LOS ANGELES — If British spy James Bond can’t be called upon to save the mishandling of pop music by the 2013 Oscars, producers did at least book the next best thing: Shirley Bassey. The vocalist, now in her 70s, has defined what has now become a genre, Bond music.
A Bond song must feel royal in its presentation, but also have a hint that something is amiss. Sometimes the booming orchestra can act as a moody foil for its vocalist, and other times the singer can become the antithesis of the Bond-girl seductress. Usually this is achieved by singing with a no-frills coldness. Bassey’s Bond songs had all of the above, and her best known, “Goldfinger,” as evidenced Sunday night, is a study in restraint. Its slowly menacing pace is also able to make a cinematic symphony seem fit for a nightclub.
Lyrically, “Goldfinger,” as are most Bond songs, can at times be silly, but you wouldn’t know there was any funny business happening with Bassey at the helm of the tune. She clasped her stomach, clutched her chest and stood stoically calm in her gold, glittery dress.
Her voice has lost a little sharpness, but it has still aged into a rather forceful presence, as Bassey spread her arms, and twisted “Goldfinger” into “goldfingahhh,” it was as if she believed at this very moment that the money-obsessed villain of “Goldfinger” was a real-life threat. As the orchestra swelled, Bassey’s voice remained largely level. She didn’t go to the melody, the melody went to her.
The tribute to the Bond songs was coming a few months after “Skyfall” celebrated the franchise’s 50th anniversary, but Bassey and Adele weren’t mashed together as if this were the Grammys. It’s been a few years since the Oscars had this much music on its telecast, and producers had the good sense to back off when vocalists of the skill of Bassey and Adele were at the microphone.
“Skyfall” is a darker, less cartoonish take on Bond, and likewise Adele and the orchestra were all in black — glittery black, of course. Yet “Skyfall” is a throwback, the Oscars Sunday night made sure the line between Bassey and Adele is one that’s easy to trace. “Skyfall’s” cinematic strings aren’t subtle, and the song’s nod to the main James Bond theme makes it clear that this is a tune that lives and dies in the Bond universe, yet despite all this there is an intimacy to “Skyfall.”
The latter quality can be attributed entirely to Adele. Like Bassey, she doesn’t succumb to the drama inherent in the song’s big-band orchestration. Adele practically tunes it out, and though Oscar host Seth MacFarlane joked earlier that Adele would be “shouting” at the audience, she did anything but, keeping her vocals low and her tone slyly conversational.
“You may have my number, you can take my name,” she sang, delivering the lines as if there were an aural wink. Then Adele put everyone — the listener, the orchestra — in their place. “You may never have my heart.”
If the release of “Skyfall,” and the nomination of its song, gave the Oscars an excuse to honor Bond, likewise the release and nominations for “Les Miserables” provided the excuse to look at the history of recent movie musicals. But here, the productions weren’t as tasteful, the choices seemingly random and by the time much of the cast of “Les Miserables” was on stage for a call-and-response medley centered on “One Day More,” the production fell apart.
Voices were indistinguishable, the set design was minimal and brief leads by Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway failed to give any sense of the emotion or story carried by the songs. The representation of the “Les Miserables” songs needn’t have been fully cinematic or Tonys-ready theatrical, but some sort of vision would have been nice. It was loud, quick and lifelessly choreographed, and felt more aligned with the type of Broadway performance one sees at the Thanksgiving Day parade.
This is to say that it seemed a little out of place, as did the loving tributes to “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls,” despite how energetic the performances may have been. Jennifer Hudson received a deserved standing ovation for her performance of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” her voice full of more awe-inspiring vocal acrobatics than normal. Catherine Zeta Jones was fun to watch in lace and tights as she danced on a piano and confidently handled “All That Jazz.”
Yet this all felt rather safe, and rather out of tune with the music and film of today. Back in 2009, the Oscars started dismissing the songs it had nominated. Gone were full performances for the nominated songs, and in their place was a tossed-together medley. Giving more recognition to those who write and compose music for film is a no-brainer way to bring back some pizazz to the award show.
But it wasn’t necessary to hear tunes from “Dreamgirls” and “Chicago,” even if the latter was celebrating its 10th anniversary for winning an Oscar. Also, giving time to “Suddenly” from “Les Miserables” and “Skyfall” meant three of this year’s contenders for original song weren’t given a grander treatment. That’s a shame, as it meant that other nominated songs, such as “Pi’s Lullaby” from “Life of Pi” or “Before My Time” from “Chasing Ice,” deserve to be heard. The latter even boasts star power, as it features Scarlett Johansson singing at her smokey best.
Norah Jones, however, was present to perform part of “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from “Ted,” but this was thrown in the midst of the reading of nominations, making it seem more out of place than the performances from “Dreamgirls” and “Chicago.” Can you imagine, asking the nominated Oscars to appear on stage and stating a monologue as their names are read?
What all this seemed to say was that the Oscars knew they needed more music, but were still more comfortable rehashing songs once written for Broadway than those written specifically for the screen.