Oscar Gold 2019 – Original Song

Most of the time when I do these breakdowns it’s with the intent of being as objective as possible without truly prognosticating on the result. But this year, the Original Song category is one where I just can’t pretend. We all know what’s going to happen. “Shallow,” from A Star is Born, is almost certainly going to win, and to be perfectly frank, it’s deserving. Sometimes a category truly is a foregone conclusion, and this is pretty much a textbook case. The film has gotten a ton of love from the Awards Circuit in terms of nominations, but this has been the only lock for a win.

It’s kind of weird in a way. A lot of the buzz for the film came from the star power of the project as well as the fact that it immediately engaged with audiences. But over the last few months, the public enthusiasm has cooled. The movie is now being recognized more and more for what it really is, a charming, somewhat pleasing film carried by A-listers and a showcase for Lady Gaga’s unique talents. And you know what? That’s just fine. Just because it was a remake that didn’t suck doesn’t mean it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread or Betty White. Just let it be what it is, and appreciate it as such.

So since this category is basically a done deal already, the other nominees have to raise an eyebrow or two to see who’ll be the runner-up (which is sadly never revealed). There were some pretty decent songs that didn’t even make the shortlist this year, like the title track from Hearts Beat Loud and the semi-parody Celine Dion ballad that opened Deadpool 2.

So what makes these songs worthy? Ostensibly, the voters are supposed to judge the song within the context of the film. That doesn’t always happen, as nominated songs just play over the credits, which is allowed, so long as it’s the first song of the credit roll, and that’s the case with at least one of the nominees here. Other times a writer or performer has a lot of pull in the industry, and their friends simply want them to win. I think with “Shallow,” we’ll be satisfying the industry insiders while still honoring a song that’s relevant to the overall story. But what about the others?

This year’s nominees for Original Song are:

“All the Stars” from Black Panther – Mark Spears, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Anthony Tiffith and Solána Rowe
The entire Black Panther soundtrack is pretty awesome. Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper out there right now, and his lyrics about hating people who feel entitled speaks to one of the general themes of the movie, which is that T’Challa had to truly earn his place on the throne.

That said, I’ve never really been a fan of SZA, and her voice just kind of grates me here. Also, there’s way too much Auto-Tune in between verses. If a song from the movie was going to be nominated, I would have much preferred Kendrick’s collaboration with The Weeknd on “Pray for Me.”

“I’ll Fight” from RBG – Diane Warren
If any song is going to have a legitimate shot at an upset, it’s this one, because the song has a lot of Oscar credibility behind it. It’s written by Diane Warren, who is on her 10th nomination without a win (and fourth in the last five years), so there’s a chance the insiders will give her the “Randy Newman Award” just to finally see her win. Also, the song is performed by Jennifer Hudson, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Dreamgirls.

As for the song itself? Meh. It’s your standard-issue Diane Warren ballad. Her last two nominations (“When it Happens to You” and “Stand Up for Something”) had legit messages and emotional resonance given the subject matter of the associated films (campus rape and Thurgood Marshall, respectively), but this is more a return to her usual form, in that it’s a song that could just about slot in to any generic movie, or just play on adult contemporary radio. The fact that it was used as a closing note for the disappointing documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg is more an attempt to prop up the film than sell the credibility of the song itself.

“The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns – Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
This song goes for the jugular when it comes to tugging on the heartstrings, and also in reinforcing the nostalgic dependence the film has overall. Sung to Michael’s children as they reminisce about their lost mother before bedtime, this lullaby smacks you across the face with treacle, hoping to jerk a few tears as you hopefully relate to the tragedy the kids have faced in their short lives. Lines like “gone but not forgotten” and “she’s watching as you grow” are utterly shameless in the endeavor.

If it were truly an original song, it might have succeeded. But again, this is the problem with Mary Poppins Returns in general. It’s all just a rehash of the original movie. Back in the 60s, Mary sang Jane and Michael to sleep with lullabies like “Feed the Birds” and “Stay Awake,” and they made for genuinely magical moments of emotional resonance and empathy. Part of that was that they were germane to the story, but mostly it came down to Julie Andrews’ performance. Emily Blunt’s singing voice is perfectly fine, but her facial features in the film are wooden, and almost bored with the proceedings. I wish I could use the actual film clip here to demonstrate, but that would surely cost me multiple arms and legs. Disney’s gotta Disney, yo.

“Shallow” from A Star is Born – Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt
Alright, let’s do it! It would take something of an anti-miracle for this song not to win. This is the true “Star is Born” moment, and it’s about as perfect a scene as you can find in modern cinema. The camera work is superb, the buildup engaging, and of course, once Gaga takes the stage and declares her intentions to the world, it’s all over but the crying.

The song itself is very well orchestrated. That’s what happens when you have great songwriters like Gaga and Ronson. The scene is expertly filmed, one of the true highlights of Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut. In fact, the A.V. Club named this moment as the best single scene of 2018 film. I don’t agree (for me it’s the garage confrontation at the end of Blindspotting), but this one is certainly high on the list. This is the thesis statement of the entire undertaking. If this scene and this song fall flat, the entire movie is a bust. Instead, they rose to the occasion quite admirably. It beggars belief just a bit to think that Cooper as Jackson drunkenly composed the entire song overnight just from Gaga singing half the chorus in a parking lot, but when the result is this damn good, it’s more than forgiven. I mean, how do you not get chills?

“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – David Rawlings and Gillian Welch
There are rumors and theories – most likely true – that say The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was originally meant to be an anthology series for Netflix, a la Black Mirror. This song kind of lends credence to the theory, as it serves as a coda to the first of the six vignettes in what became the final film.

As the titular Buster Scruggs finally runs out of luck, gunned down in a duel, his singing soul escapes his body and floats up to Heaven, offering this lovely little ditty, an actual ballad for Buster. It’s a genuinely good song, and given the dark humor of his story, it makes for the perfectly ironic bow for the entire proceeding. Also, the harmony between Willie Watkins and Tim Blake Nelson is almost too beautiful for words.

* * * * *

My Rankings:
1) “Shallow”
2) “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings”
3) “The Place Where Lost Things Go”
4) “All the Stars”
5) “I’ll Fight”

Next up: We transition from the written note to the written word. It’s Original Screenplay!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which song is your favorite? Which song do you think should have been nominated? Is there ANY chance Gaga doesn’t win? Let me know!

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