, the Oscar augurs tell us, “Please Mr. Kennedy” won’t merit a nomination for Best Original Song this year. The reason for this is simple and wholly misguided: As the Los Angeles Times tells it, “Please Mr. Kennedy” is not sufficiently original. In addition to Burnett, the Coen brothers, and Justin Timberlake, the song is credited to George Cromarty and Ed Rush, who released a slightly different song of the same name as the Goldcoast Singers in 1962.
But, as Inside Llewyn Davis subtly suggests, to disqualify a work of brilliance like “Please Mr. Kennedy” because it is not wholly original is to misunderstand how genius actually works. This is why (musical spoiler alert) the Coen brothers have Bob Dylan play as his only song in the film “Farewell,” a ballad that bears a resemblance to “Dink’s Song (Fare Thee Well),” the traditional folk song that Davis plays at multiple points throughout the film (and which Dylan was also known to cover). The point of this choice is that there could never have been a Bob Dylan if he hadn’t stolen from the Greenwich Village folk scene.
The history of the Goldcoast Singers’ “Please Mr. Kennedy” tells a similar story. As The Hollywood Reporter points out, the song strongly resembles not just the Goldcoast Singers song but “Please Mr. Kennedy (I Don’t Want to Go)” by Mickey Woods, which was released as an original single in 1961.
And Woods’ “Please Mr. Kennedy” had its own apparent inspiration: Larry Verne’s “(Please) Mr. Custer,” a No. 1 hit in 1960. As with its apparent descendants from the Goldcoast Singers and Mickey Woods, the song features roughly the same melody and is about a man trying to avoid a war (in this case, it’s Little Big Horn). What Llewyn Davis says is right: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
“Please Mr. Kennedy” is a perfect example of how these adaptations can be transformative, and of how these adaptations, too, can demonstrate a form of genius. Building upon this preexisting material, Burnett and co. had to be write something that was both (a) terrible, from Llewyn Davis’ perspective, and (b) catchy enough to be believable as a major hit. This was no small order, and that they managed to do it while also crafting the movie’s funniest moment is a testament to the collective brilliance of the men that worked on the song.
The Coens, Burnett, Timberlake, and Oscar Isaac put in hours and hours overhauling the song entirely: In addition to adding the countdown at the beginning and Driver’s ad libs, Burnett himself wrote “10 or 15 verses.” The Coens then “edited and refined and changed” these verses. Together they kicked around and recorded multiple versions over the course of weeks, before the performers finally shaped the final version under Burnett and the Coens’ direction. It was a perfect example of the kind of “creative interaction between the filmmaker(s) and the composer(s)” that the Academy explicitly values.
But the Academy’s rules, as they exist today, don’t reward this kind of creativity. In fact, it’s dismissal of this kind of creativity that prevented the Academy from recognizing classics like “Gangsta’s Paradise” and “Fight the Power,” from Dangerous Minds and Do the Right Thing, because they used samples. Jonny Greenwood’s gorgeous score for There Will Be Blood was disqualified for similar reasons. All of these, of course, should have been nominated, and should have won, but the Academy has let their own rules—the letter of the law—get in the way. Not everyone is so closed-minded: This morning, “Please Mr. Kennedy” received a nomination from the Golden Globes.
And the Academy hasn’t always been this way. For decades, it gave awards for adaptation: John Williams won his first Oscar for Fiddler on the Roof, whose music he adapted from the Broadway musical. Marvin Hamlisch won his first Oscar for The Sting, whose music he adapted from the rags of Scott Joplin. Many composers and executives think this kind of work should still be nominated. “In a postmodern world where remixing, mashups, and sampling are an accepted aspect of contemporary work, we need to acknowledge the efforts of composers who experiment in this arena,” said Robert Kraft, president of Fox Music, speaking about this issue in 2010. Hamlisch, for his part, has called adapting music “an important art form.”
While it might be too late to fix this year’s rules, there is still hope. While the Academy rulebook stipulates that the original song “consists of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the motion picture,” it’s also stipulated that “all rules interpretations and … questions of eligibility” are up to the Music Branch Executive Committee. And the executive committee changes or bends its rules all the time. Last year, no less than Bruce Broughton, chair of the Academy’s Music Branch Executive Committee, admitted that “the music branch is famous for modifying its rules.”
To these men, then—to Charles Fox, Arthur Hamilton, David Newman, and all their colleagues—I sing my own song of protest. (Sing it with me now.) Please, Academy, don’t jettison this song into outer space.
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