Best Original Song Nominees (90th Academy Awards)
The Oscars’ Best Original Song category is one that has gone through some serious shifts over the years. When the category began back in the mid 1930s there was no shortage of movie musicals to pull original songs from. It was one of the most popular genres at the box office through a few decades and even with the admonition against songs from Broadway musicals being imported to the screen and becoming eligible for the award, they always seemed to be able to fill out the category without too much trouble. After all, songwriting legends like Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin were still pumping out hits, and what better way to make sure people heard your great new song than to slap it into a movie? This was true to the point that if you’re someone who has seen lots of old movies you’ve probably stopped being surprised when a straight comedy or even drama stops abruptly to let somebody sing a song that might not have much to do with the rest of the movie.
While this emphasis on songs didn’t guarantee nominee classes stacked with classics, by comparison the number of truly legendary songs you find in those first few decades is pretty impressive. Consider 1936 in which “Pennies From Heaven” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” weren’t quite good enough to beat out “The Way You Look Tonight” or 1941 in which “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “Baby Mine,” “Blues in the Night,” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy From Company B” all lost out to Kern’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” Even through the fifties and sixties, more traditional type singers like Doris Day and Frank Sinatra popped up and helped to define an Oscar-winning song as one that might sit comfortably on the shelf alongside the great American songbook. But even a relatively conservative voting body like the Academy couldn’t completely ignore that there had been a definite change in what popular music meant by the late 1960s.
It can be argued that they still managed to react pretty slowly, and gradually it wasn’t just a matter of the music reflecting the times a little more accurately, but the soundtrack album becoming a retail commodity all of its own. A hit song from a movie was often just one of several pop tunes that had been played in the background of a big Hollywood film and then released together in hopes of having a hit album as well. If you’re of a certain age, you probably owned and regularly listened to soundtracks from movies like footloose, Pretty In Pink, Top Gun, or Dirty Dancing. 1984 in particular stands out, with songs from pop stars like Kenny Loggins, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins, and Ray Parker Jr all nominated at the same time. Instead of popular music being pulled naturally from the movies, it seemed like a pretty calculated cross-promotion. The Academy appeared to be uncomfortable with that perception and really lucked out when Disney stepped up its game again and allowed for plenty of nominations for songs that were actually a part of the through-line of the movies to populate the category again. In recent years nominations have fragmented in all directions, with musicals and pop credits songs mixing in with what at times appear to be the most obscure tunes the voters could come up with. Are we in a good place for this category? Unfortunately that’s a year-by-year proposition at this point.
Let’s see how we did this year, shall we?
“Mighty River” from Mudbound
If you haven’t seen Netflix’s Mudbound, you should definitely check it out. The story is adapted from a novel of the same name as written by author Hillary Jordan, with echoes of Tennessee Williams. It revolves around two families sharing a struggling farm in Mississippi, each with a young man returning from the horrors of service in World War II and features excellent performances all around, particularly from Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund. Two of the film’s four Oscar nominations have gone to Mary J Blige for Supporting Actress and her song “Mighty River,” a modern use of gospel sounds. I don’t remember the song in the context of the film, so I’m guessing it plays during the credits. It’s appealing, but pretty boilerplate stuff of the genre.
Experts’ Rank: 3
My Rank: 5
“Mystery of Love” from Call Me By Your Name
Here’s an emotionally gentle recording with a nice subtle inchworm, of a melody underpinned with an effective acoustic trickling. The song, by singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, nicely reflects the tone of the film it is from, even if its style doesn’t remind me of anything I would have heard in the summer of 1983 in Italy…and I was in Italy for part of the summer of 1983. The film is quiet and tempered with the languor of the life its central character is living even as you feel his impatience and anxiety. Stevens captures these conflicting feelings and the song plays as the romantic pair of the film hike through Bergamo as their relationship takes its early awkward first steps filled with trepidation and longing. Neither of them really knows what they are doing and you can hear it here.
Experts’ Rank: 4
My Rank: 2
“Remember Me” from Coco
As good as most of the other songs here are, this one is a no-brainer for me. Not only is “Remember Me” an immediately hummable tune, but it is so central to the story of Pixar’s Coco that the two cannot be separated without gutting the movie completely. Huge spoilers here. The song manages to play multiple roles for different characters over the course of the story. We are first introduced to it as it is used by the Benjamin Bratt character as an appeal to his ego, asking his fans to grant him the eternity of musical legend. But later we find out that it was intended as a simple entreaty of a father to his young daughter as he had to travel away for work. Finally, the song literally works as the tool to allow that same girl to rekindle her memory of her father when she is an elderly woman who rarely speaks. This is all in a film with a central theme of maintaining familial bonds through remembrance of those who have passed. That “Remember Me” fulfills all of this in a single film of such lovely emotionality and humor makes it a slam dunk classic of the form.
Experts’ Rank: 1
My Rank: 1
“Stand Up For Something” from Marshall
The bold panther walk created by Andra Day and the backing instrumentation here is instantly infectious and emotional, with a powerful vocal performance embodying the revolutionary boundary breaking of the central character of the Thurgood Marshall bio pic Marshall. It’s no surprise to see Diane Warren’s name on the songwriting credits alongside Common, as she has consistently exhibited an understanding of the theatre of a good pop song. Unfortunately, the song gets knocked down a peg by the inclusion of a vocal performance by one of its writers that feels unnecessarily stuffed in and strikes me as an unwelcome interruption where either an instrumental or sung bridge would have done a better job of maintaining the grand swagger that has been established. I guess when you have an Oscar-winning star on hand you feel like you have to use him. “Stand Up For Something” would have profited by resisting the urge.
Experts’ Rank: 5
My Rank: 3
“This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman
I guess I can hear why this song pulled an upset at the Golden Globes back in January. It’s the kind of inspirational expression of individuality that appeals to a lot of people and does seem timely. Artists such as Katy Perry, Florence and the Machine, and Fun. mined this sort of territory about eight years ago to good effect and there’s no particular reason to begrudge what is another decent example of the type. What I do have a personal discomfort with, however, is the aggressively non-period style of this music for a movie that is supposed to be telling the story of P.T. Barnum…a story that would have happened back in the 19th century. I know this is purposeful and I guess a lot of people like the approach. Baz Luhrmann has made a career out of it. For me it is usually a big turnoff. It creates a clash between the visuals and context of the rest of the project and feels both lazy and like an insult to the audience in assuming that they wouldn’t be able to tolerate more period-appropriate styles.
Experts’ Rank: 2
My Rank: 4
Music is a personal thing sometimes. Which one of these tunes do you think deserves to go home with the Oscar for Best Original Song?