Oscar Gold 2020 – Original Song

One of the guiding principles of the Academy process for movie music is a bit of a double-edged sword. For both Original Score and Original Song, the Music Branch never actually has to watch the movies for which the music has been submitted. Strictly speaking, they only have to hear snippets of the score and the studios send over the song candidates by themselves. There’s not even a “Bake-Off” for the categories. There is a screening of submitted songs, but if members can’t attend, they get a DVD of clips of the submitted music and vote on their own time (within the deadlines, of course). This is how “Beautiful Ghosts” from Cats was able to be submitted and nominated for the Golden Globes, even though Tom Hooper admitted the film wouldn’t be ready to be screened before the submission deadline. Spoiler alert, it still wasn’t ready when it was actually released to the public, either.

However, with that in mind, there is still an unwritten rule that Academy voters (either in the Music Branch or the full body) should consider music within the context of the film itself. This came up after Dreamgirls got three of its eight nominations in the Original Song category alone (it still lost, and rightly so, to “I Need to Wake Up” from An Inconvenient Truth), and all three of Enchanted‘s nominations came in this category the next year (all three lost, again, rightly so, to “Falling Slowly” from Once). The idea was that while they couldn’t make it an ironclad rule, they could at least suggest that the submitted music be a part of the actual film, rather than just a track tacked on during the credits, which most audiences don’t stick around for anyway. The Academy wanted music relevant to the film that was also good enough to stand on its own.

Now, this did result in an actual rule change, but probably not the one intended. As of 2008, only two songs can be nominated from a single film. But the whole idea of context was left unwritten. The official rule is that a submitted song has to be within the body of a film or the first cue during the credits. Given that there is some sort of screening for the Music Branch, I have to wonder how many people just sit there and watch credits for two hours.

I’m not opposed to songs that play during the credit roll, because again, there’s no written rule against it. Also, there are cases where the credits are the most appropriate place for a song. For me, it’s when a song basically serves as a capper for the proceedings, and/or if it wouldn’t feel properly in place during the main story of the movie. In the case of this year’s nominees, two songs come from the body of the film, while the other three are credit songs. Of those three, two of them I think are appropriate for their placing, so I won’t rule against them. The third… not so much. But suffice to say, as I break down this year’s list, I will be doing so with two main questions in my head. One, is the song any good? Two, is it presented in the proper – or at least an appropriate – context within the film?

This year’s nominees for Original Song are:

“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4 – Music and Lyrics by Randy Newman

Played during an early travel montage in Toy Story 4, Randy Newman’s latest Pixar theme song is presented in a quite literal sense in the film. The newest member of the toy crew, Forky, an action figure made from a spork and other various bits of trash by Bonnie in her kindergarten class, believes himself to not be a real toy, but rather a rightful piece of garbage, so he spends the entire first act literally trying to throw himself away. In that sense, the song makes for a good running gag, but it doesn’t carry any real weight like “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” did in the original 1995 film.

From a musical standpoint, the song is quintessentially Randy Newman. It’s peppy, it’s short, and you can basically sing it by just going “bork bork bork” the entire way through. The brass is a nice touch, as are the background singers. The lyrics are simplistic, but overall positive. It’s not Newman’s best work, but it’s far from his worst.

“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman – Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Bernie Taupin

Playing during the credits, this anthem of self-affirmation is a prime example of a song that’s perfect for that last bit of the film. Performed as a duet between Elton John himself and the man playing him, Taron Egerton, the song serves as an epilogue for the brilliantly exuberant musical biopic of the former Reg Dwight. The only way it could have been more appropriate would have been for there to be an actual musical number with the two of them performing together. But in lieu of that, the declaration that Elton will love himself again coupled with postscript text that he met his husband, David Furnish, and that he’s “loved properly” is a good substitute.

Musically, this song is amazing. With heavy brass and a rhythm reminiscent of the Four Tops, the song is the perfect encapsulation of not only the movie, but of Elton as a person and as an artist. From a personal standpoint, it hit home for me pretty hard last year, as a lot of things went wrong, and I fell into a lengthy period of self-loathing. Putting this song on repeat helped me get through a lot of dark days.

And while this has no bearing on my judgment, I would just love to see this win so that Elton and Bernie can FINALLY win a major award together (they got the Golden Globe for this as well, but you know my feelings on that). It’s unbelievable to me that they haven’t won as a duo despite working together for nearly 50 years.

“I’m Standing with You” from Breakthrough – Music and Lyrics by Diane Warren

This song also plays during the credits of the Christian propaganda film, Breakthrough, but in this case, it actually doesn’t make sense. Performed by the film’s star, Chrissy Metz (This is Us), the song speaks of undying support, which while simplistic, actually would have worked at several different places within the main body of the film. Throughout the movie we hear hymns, worship songs, and licensed pop songs (sanitized so far as to remove the words “hot damn” from “Uptown Funk” – I’m not kidding). Some are sung live in the film – a worship song during a candlelight vigil somehow has backing instrumentals; figure that one out – and some are ambient, like a supportive song playing during a montage of people mobilizing their well wishes and whatnot. At any point you could have slotted this song in place of those. Additionally, in the many sentimental moments of treacle, as Chrissy Metz prays for her cinematic son’s life, you could have easily had her sing an a cappella version over her son’s body in the hospital ward. What I’m saying is, you had options. To leave it for the credits in this case seems to imply a lack of confidence in the quality of the song.

And on that note, seriously, does Diane Warren have some kind of dirt on the rest of the Music Branch? Because this is just ri-goddamn-diculous. I’ll grant that Chrissy Metz has an unexpectedly beautiful voice, and she sings the song well. But the lyrics sound like they were written by a third grader, and musically, much of the song is just a slight inversion of the melody of one of Warren’s previously nominated songs, “Til it Happens to You.”

She’s been nominated 11 times now, including five of the last six years, and she will NEVER WIN. This woman has made her career on saccharine ballads that get dumber and dumber each time. There’s no depth to any of the lyrics, the movies they use her in are mostly terrible, and yet she keeps getting nominated. Take a look at the slate of songs that have gotten her near the Oscar stage but never on it.

“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” – Mannequin
“Because You Loved Me” – Up Close and Personal
“How Do I Live?” – Con Air
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” – Armageddon
“Music of My Heart” – Music of the Heart
“There You’ll Be” – Pearl Harbor
“Grateful” – Beyond the Lights
“Til it Happens to You” – The Hunting Ground
“Stand Up for Something” – Marshall
“I’ll Fight” – RBG
“I’m Standing with You” – Breakthrough

The Rotten Tomatoes scores for those films are, in order: 22%, 31%, 55%, 38%, 63%, 24%, 83%, 93%, 80%, 95%, and 61%. Now, she’s been used for better rated films of late, but two of them are documentaries, which tend to get higher marks because they’re seen by fewer people (and one of them wasn’t even nominated in the Documentary Feature category), so take that with requisite salt. Really, her music has only been used in two “Certified Fresh” commercial films, and Breakthrough ain’t one of them.

As for the quality of the actual songs, I mean, just, good God these songs suck. They’re successful, yes, because pop ballads tend to do well on the charts. Hell, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” is still inexplicably the only #1 hit for Aerosmith. But it’s telling that the only good version of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is the lip sync performed by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins, and the version of “How Do I Live?” that did better commercially was the LeAnn Rimes single, not the Trisha Yearwood version used in the film. Yearwood won a Grammy for her version (ironically right after Rimes, who was also nominated, performed it on stage), but Warren did not. Out of all this, the only song worth its salt is “Stand Up for Something,” but that’s mostly because of Common’s rap bridge, not anything Warren did.

Still, the pattern throughout her Oscar history is basically unchanged. She writes sappy ballads, with occasional attempts at poignancy, to prop up mostly terrible films that need some sort of credibility. And after the fiasco of “Alone Yet Not Alone” a few years ago, the Christian film industry has been desperate for something, anything, to lend their crap fests something resembling mainstream accessibility. This is it, and it sucks.

Rant over. Back to actual music.

“Into the Unknown” from Frozen II – Music and Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez

Odd that this is the second song on this list from a film that was surprisingly only nominated here (Rocketman being the other; still can’t understand how Jonathan Pryce was nominated for Best Actor over Taron Egerton). Robert Lopez is the youngest EGOT winner after netting his Oscar for “Let it Go” from the first Frozen movie. And it’s clear he and his wife are hoping that lightning will strike twice, as this anthem hews closest to their previous success. In the film, this song represents Elsa at a crossroads, wondering how far she’s willing to go to learn the truth about her powers. The lyrics are a bit too expositional and don’t really translate outside of the context of the film, especially given how late into the proceedings the song comes.

“Let it Go” was an assertive statement, an empowered declaration of self. “Into the Unknown,” is self-doubt, which Elsa shouldn’t really have anymore given her development in the first film. Musically, it’s complex, well-written, and the show of Idina Menzel’s increasing range is something to behold. Her vocals are unparalleled. But whereas “Let it Go” was the unquestioned apex of the first film, here you really can’t say that. I’d even argue that “Into the Unkown” isn’t even the best song of the movie. Oddly, I’d say that honor goes to the 80s ballad sound-alike, “Lost in the Woods,” but that’s just me. This is a perfectly fine song from a great film that was sadly overlooked for Animated Feature. But the comparisons to “Let it Go” are unavoidable, and as such, I think it hinders the song’s chances.

“Stand Up” from Harriet – Music and Lyrics by Joshuah Brian Campbell and Cynthia Erivo

Robert Lopez is currently the record-holder for youngest EGOT winner, but his title is up for grabs this year, as Cynthia Erivo, nominated here and for Best Actress, would overtake Lopez by nearly six years if she pulls off a victory. “Stand Up” is appropriately run during the credits of Harriet, a cap to the proceedings with some influence of the spirituals that are sung throughout the film. As the movie is set in the antebellum era, putting in a “new” song probably would have felt odd and tonally unwarranted, so it’s a good thing that we have this soulful track to end the proceedings.

Erivo’s voice is beautiful and haunting, with an amazing range, echoing through this call to arms, which not only showcases Harriet Tubman’s greatest strengths, but also resonates with current sociopolitical problems. The world needs new leaders, ready and willing to do what’s necessary to get the people to their own promised lands, be they figurative or literal. There’s also a poignant understanding that whoever these leaders are, they may not be able to finish the job, as the song ends with Erivo softly repeating Tubman’s purported famous last words (also printed on-screen in the film), “I go to prepare a place for you.” From the standpoint of the arrangement, the song fuses current R&B methods with gospel and spirituals in a near-perfect blend. Regardless of source, this was one of my favorite songs throughout all of 2019.

My Rankings
1. “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”
2. “Stand Up”
3. “Into the Unknown”
4. “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away”
5. “I’m Standing with You”

Next up: I see what you did there, which is why I made it into a script! It’s Adapted Screenplay!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which song did you like best? Should the nomination rules be changed? Can we please, please, PLEASE stop nominating Diane Warren?! Let me know!

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