15 Great Oscar-Winning Songs!: “Take My Breath Away”
Today’s example of a great Oscar-winning song comes from the era when cross-promotional use of songs from popular artists was perhaps at its peak in the movie/music business. Just take a look at the nominees and winners of the Oscar for Best Original Song starting in 1977 and stretching until the Disney renaissance took hold in 1989. What you’ve got here are songs meant to market the movie and at the same time maybe piggy back on a successful film for added exposure. Sure, this still happens every now and then (last year’s Bond song seems to fit this description), but the sheer dependability of top chart success for so many of the songs throughout my childhood and into my first year of college points to shifts in how the songs have been voted on.
Just about as successful as any song to ever win the award was the recording of the Giorgio Moroder tune “Take My Breath Away” by pop band Berlin for the Tom Cruise blockbuster Top Gun.
Unlike some other songs which ended up winning the Oscar, “Take My Breath Away” was, in fact, written specifically for its movie. Director Tony Scott and producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson liked the demo of the song so much that they expanded the love scene footage between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis included in the movie in order to give “Take My Breath Away” more breathing space.
The song did not yet have a fully polished final recording, though. The Motels, who had won some recognition with hit songs like “Only the Lonely” and “Suddenly Last Summer” in the preceding few years were considered along with several groups from Columbia’s stable of artists. Moroder had another idea, however. Having spent some time working with Berlin on their hit “No More Words,” which had appeared in the film Vision Quest, he felt like they would be ideal or the job. Although the group’s sound and name had been significantly inspired by German sources, including the notorious German synth pop band Kraftwerk, they actually hailed from Orange County in California and singer Terri Nunn had spent time pursuing a career as an actress. This resulted mostly in television guest spots on shows like “Family,” “Barnaby Jones,” “Vega$,” and “Lou Grant.” Big fans of Star Wars might have seen video of her audition for the role of Princess Leia.
It my be really unfair to criticize a teenaged actress based on an audition tape she thought nobody would ever see, but it’s pretty clear here that she doesn’t know her lines well enough. She keeps adding “look” or “now” in front of her longer pieces of dialogue, making it obvious that she’d put in real work on the lines, but was still struggling. On the other hand, Ford seems practically bored, doesn’t he?
She returned to the band in 1980 and within a couple of years the group started to call attention to themselves through coolly sophisticated and erotically charged songs like “Metro” and “Sex (I’m A…).” By the way, if you’re at work you might want to keep this next one on headphones…
So obviously that song was rejected from a huge number of radio stations around the country at the time of its release due to its very blatant references to “deviant” sexual practices and relationships. Why would the band choose this song to release as a single then? As it turns out, it was a very purposeful gambit to gain the attention that such “bans” garner and to get played on the very influential local Los Angeles radio station KROQ. The station made a habit of championing music that couldn’t get airplay elsewhere and the members of Berlin figured “Sex (I’m A…)” would be a shoo-in for such treatment. They were very right, and the attention they received resulted in a contract for much wider distribution of their recordings through Geffen Records.
The night that Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock accepted their gold-plated statuettes from presenter Bernadette Peters they were on top of the world in that room. But it’s hard not to look at the list of other nominees that year without noticing the presence of some other songwriting greats, each at different points of their careers. The song “Life in a Looking Glass” was co-written by the legendary Henry Mancini, whose gorgeous “Moon River” we’ve already looked at here. He still was getting lots of work, but his genius years were behind him. Meanwhile, young songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were just starting to make their splash, having been nominated for a new song in Little Shop of Horrors called “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space.” It would be, in part, their ascendance which would severely blunt the dominance of pop songs at the Oscars.
Unfortunately, Berlin’s big hit would turn into a point of contention for the band, largely because none of them had written it. The group’s primary songwriter John Crawford resented what he considered to be the song’s over-sized place in their catalog and balked at playing it live. According to vocalist Terri Nunn the members of the band were simply on one another’s nerves after spending so much time together in the studio and on the road and their success with “Take My Breath Away” was just another thing for them to fight about. Instead of taking some time away to cool down the band imploded before popping up again in a series of less successful forms, including a reunion of the classic lineup on the VH-1 show “Bands Reunited.”