How a Lebanese singer got a Hollywood gig singing 'White Rabbit' in 'American Hustle'

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: Hollywood is increasingly global - just look at the Oscars. Among the favorites to pick up a statue on Sunday is Gravity's Alfonso Cuarón. He could become the first Mexican citizen to win an Academy Award for Best Director. As for the lowdown on the foreign-language films nominated this year, we turn to Matt Holzman of Station KCRW in Santa Monica. A record seventy-six countries submitted a film this year, but it's down to the five nominees. And, Matt, they are? Matt Holzman: "The Broken Circle Breakdown" from Belgium - the story of a Bluegrass-roots group and the relationship between the two main singers, "The Hunt" - A Danish film about a man wrongly accused of sexually abusing a child, a really tense movie, "The Missing Picture" from Cambodia which is actually a documentary about the Khmer Rouge, Omar from Palestine which is a really tense thriller about a Palestinian informant and his Israeli handler, and the favorite, "The Great Beauty" from Italy which is about an aging socialite who is having second thoughts about his life in the high life. Werman: Right. So why is "The Great Beauty", aside from being an Italian film and kind of an homage to Fellini and the Academy loves them some Fellini, why is that the favorite? Holzman: Some movies are like movies and they have characters and story, music, and all those things, and some movies seem to exist somewhere kind of high above the plane of movie-making there, a world that is complete and unto themselves. This is a really surreal, like you say, Fellini-esque movie, and yet it feels like a place that actually is and you desperately want to go and everything is really beautiful and every night is a party. And not only that, it's really touching. I mean it takes this backdrop of this kind of Roman socialite high life and it goes deep into the heart of this man who is realizing that his life may have been wasted on parties. I only saw it on the small screen and I feel really cheated and I can't wait to find an opportunity to see it on the big screen because it is a spectacularly beautiful movie. Werman: Let's talk about one of your favorites of the final five of foreign language films - the Palestinian movie , "Omar". What's it about? Holzman: It's about a young man who is caught in a love triangle and is forced in a way to become an informant for the Israeli Secret Service. Hany Abu-Assad, who directed the film was also nominated in 2006 for "Paradise Now", has created a movie that is just great movie. I mean it's just great characters and you care about them, but it is also a very political movie because it talks about how he views how his people are treated by the Israelis. It's a really powerful film. Having said that, it's also a Palestinian film which makes its chances with Oscars somewhat dicey. When he was nominated for "Paradise Now" in 2006, his movie was supposed to be announced as the official entrant from Palestine and they announced it as the official entrant from the Palestinian territories. So the politics in the movie somehow bleed over into the Oscar consideration and that may actually play against it. Having said that, "The Great Beauty" is such an extraordinary movie. I'm not sure "Omar" really has a chance. Werman: What film did not make the cut? Holzman: The movie that I did see that I thought they really missed the boat on was a film called "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker" and it's from Bosnia-Herzegovina by a filmmaker named Danis Tanović. This movie is the story of a lowly iron picker, a guy who literally like finds pieces of metal and sells it to somebody to make a living. And he and his wife attempt to try to get health care because she is having a miscarriage and she is quite sick. So it's a true story that happened, and then they got the original people back and they recreated this tiny, tiny, tiny little story. One of the things that films can do is that they can take you place that you've never been and that could be a physical place, it can be an emotional place. This movie takes you to a world that you just don't know. Werman: It's a Roma family too, so this is like really . . . Holzman: It is. It is a Roma family indeed which, in some ways, even the people that live in that part of the world might not know this family and how they live. Werman: Matt Holzman, he produces a screening series "First Take" for KCRW in Santa Monica, California. Thanks a lot Matt. Holzman: Thank you. Werman: If you've been checking out some of the higher-profile Oscar nominees, you might have come across this song. [Song plays in Arabic] Werman: That's an Arabic language version of "White Rabbit", the 1967 tune originally by The Jefferson Airplane. It comes up in the film "American Hustle" in that scene where we're introduced to a fake Arab sheik. [Song plays in Arabic] Werman: The version in "American Hustle" is performed by a young Lebanese singer named Mayssa Karaa. She joins us now in the studio. You've got to be pretty excited for the Oscars. You won't be out in LA, but you've got to be totally stoked about all these nominations for "American Hustle". Mayssa Karaa: I surely am. It was an awesome incredible experience actually. Werman: Now, "American Hustle" drew exclusively from the pop and jazz music catalog for the soundtrack, but your cover of The Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick's song "White Rabbit" was the one song recorded especially for the movie. So tell us the inside Hollywood story of how a young Lebanese singer like yourself ended up singing on the soundtrack for "American Hustle". Karaa: Well, I'm a Berklee College of Music graduate and along my experience there I met a composer, Simon Shaheen. And we started touring all over the United States. Werman: Yeah, he's a fantastic Palestinian oud and violin player from [??]. Karaa: Incredible. And that's how Dawn Elder heard about me. So I was in Lebanon for a week and I got this phone call, it was midnight, and Dawn goes, "I heard so much about you and I know you're going to be the appropriate person for this song. So please sing the song, audition, and send it to me." Werman: And she wanted the song like yesterday? Karaa: Yes. So I started recording the song with my iPhone. My sister comes in the room and she's like, "Are you crazy? You're sending an iMemo on your iPhone as an audition to Hollywood?" I said, "Well, I have no other choice. It's midnight and they want it now." So that's how it happened. Werman: Now, you mentioned Dawn Elder. She's a music manager that works with a lot of Arab pop stars. She emailed me saying that she had worked with an Algerian poet named Hanin Omar to translate Grace Slick's song, which of course had all these references to Alice in Wonderland, and drug use obviously. How did this song then end up reflecting con games in "American Hustle"? Karaa: Well, to be honest, our adaptation is more focused on the idea of Alice in Wonderland. It's not really related to the drugs aspects that Grace Slick implies in the song because as "American Hustle" is, and you see the con artists and how everything in the movie seems virtual and how the characters are not really what they seem to be like. There's always a hidden story behind it and that's actually what we have in the Arabic version. Werman: So, for example, Grace Slick's first line is "One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small, and the one mother gives you does nothing at all." What is it in Arabic, the first line? Karaa: It says "One step makes it closer and one step makes it further". You can think about it in different ways actually, like all of these lines have a double connotation and you can interpret it the way you want to. [Song plays in Arabic] Werman: Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa. Her version of "White Rabbit" is featured in the Oscar-nominated film "American Hustle". For our interview, Mayssa brought in the music mix on CD and sang along live in our studio which is what you're hearing now. You can watch it on video at