This is often a tricky category year-to-year for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it’s one of the few that can still have fewer than five nominees. In 2011, only two songs were nominated, and two years later one was disqualified, giving us four. The current rules state that the category will have either five or three nominations, or not be awarded at all, but who knows how long that will hold?
For another, while it’s not an ironclad rule, since 2008, there’s been a “strong suggestion” that songs be considered within the context of the film. The song doesn’t have to be visually represented in the film, and only the first song cue of the credit roll can be considered if there are more than one, but there have been plenty of occasions where a musical film – usually an adaptation of a stage musical – will churn out multiple “original” songs, then play them in the credits anyway without them actually being a part of the movie for all intents and purposes. Those songs are still eligible, but the Music Branch, as well as the Academy writ large, are encouraged to downgrade them. I’m fully on board with this, and I wish it was a more firm rule, but I also understand that sometimes a modern song won’t have appropriate context in the plot of a period film, for example, so there needs to be an exception or two. And really, we just need to codify SOMETHING so we can end the argument over what should and should not be included.
The next issue is more with the ceremony itself, and that’s coming up with the best way to present the nominees. Sometimes issues are unavoidable, like when Eminem skipped the 2003 broadcast, assuming he’d never win for “Lose Yourself.” (the fact that he did, and that Barbra Streisand had to announce it, is still one of my favorite all-time Oscar moments; the pained look on her face was priceless). But other times it looks like bad formatting and/or playing favorites. Recent examples include a semi-abandoned proposal from just a couple years ago, when it was fairly obvious that “Shallow” from the latest A Star is Born remake was going to win. Originally, the producers wanted to just let Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga perform the song in full, then relegate the other four nominees to a 90-second medley. After some predictable backlash, it was changed to giving the others 90 seconds each, but Cooper and Gaga still got their full performance. Similarly, back in 2014, when it was clear that either “Let it Go” or “Happy” would win, those songs got fully-choreographed production numbers, while the other two remaining nominees (a Christian propaganda song was disqualified after nominations) meanwhile got simple, redux stage performances. Despite the annual complaints about the show running too long, the entire Original Song category would take about 20 minutes to perform, or 2.5 Martin Scorsese Rolex commercials. But rather than cut out superfluous nonsense, they take the hacksaw to nominees who deserve their moment in the spotlight..
Finally, we have a potential hiccup that happens more often than you’d think. Some years, the field just isn’t that good. I don’t like it any more than you do when the winner is obvious, but if someone tells you they honestly thought a song like “Falling Slowly” would lose to one of the three pieces of shit from Enchanted, you call that asshole out for the liar they are. The Academy tried to mitigate the habit of multiple mediocre songs from being stacked in the deck when they limited each film to two entries, but that doesn’t really solve the core problem. Sometimes we just don’t get that many good songs, and unlike subpar years in other categories, we can’t just shuffle it off in the first half hour of the ceremony, because we need to have the performances.
Sadly, I have to say, that last issue affects this year’s class. None of the nominated songs are particularly bad, but most of them are just, well, ordinary. For three of the nominees, I initially forgot about them the moment the credits stopped rolling, and that’s saying a lot, since four of the five only appear DURING THE FUCKING CREDITS! Three of the songs, thematically, might as well be exactly the same, like they’re three parts of the same 45. It just feels like the Music Branch phoned it in this year, and that’s before we get to yet another nomination for Diane Warren. But we’re not here to judge the year, we’re here to judge the field as it is.
This year’s nominees for Original Song are:
“Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah – Music by D’Mile and H.E.R.; Lyrics by H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas
This is the first of three songs from young, talented, black musicians from films dealing with social injustice during the Civil Rights Era. Had “Tigress & Tweed” from The United States vs. Billie Holiday gotten past the shortlist as well, we’d have a superfecta. At least H.E.R. references “Strange Fruit” in the spoken-word preamble to the song.
I dig the trumpets in the opening, the verses, H.E.R.’s voice, and the backup choir in the middle. All of that works really well, there’s a nice funky beat, and the lyrics hold up. My big issue is the first half of the chorus, where H.E.R. talks about freedom. The words make sense, but there’s no real tempo to it. It feels like slam poetry, or if we suddenly stepped into an R&B tribute to Philip Glass. I know part of the message is to not conform to oppressive rules, but it is just a bit jarring to shift so heavily away from the rhythm of the rest of the song. It’s still a good song overall, just not great.
“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Music by Daniel Pemberton; Lyrics by Celeste and Pemberton
Daniel Pemberton also composed the score for the film, so there is something of a thematic through line to the whole proceeding. The song is also written very similar to the style of a 1960s protest song with a sort of fusion between R&B and folk. I can imagine someone like Joni Mitchell or Carole King performing something like this.
Celeste’s voice is really strong, though at times it sounds detached, almost as if she’s just reading the words off the page. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but these are pretty simple lyrics (“Hear my voice, hear my dreams,” “Spread these words like fire,” etc.), which arguably means you should insert as much passion into them as possible to make it stand out. Again, I don’t mind either choice. Sing it straight because you have a beautiful voice. Write basic lyrics because the underlying message really is that crystal clear. I just sort of wonder how far she could have taken it while staying inside the tonal style of the song. I think she had a bit more room to grow with this.
“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – Music and Lyrics by by Rickard Göransson, Fat Max Gsus and Savan Kotecha
This is the only song that actually appears in the body of its respective movie, an underrated lark that I really enjoyed. I mean, I’d like any move that kills Demi Lovato in a boat explosion, but that’s beside the point. As a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, this was just a really fun movie that perfectly captured the spirit of the competition and the eccentric yet beautiful music that arises from it. And it was kind of cathartic to have it in lieu of the actual contest last year.
Performed by Will Ferrell and Swedish singer Molly Sandén (Rachel McAdams does a very convincing lip sync), “Husavik” is their moment in the spotlight during the film’s climax, a declaration of love for each other and their Icelandic home. There’s even a moment of celebration when part of the song is performed in their native tongue, a plot point that was dangled earlier in the film about how many acts will perform in English in hopes of more exposure. Part of me wants to grade this on a generous curve just because it really did make a point of having it be part of the story.
But more than that, it’s just a really good song. Molly Sandén’s vocals are powerful, the orchestration is strong, and even the eternal jokester that is Will Ferrell gives an earnest performance for the backup. You can argue that it’s a fairly standard ballad, and you’d be right, but more than any song on this list, it stuck with me when the film was over, because it was both well done and germane to the actual movie. If you’ve never watched the Eurovision Song Contest, do yourself a favor and watch it this year (assuming it goes forward, May 18-21), because a lot will make sense from the movie. And also, let’s all pray for an over-the-top performance on Oscar night where Ferrell and Sandén (or McAdams) mock Gaga and Cooper by dry humping on stage or something.
“Io sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead – Music by Diane Warren; Lyrics by Laura Pausini and Warren
Let’s test your gag reflex. “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” “Because You Loved Me,” “How Do I Live?,” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
How you feeling? Holding up so far?
“Music of My Heart,” “There You’ll Be,” “Grateful.”
Keep it up. You’re almost there!
“Til it Happens to You,” “Stand Up for Something,” “I’ll Fight,” “I’m Standing with You.”
And release. Did you make it? Don’t blame yourself if you either a) vomited with rage from the lameness, or b) now have diabetes from all the sugary treacle.
This is, inexplicably, Diane Warren’s 12th nomination in this category. The woman singlehandedly responsible for about half of the schlocky ballads on the “adult contemporary” radio station your grandma listens to has been nominated for this award 12 goddamn times. She has yet to win, and rightfully so, because nearly all those songs suck copious amounts of ass. But this may be her year, for three main reasons, only one of which has to do with the actual song. One, many will argue that she’s waited long enough. This very much feels like an “It’s her turn” moment. Two, there’s a sizeable chunk of the critical press that was pissed off when Italy submitted Notturno for International Feature instead of The Life Ahead, as it stars Sophia Loren and was directed by her son.
And third, the only one relevant to the proceedings here, is that if you listen to the song in Italian, it’s honestly not that bad. Warren originally composed the song in English, but when Laura Pausini signed on to perform, and after watching the film, she translated and rewrote the song in Italian, and it flows so much better. Pausini recorded the song in English, Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, but really, the Italian version should be considered the definitive one, and the English lyrics are just insipid, as is befitting a Diane Warren ballad.
And to be clear, while I am very much NOT a fan of Warren’s work, I give each of her entries a fair shake, and I don’t hate this song at all. Composition-wise, it’s pretty standard fare for Warren’s style, but the performance and the Italian lyrics did stick with me long after I first heard it. Only “Husavik” managed that feat elsewhere in this category, so the pair deserves credit for that much at least. This is not my favorite song of the bunch, but if Warren must finally get a win, this is one of the least offensive entries she could use for that purpose.
“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami… – Music and Lyrics by Sam Ashworth and Leslie Odom, Jr.
Leslie Odom, Jr. is no stranger to music, having started as a Broadway actor and broken through as the original Aaron Burr in Hamilton. He’s also terrific in One Night in Miami… as Sam Cooke. And when it comes to the exclamation point for the film’s thesis, this song is spot on.
The third of the entries from the Civil Rights thematic group, this is by far the best, because it avoids the minor flaws of the other two while making the strongest statement on its own merits. It sort of bridges the stylistic gaps of the other two as well, as “Fight for You” feels very much like a modern R&B song, whereas “Hear My Voice” has more of a 60s vibe. “Speak Now” starts off in the era-appropriate universe, just a simple acoustic guitar and Odom’s voice. It also begins with very simple lyrics like “Hear My Voice,” the “Listen, listen” opening and closing phrases reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” But as the song builds, more instruments come in (tambourine, organ, drums), the complexity of the lyrics expands to “Fight for You” levels of poignancy while remaining in step with the rhythm, and the song starts to feel more and more modern as it goes.
And finally, just from the standpoint of personal preference, I really love Odom’s voice. He has this soulful blend of influences, especially in his high register, but he can belt with the best of them, too. All of these performers have good, strong voices, but within the context of the category, only Laura Pausini gives Odom any competition.
It’s always hard to judge this category when there’s not a clear-cut favorite. All of them have merits, but none of them truly blow me away. There’s no one solid criterion to rate them all on, because they all have some imperfection. Some aren’t all that memorable despite their quality. All but one have no direct context to their film. Diane Warren exists. In the end, I feel confident in saying that this will probably be the least remembered winner of the entire night. But in spite all that, someone has to win, so let’s pick one.
1) “Speak Now”
3) “Io sì (Seen)”
4) “Fight for You”
5) “Hear My Voice”
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Next up, the play’s the thing… that becomes a script. It’s Adapted Screenplay!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Which song was your favorite? What songs should have been included in this category? Am I being too hard on Diane Warren? The answer is no, but let me know anyway!