Here’s the problem: Everyone in the Academy gets to vote for Best Song, but only composers and songwriters get to make nominations, so the Best Song category continues to honor traditionally composed-and-written show-tune-style pop-vocal songs throughout the ’60s and ’70s, effectively looking the other way as genres like rock, soul, funk, and disco (i.e., music by artists who aren’t in the Academy) transform the sound of American film. The 1964 Best Song Oscar goes to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins; the Beatles’ title song from A Hard Day’s Night isn’t nominated. The 1967 award goes to “Talk to the Animals” from Doctor Dolittle; Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” written for The Graduate, isn’t nominated. The 1969 award goes to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”; the Byrds’ “Ballad of Easy Rider” isn’t nominated.
It’s been almost 50 years since Mike Nichols cut The Graduate to preexisting Simon & Garfunkel songs, and nearly 40 since Martin Scorsese applied lessons learned from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to the Mean Streets soundtrack, needle-dropping “Be My Baby” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and creating a mixtape-as-score that changed the way filmmakers used rock and pop. There’s no Oscar for this kind of creative work, but there should be. Instead of — or, OK, fine, in addition to — a category honoring written-to-order movie songs, we need an Oscar for Best Soundtrack, one that would recognize the use of music in films regardless of that music’s provenance. We give awards to adapted screenplays; why can’t we honor the curatorial ambition and taste behind music-saturated movies like Django and Silver Linings Playbook or even Pitch Perfect, movies in which previously released songs are arguably as crucial to the storytelling as a traditional score would be?