IF you've ever watched an Oscar telecast, you know that nothing is quite so cringe-inducing as the musical numbers that punctuate the show, numbers that end up trying too hard to be either flamboyant or hip, often falling short on both counts.

I can easily call up any number of Most Embarrassing Moments, be it the culturally clueless Antonio Banderas version of "Al Otro Lado del Rio" at the 2005 Academy Awards or the infamous opening number of the 1989 show, which featured Merv Griffin crooning with dancers with coconuts on their heads along with a Rob Lowe duet with a woman dressed as Snow White. (You can watch the whole train wreck on YouTube by entering "Infamous Rob Lowe.")

And then there was last year's rendition of "In the Deep" from "Crash," which my wife refers to as "the song where they set the stage on fire."

The problem, of course, starts with the best song nominees themselves. I won't rant about the poor selections other than to say that Paul Jabara won an Oscar (for "Last Dance" from 1978's "Thank God It's Friday") while Cole Porter and George Gershwin do not. But at a time when Oscar ratings are in a steep decline, isn't there a way to use music to breathe some life -- and creativity -- into what increasingly feels like a hollow night of self-congratulation?

The answer is yes. In fact, a textbook demonstration on how to radically improve the show was on display in the form of Rob Marshall's dazzling "Tony Bennett: An American Classic" NBC special that aired Nov. 21. Passionate and polished from start to finish, the show featured Bennett in duets with performers as varied as Diana Krall and Christine Aguilera, with each segment introduced by the kind of celebrity you'd want to see on the Oscars, whether it was Robert De Niro offering praise or Bruce Willis recounting Bennett's lengthy tenure in Las Vegas.

The musical numbers were staged with fresh ideas and innovative style, two things sorely missing from the Oscars. Bennett and k.d. lang did "Because of You" as if at an early '50s Columbia Records recording session, while Elton John popped out from a showgirl's fan for a supercharged Vegas-style performance of "Rags to Riches." For a duet with Krall on "The Best Is Yet to Come," Marshall conjured up an homage to a 1966-era NBC variety show, complete with pop art billboards and bare-midriff dancers in white capri pants.

If Marshall can assemble all this talent for a TV special, imagine what the Oscars could do. I'm hoping this year's producer, Laura Ziskin, who has the energy of a dozen mere mortals, has some tricks up her sleeve. It's long overdue for the academy to reach out to Hollywood's creative talent to overhaul the musical section of the show.

If Marshall isn't available to work his magic, there's plenty of other talent with canny musical instincts -- and the clout to attract A-list talent, be it Bill Condon, Baz Luhrmann, Taylor Hackford, Jonathan Demme, Spike Jonze or Martin Scorsese.

As a way for the academy to get some new blood in its veins, why not recruit some USC or AFI students to shoot documentary footage of the rehearsal process.

If compelling enough, the footage could be incorporated into the broadcast or packaged with the final numbers as a separate TV special on a cable movie channel.

In the meantime, find the Bennett special when it pops up on DVD. It's a great reminder of how seductive music can be on TV, especially when in the hands of a modern-day master.


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