The Academy held its first Oscars concert on Thursday night at Royce Hall at UCLA. It better not be the last.
Long overdue, the event featured live performances of every nominated score and original song nominee from this year's Academy Awards. Hosted by Common (who made it clear he was thrilled to be there), each composer spent a few minutes speaking to noted film critic Elvis Mitchell before conducting the Academy orchestra's performance of their work. Each original song was performed by a mix of different artists except, of course, the ones they are most associated with. Those stars are being saved for Sunday night.
Five-time nominee Alexandre Desplat was the first major performance as he conducted a selection from “Philomena.” It's been awhile since I've heard his composition, but the live performance didn't sway me that it could (or should) be a potential upset spoiler in the category. Personally, I think Desplat's scores for “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Ghost Writer” and “The Tree of Life” are far superior.
Desplat was followed by the first song performance, “Let it Go” from “Frozen.” As expected, this was a big hit with the crowd. It was also the only song performed by the songwriters themselves, the husband and wife team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Anderson-Lopez warned the audience she wasn't Idina Menzel, but she needn't have worried. Her vocals were spot on. It didn't hurt that she wonderfully entertained the crowd beforehand with the story of how the song ended up changing the entire plot of the movie.
Thomas Newman got a big ovation as he walked on stage to speak with Mitchell. The crowd was a mix of Academy members, the general public and (it seemed) some UCLA students (dress up maybe next time?), but they absolutely knew what the 12-time nominee has contributed to movie music over the past 20 years. As for “Saving Mr. Banks,” Newman discussed just how hard it was to score something where the legendary music from “Mary Poppins” is an integral part of the film's storyline. Like Desplat he conducted his own work. Unfortunately, something just wasn't quite right with the orchestra's rendition of his “Banks” suite. It appeared through much of the piece as though Newman was trying to pull the musicians to increase the tempo, but they couldn't match him or didn't understand that's what he was asking for. “Banks” got some extra love when legendary songwriter Richard Sherman came on stage to talk about “Poppins” for a bit with Mitchell. And, yes, a standing ovation appropriately took place (it wouldn't be the only one this night).
Steven Price, the presumptive favorite in the original score category, was up next and Mitchell quizzed him on how he found the heart in Alfonso Cuaron's space drama. Price revealed that he spent a year working on the score (a long time for a composer) and actually started backwards. He landed on the climactic finale first and then used that as a guide for the music throughout the rest of the film. Price was the only composer of the night not to conduct the Academy orchestra. Instead, a colleague stepped in and the result was arguably the most powerful performance of the show. The backup vocal may have been prerecorded, but the rest of the orchestra didn't care. They blew the Royce Hall crowd away and the suite ended up getting the loudest ovation of the night. Mitchell later remarked that Price told him he'd never heard his work with a complete live orchestra before.
The performance that blew the roof off Royce Hall, however, was Jill Scott stepping in for Pharrell Williams on “Happy.” Anyone who doesn't think this medley is going to be around for a long time got a lesson with Scott's energetic and diva-like take on what is currently the no. 1 song in the nation. Scott was accompanied by backup singers and a group of young dancers (the return of Debbie Allen choreography to Oscar!) and boy did they do Pharrell proud. Hopefully the Academy will release any video they have of it sometime soon.
After intermission, the shorter half of the program began with Broadway veteran (“Once”) and “Wolf of Wall Street” star Cristin Milioti stepping in for Karen O on “The Moon Song.” Milioti sang a lovely rendition of the unlikely song nominee from “Her,” but a gospel-esque “Happy” and “Let it Go” are tough acts to follow (here's hoping Karen O goes earlier in the telecast than those two tunes).
“The Moon Song” was the perfect segue to the “Her” original score which was composed by Arcade Fire's William Butler and Owen Pallett. Butler, in particular, didn't jive that much with Mitchell's questions, but when Pallett conducted the Academy orchestra all was forgotten. Their music for “Her” is arguably the most underrated of all the nominees and it was a thrill to hear it live.
It's hard for anyone to step in for U2, but one-time “The Voice” contestant Matt Cermanski did his best with “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” Cermanski was awkwardly off key at the beginning, but eventually pulled himself together. More on this later.
The night ended with the one and only John Williams who received a standing o when he walked on stage and after he conducted a suite of his Oscar-nominated score from “The Book Thief.” Williams is simply a national treasure and to see him step in front of an orchestra – at 82, no less – made the night seem even more historic in some ways.
Considering the Academy and the music branch admitted they only had a little over six weeks to put the performances for this event together, the results were somewhat remarkable. The Academy has a gem here and no doubt learned a couple of lessons for next year. A big one was to work harder to get talent of Scott's Grammy-winning stature to perform the songs if the original artist is being saved for the big show. Cermanski, wasn't an embarrassment, but he obviously was not their first, second or even third choice.
The other lesson, or dare I say, “suggestion,” is to cut the interview segments and focus on the music more. A simple intro and a word or two with a host could easily preface any performance. This isn't to say Mitchell didn't do an admirable job, but the more music at a concert like this the better. Along those lines, this event would be a wonderful opportunity to highlight some of Oscar's amazing musical history with a performance by a past winner or spotlight a major composer. The Academy veered that way slightly with the Orchestra beginning the night with Jerry Goldsmith's “Fanfare for Oscar.” AMPAS finds amazing ways to work that into the Grammys every year. No one is expecting the Oscars concert to become that mammoth, but there a kernel of something very, very special was born Thursday night. Let's hope they can take it to the next level in 2015.
For complete coverage of the 86th Academy Awards visit HitFix and In Contention all day Sunday.