You can always count on the Academy Awards voters to blow it. But the Academy’s failure to nominate Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler” for Best Original Song makes me wonder if the nods are decided by throwing darts at a board labeled “next best things.”
Hey, I don’t mean to denigrate the songs that were nominated. Peter Gabriel’s “Down to Earth,” written for Wall-E, is a nicely subdued number that gently sways between melancholy and hopeful. And Slumdog Millionaire‘s “O Saya” and”Jai Ho” are thrilling, cosmopolitan, danceable tracks that show the Academy nodding to a world beyond Hollywood.
But sparse and solemn, “The Wrestler,” from the film of the same name, has an intensely affecting emotional specificity that the aforementioned nominees lack. It’s not just the best song written for a movie in 2008, it’s better than anything else on Springsteen’s upcoming Working on a Dream (which features “The Wrestler” as a bonus track).
Listen: Bruce Springsteen, “The Wrestler”
My biggest problem with Dream is how the lyrics constantly lapse into empty clichés. Take the title track. An unnamed narrator “has drawn a rough hand,” but finds solace in the fact that “the sun rises up.” Who is this person? Why should we care? Similarly, “My Lucky Day” finds Springsteen singing about “the burden of the day” and “the weary hands of time.”
Compare those songs with a classic Springsteen track like 1982’s “Atlantic City,” in which a whole world is hinted at in the opening line of, “Well, they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night.” I mean, “Thunder Road”‘s “The screen door slammed / Mary’s dress waved” — that’s a novel. “My Lucky Day’s” string of platitudes barely adds up to a greeting card.
Thankfully, “The Wrestler” finds Springsteen at the top of his form. The title alone offers a concrete image in a way that the vagaries of Dream‘s other songs do not. That specificity is deepened with lines about “the broken bones and bruises” and crowds “that smile when the blood / it hits the floor.”
Those telling details are like the difference between a stranger telling you they feel broken-hearted and your friend saying the same thing. We feel like we know “the Wrestler,” and that makes us care that he feels like a “one-legged dog.”
And if you’ve seen the movie, you know that that’s exactly the kind of phrase Randy “the Ram” Robinson (magnificently played by Springsteen’s pal Mickey Rourke) would use to describe himself. In that way, it’s clear that Springsteen took the task of writing a song for the movie seriously. He wasn’t content to just offer up some album leftover and have it slapped over the end credits. Instead, he wrote a song distilling the emotional essence of the film. I’m not sure you can say the same about the songwriter’s behind Oscar’s nominated songs.
Wealthy, beloved, superstar Springsteen is about as far removed from a broken down brawler as an entertainer can get, but there’s a line in “The Wrestler” that connects singer and character in a deeply moving way. “I always leave with less than I had before,” sings Springsteen. Thousands of grueling three-hour shows. Years of rootless living. A failed marriage. It may not be blood, but there is a cost to what Springsteen does.Despite that, a few lines later, when he asks, “Tell me / Can you ask for anything more?” there’s no doubt as to what his, or the Ram’s, answer would be.
The ultimate message of the song is that entertainers make sacrifices. And sometimes, as in the case of “The Wrestler,” they make great art. It’s too bad the Academy has such a hard time recognizing the very thing they’re supposed to reward.
Watch: The Wrestler trailer