The Oscar for Original Song offers some of the most memorable moments in the history of the ceremony. Sometimes we get brilliant performances, like Robin Williams leading a whole stage chorus for South Park‘s “Blame Canada.” Sometimes you get moments of delicious irony, like the face Barbra Streisand made when she had to announce that Eminem had won for “Lose Yourself,” despite being the only nominee who didn’t show up and being one of those vulgar hippity-hop men (seriously, she looked so crestfallen; it was the highlight of the evening). And sometimes you even get a bit of a snafu, like when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won for “Falling Slowly” from one of my favorite movies, Once. They won out over three songs from the otherwise awful Enchanted, and Marketa didn’t even get to say a word because they got played off the stage too fast, to the point that after the commercial host Jon Stewart had to awkwardly call her back on stage so she could give her acceptance speech.
This is also something of a fun category if you’re a stickler for rules and regulations, as they’ve been changed multiple times over the years. As it currently stands, a song’s eligibility is determined by whether or not there is, “a clearly audible, intelligible, substantive rendition (not necessarily visually presented) of both lyrics and melody, used in the body of the motion picture or as the first music cue in the end credits.” But that’s not all. The song must be written specifically for the movie it’s associated with, and it can be released on other media, so long as it was recorded for the movie first. Samples and parodies are not eligible.
Also, the number of nominees has fluctuated greatly since the category’s inception. Until 1945, there was no limit of nominees, resulting in 14 the last year it wasn’t capped. From then until 2011, the music branch used a 6-10 rating system to grade submissions, with only those songs getting at least an 8.25 average being eligible. This resulted in there being only two nominees before the next rule change. Now the number of nominees is contingent on the number of submissions, which has resulted in five nominees each year (though “Alone Yet Not Alone” was disqualified after nominations were announced, with no replacement, after it was discovered that the writer illegally campaigned for the song – which is hilarious given that it was a Christian film). Also, after two recent years where a movie with three nominations in the category lost all three (Dreamgirls and Enchanted), there’s a hard limit of two nominated songs from the same film.
That’s a lot of specifics for a category that doesn’t even require you to watch the associated film. After Dreamgirls lost thrice over, there was a suggestion made in addendum to the rules that Academy voters should consider the songs within the context of their film. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but there was a bit of an uproar that a song which played over the credits of An Inconvenient Truth won out over a triple-nominated musical. Never mind that there was some early-onset #OscarsSoWhite controversy as well, or that Dreamgirls, like many musicals before it, cynically wrote additional songs for the movie adaptation just so they could get nominated. This is why it’s not a rule, but a suggestion, because there’s no way to enforce it, and if you did, you’d be pissing off some major wing of the Academy.
Of this year’s nominees, only one comes from a musical, and it’s from an original one rather than a stage adaptation. The last couple of years have been rough for this category, with some subpar nominees and winners. Last year we had two nominees from La La Land, and I’d argue the weaker of the two – “City of Stars” – won out over the superior “Audition.” The rest of the nominees were a somber dirge during the credits of a documentary no one saw, a standard-issue Disney Princess anthem elevated only because it was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a decent pop song from Justin Timberlake that the Trolls movie was completely written around, yet was released six months before the movie in a shameless attempt at “song of the summer” status. The year before that saw the worst Bond theme EVER win out over TWO documentary ballads, an aria, and a Weeknd song that by itself was more erotic in two minutes than the rest of Fifty Shades of Grey was in two hours. Like I said, we’re a bit overdue for a solid category. Thankfully, we’ve got one this year.
In a slight departure from what I’ve done in the Oscar coverage so far – and technically in violation of current Academy procedure (but screw it, it’s not like I have an actual vote or anything) – I’m going to rate each of the songs both on their overall quality, and within the context of the film, as is strongly suggested of the voters, before I make my final rankings.
This year’s nominees for Best Original Song are:
“Mystery of Love” – Call Me By Your Name (music and lyrics by Sufjan Stevens)
I’m not all that familiar with Sufjan Stevens’ work, but this is a very pleasant song with poetic lyrics that plays equally as a romantic ode and a lullaby. The strings are hypnotic and relaxing at the same time. I could loop it for hours. The vocals leave a little bit to be desired, mostly because they’re just a bit too breathy for my tastes. I prefer when people sing in full voice or falsetto, not when they intentionally pull back to try to sound quasi-ethereal. It especially doesn’t work here, because the strings are so loud that it kind of drowns out his singing.
This translated into the movie as well. The song comes along towards the end of the film, when Elio and Oliver go on a little vacation before Oliver has to fly back to America. Not only is Stevens’ voice drowned out by the guitar, but in the film it’s also drowned out by the sounds of a waterfall, to the point that it almost violates that whole “audible, intelligible” part of the rule. Further, given that the film is set in the 1980s, you would think it’d be more authentic to compose a song that had a bona fide 80s feel to it. It’s not a requirement, but when you consider that some of Oliver’s defining character moments are set to “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs, it makes this song feel glaringly out of place.
Quality – 8.0, Context – 6.5
“Remember Me” – Coco (music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez)
The Lopezes have already cashed in Oscar gold through their work with Disney, as the writers of “Let it Go” from Frozen. The song is very short (just over a minute long) and very sweet. Just a simple voice and guitar, the song is a direct statement of love that knows no bounds or distance. There’s nothing to fault, other than perhaps the runtime, but only if you were hoping for a lengthy showstopper.
The tune finds itself eventually becoming very versatile within the narrative of Coco. It’s performed no less than three times in the film, first as a mariachi power ballad by Ernesto de la Cruz, an example of how he became the most popular singer in the land, a Mexican Elvis. Later we see how it was intended as a parting lullaby between a young Coco and her father, who actually wrote the song (in the movie, anyway). And finally, it’s used as a means to help the elderly Coco remember her father so he doesn’t disappear from the Land of the Dead, our hero Miguel defying his music-hating family and performing the song, bringing her out of her near-catatonic state just in time to save the day. But of course, no one cares about that. What matters is that there’s not a dry eye in the house as Miguel chokes out the words and an old woman tearfully remembers not only her father, but herself. The loving face of her daughter (Miguel’s grandmother) seals the deal and leaves the heartstrings permanently tugged.
Quality – 9.0, Context – 10
Grade – 9.5
“This is Me” – The Greatest Showman (music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul)
When this film came out, it was highly marketed as featuring the Oscar-winning lyricists from La La Land, Pasek and Paul. In its own way, that’s very curious. It’s as if the studio knew from the moment they saw the first cut of the movie that the only thing they’d truly be able to sell is the music, and in a way that’s true. The Greatest Showman is a fine family film, but it’s wrought with historical inaccuracies that only serve to whitewash P.T. Barnum’s story so that it’s more pleasing to suburban families.
Still, the music is pretty spectacular, if a bit anachronistic. The film has a very Moulin Rouge-y feel at times with modern stage musical composition over turn-of-the-20th-Century settings. But unlike Call Me By Your Name, it’s more forgivable here, as the motif is consistent throughout. By establishing the rules of your cinematic universe and sticking to them, the audience can properly suspend disbelief and invest in the fantasy. As such, I won’t dock points for this like I did for “Mystery of Love.” As far as the overall context of the film, this song appears at about the halfway point. In a stage musical, this would be the Act I showstopper before intermission, and it works wonders.
The song itself is a powerful, defiant ballad of self-identity, a la “Let it Go.” The big difference here is that it’s an ensemble number rather than a solo (even more impressive when you consider that star Hugh Jackman isn’t involved in the number at all – his dismissive actions as Barnum lead to it, but that’s it). Led by the Bearded Woman (played by Broadway actress Keala Settle) with an amazingly soulful voice, the Freak Show not only takes center stage, they outright annex it, confronting Barnum, the landed gentry, and the hateful rabble that would shame them for existing. In today’s socio-political climate, where a wide swath of the population lives in fear of reprisal for things completely out of control at the hands of a government – and an emboldened and hateful vocal minority – who would see them jailed or worse for being different, this song resonates on a lot of levels, to the point where a mass statement of defiance is sorely needed. The message is essential, and I’m not afraid to admit the delivery had my eyes welling up just a bit.
Quality – 10, Context – 9.5
Grade – 9.75
“Stand Up for Something” – Marshall (music by Diane Warren, lyrics by Warren and Lonnie Lynn, aka “Common”)
Common is a previous winner in this category for the song “Glory” from Selma, so it only seems appropriate that he’d have a hand in this as well. He won an Oscar for a song from a film about Martin Luther King, Jr., and now he’s up again for a song from a film about Thurgood Marshall, one of my favorites of 2017. Diane Warren has been nominated in this category nine times to date, with no wins, mostly because her trade is in pop ballads with interchangeable performers. Cases in point: two of her nominations have had massive success with multiple singers. “How Do I Live,” from Con Air, charted high for both LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood, with Yearwood’s rendition winning a Grammy over Rimes. Similarly, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” from Armageddon, is the only #1 hit ever for Aerosmith, and a year later it peaked again at #17 with a version from country singer Mark Chesnutt. Suffice to say, Warren’s really good at getting nominated, but not so good at winning, because her songs tend to be the musical equivalent of processed cheese.
However, I will grant that “Stand Up for Something,” is a cut above the rest of her work here. Musically, it’s got a retro R&B feel to it, like something that would actually be released during the Civil Rights era. Instrumentally, the most dominant sound is the drum, beating not just to keep a rhythm, but to call to arms. Andra Day’s vocals are about as perfect as you can get, and while I’m not a religious man by any means, Common’s rap bridge about following a Christian mantra of peace and love is in no way offensive. Thematically, this song differentiates itself from “This is Me” a bit, as that song was a statement of self-value, while this one is more a call to action to recruit others. In each of her previous nominations, I would have been well and truly offended if Diane Warren’s schlock had won. This time, I’d be cool with it.
Contextually, the song unfortunately gets low marks, as it’s just run during the credits. It’s a bow on the entire proceedings of Marshall, rather than an active element. That doesn’t necessarily disqualify it, as there doesn’t really seem like there would be an appropriate moment in the film to insert it. From a creative editing standpoint, the best you could do would be to put it in towards the end, during a montage (which you’d have to extend with more shots) as Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall goes off to his next case, while Josh Gad prepares himself to wrap up the case they worked on together. And at that point, there’s really no reason to shoehorn it in, as the credit roll is just a few minutes away, anyway. So yeah, it gets docked for not being in the movie, but not by too much, as there was no real place where it would fit.
Quality – 8.5, Context – 7.5
Grade – 8.0
“Mighty River” – Mudbound (music and lyrics by Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saddiq, and Taura Stinson)
Remember how I said I’m not religious? Well, despite that, I have a very soft spot in my heart for spiritual music and gospel, and Mary J. Blige delivers in spades with “Mighty River.” Her unparalleled vocals combined with the soft, yet powerful piano line combine to give a super soulful capper to the surprising Mudbound. I think in terms of music and lyrics it might be my favorite song of the bunch. If there’s a theme to be had with this year’s slate of nominees, it’s the power of love. “Mystery of Love” pines for the thrill of romance, while “Remember Me” is a tear-jerking lullaby of familial love. “This is Me” outright orders you to love yourself and accept nothing less from others. “Stand Up for Something” wants you to pass on the love to your fellow man. And finally, “Mighty River” begs for love to conquer hatred as we put aside shallow differences in favor of deep similarities.
Unfortunately, like I had to do with the last entry, I do have to dock points for the song being just during the credit roll. Part of me wants to dock it further, because as a Netflix film, there’s a bit of lost opportunity here to make a bigger statement for the film by including it in the main story. And unlike Marshall, there was an appropriate place for the song to be inserted. The Jackson family patriarch is a farmworker and a minister. There are several scenes of him preaching to a black congregation in the framework of a dilapidated chapel that they’re constantly trying to rebuild. You could have easily had a scene of Blige, who plays his wife, performing this song in the film. On the other hand, you could easily argue (and I’d tend to agree) that it might actually cheapen both the film and the song. You don’t want to take such an ambitious project as Mudbound and turn it into a two-hour music video with a plot in the background. And honestly, given the pain and suffering that Blige’s character has to endure throughout the film (which is why she earned her Supporting Actress nomination), it would almost seem like a copout to reduce her travails to a conciliatory song of hope for the future. So while it does get docked for being in the credits only, I actually prefer it this way.
Quality – 10, Context – 7.5
Grade – 8.75
Like I said, this is a far better crop of nominees than we’ve had in a while. You could really make a case for any of these songs (save maybe “Mystery of Love”), as they all have great musical value. Some of them fit into their films better than others, but again, the Academy voters don’t necessarily have to include that criterion in their decision. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, and I’m really looking forward to the performances during the ceremony.
1) “This is Me”
2) “Remember Me”
3) “Mighty River”
4) “Stand Up for Something”
5) “Mystery of Love”
Next up: The Production Design category tests your artistic temperament as well as your ability to put up with shoddy, live-action Disney remakes!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Are you a freak like me? Are you going to stand up and cheer? Are you Diane Warren, out for blood? Let me know!