The AFI has distributed a ballot with 400 nominated songs to a jury of 1,500 -- mostly made up of filmmakers, critics and historians. The project is the seventh in a series of AFI rankings of the most outstanding examples of American film, including the greatest movies, stars, comedians, thrills and passions.
Earlier this year, the institute's annual "AFI's 100 Years" TV special -- hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger -- paid tribute to the 100 greatest heroes and villains. When "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Songs: America's Greatest Music in the Movies" is presented in a three-hour TV special on CBS next June, the song that comes out at No. 1 on the list will go down as the "AFI Song of the Century."
The AFI lists are intended not only to honor the best that Hollywood has had to offer over the past century, but also to provoke debate among film fans and -- not incidentally -- stoke interest among consumers in revisiting classic American movies. AFI Director and CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg has said that retailers report spikes in sales and rentals of titles featured in annual TV specials.
A "greatest songs" special would seem almost naturally to lead to a compilation CD. Bob Gazzale, director of AFI productions, told United Press International that has been discussed, but nothing has been decided.
At the same time, Gazzale said there has been "extraordinary interest" in the June TV special from music divisons at the studios.
"It's not only about DVDs and videos," he said. "It's also about soundtracks."
Gazzale said the debate over the song list promises to be more lively than usual.
"This is the one people are really passionate about," he said. "It's our biggest topic ever. Our historians estimated there are over 100,000 that could be eligible."
Given the almost purely emotional response that music evokes in listeners, there is sure to be a widely diverse range of favorites in the field. Titles that might come immediately to mind for most movie fans include "Somewhere over the Rainbow," "As Time Goes By," "Moon River," "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Way We Were."
Some movie songs that might seem to be strong contenders are actually ineligible for purely technical reasons. Tunes with no lyrics, like the "Colonel Bogey March" from "The Bridge on the River Kwai," are not eligible because they were not sung. And "Laura," composer David Raskin's classic theme from the Oscar-nominated 1944 drama of the same name, is ineligible because the lyric was not used in the movie.
"Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics four months after the movie opened," said Gazzale.
On the other hand, a song need not have been written especially for a movie -- as is the case in the competition for the Academy Award for Best Song. For example, Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" is eligible for the AFI prize even though it was not written specifically for the Tom Cruise hit "Risky Business."
Some songs are being excluded from consideration because the movies they were used in do not qualify under the AFI's general criteria as American movies. Burt Bacharach and Hal David are a quintessential American songwriting team, but their Oscar-nominated song "Alfie" is not eligible for the AFI list because "Alfie" was a British film.
Judges are being asked to evaluate songs on the basis of their impact on getting a story told in a movie, as well as their overall cultural impact. The AFI urged judges to select songs that "have captured the nation's heart, echoed beyond the walls of a movie theater, and ultimately, stand in our collective memory for the film itself."
Bing Crosby is the most represented performer on the list of 400 nominated songs, with 12. Fred Astaire is second with 11, followed by Judy Garland with nine, and Gene Kelly and Barbra Streisand with eight each.
Marni Nixon also has eight songs on the list, even though she did not sing any of them onscreen. Nixon handled the singing for actresses including Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood in movie musicals.