From Sam Smith to Meryl Streep, This Year’s Oscar Song Contenders Are Mostly Terrible

Smith’s awful James Bond theme is only one of the missteps in an overstuffed, mediocre field of 74 contenders

Listening to the songs that qualified for this year’s Oscars in the Best Original Song category put me in a bad mood.

A four-and-a-half hour playlist of mediocre music will do that to you, and that’s what the Oscar songs playlist has become in recent years. Despite a number of worthy songs each year, the majority of submissions are run-of-the-mill, with no real chance of making the cut with the Academy’s Music Branch.

And for four consecutive years now, the number of eligible songs has been in the 70s, with this year’s crop reaching 74.

The roster of songs clearly doesn’t have much to do with the best of what’s happening in popular music these days — and to be honest, these songs don’t have a lot to do with the best of what happened with music and cinema in 2015, either.

The year’s most memorable musical moments on screen included Iarla O Lionaird singing the gorgeous Irish song “Casadh an Tsugain” in a heartbreaking dining-hall scene in “Brooklyn”; Eazy-E learning to rap on “Boyz-n-the Hood” in “Straight Outta Compton”; any number of terrible disco songs driving Matt Damon crazy in “The Martian”; Brian Wilson and Mike Love teasing out the beginnings of “Good Vibrations” in “Love & Mercy”; and a number of songs in music documentaries, from a teenage Amy Winehouse making “Happy Birthday” sultry in “Amy” to an aging, battered Nina Simone pouring herself into Janis Ian’s “Stars” in “What Happened, Miss Simone?”

But those songs weren’t eligible because they weren’t written for their movies. The songs that were eligible include performances by Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Eminem, The Weeknd, Miley Cyrus, Josh Groban, Jennifer Lopez, Miranda Lambert and lots of people you’ve never heard of.

There’s a classical song, a bunch of hip-hop songs and the first James Bond song since the first James Bond song that actually won an Oscar, although that’s the last time I’ll mention Sam Smith’s execrable “Writing’s on the Wall” in the same sentence with Adele’s exemplary “Skyfall.”

The 74 songs came from 51 movies — 30 of them narrative features, eight animated, nine documentaries and four foreign-language. The most generous assessment I could come up with is two of the 51 movies have a slight chance at a Best Picture nomination (“Creed” and “Youth,” both long shots), and that only 18 of them have a prayer of being nominated in any category besides Best Original Song.

In other words, this category is a dumping ground for movies whose only conceivable Oscar shot is through their songs — and honestly, in most cases there’s some serious wishful thinking going on there, too.

For the last seven years, I’ve tracked down and listened to all the eligible songs, delivering my verdicts in a series of opinionated guides that hearken back to the days when I used to sound off about music for a living.

I fell one short of finding all 74 this year (damn you, “Poached”), but here’s my take. Oscar voters from the Music Branch received a DVD that includes three-minute clips of the movie scenes in which all the songs are heard; in most cases, the videos included here are not what voters will be seeing.

JUST SAY (DR.) NO
Can we get “Writing’s on the Wall” out of the way? Sam Smith has said that he wanted to explore the sensitive side of James Bond in his “Spectre” theme, which by my count makes him the first person to ever think that’s a good idea for a Bond song. Throw in Smith’s ineffectual falsetto — new rule: no falsetto in Bond songs, EVER — and you’ve got a soggy whine-fest that might be the worst Bond song ever. No wonder Daniel Craig has had enough.

Can’t we just turn Adele into the new Shirley Bassey and let her do the job a couple more times? Hell, I’d rather have Ivy Levan, who sings “Who Can You Trust,” the theme to the comedy “Spy.” It may be a parody of a spy-movie theme song, but at least it has the brassiness and gusto that such a song demands.

THE FRONTRUNNERS
“Simple Song #3,” from “Youth,” set an impossible task for composer David Lang. The song has to be part of song cycle so brilliant that it has haunted Michael Caine‘s character (also a composer) for his entire life, but accessible enough to register with movie audiences when (spoiler alert) it’s performed at the end of the film. It has to be so great that the Queen of England would demand he play it for a special occasion.

It’s hard to blame Lang for the fact that “Simple Song #3” isn’t that great. It sounds right, its music informs the rest of the score and it serves as the basis for a dramatic final scene. (I’ll try not to quibble with director Paolo Sorrentino treating one song as if it’s the entire song cycle, or with the fact that Caine’s character incorrectly conducts the soloists as well as the orchestra.) If the song falls short of being the transcendent piece of art that the script insists it is, so what? There aren’t any of those anywhere else in this field, either.

Lady Gaga‘s status as an Academy favorite, courtesy of her “Sound of Music” medley at the Oscars, gives a boost to “Til It Happens to You” from the documentary “The Hunting Ground” — not that its writer, seven-time nominee Diane Warren, necessarily needs a boost to get the Academy to notice her. As befits a movie about rape on college campuses, the song is big, emotional and serious, with Gaga drawing from personal experience for a dramatic and wrenching performance.

Real life also gives an emotional kick to Wiz Khalifa‘s “See You Again,” which plays at the end of “Furious 7” over scenes of the late Paul Walker. The song set Spotify records and is up for a Grammy for Song of the Year — and more to the point, it’s one of the only contenders that helps provide its film’s emotional center. The song is also part of a sequence that fits almost perfectly in the three-minute window required by the Music Branch DVD.

Other ostensible frontrunners could include Leon Bridges’ “So Long” from “Concussion,” a soul ballad that has a nice groove but doesn’t really go anywhere; Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do,” a fairly persuasive rhythmic mid-tempo ballad that is probably the likeliest nominee among the three “Fifty Shades of Grey” entries; and The Weeknd’s “Earned It,” a slow burner that tries hard to stir up some drama and is the other “Fifty Shades” song with a real shot.

(The final “Fifty Shades” submission probably doesn’t belong in the “frontrunners” category; it’s Sia’s “Salted Wound,” another ballad that sets up an attractive texture and then just bathes in it for four minutes.)

And since the Academy has shown a mild penchant for rap music in recent years (“Lose Yourself” and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” both won, as did the rap-spiked “Glory” last year), I’ll add Nick Cannon‘s song from “Chi-Raq,” “Pray 4 My City,” to this list. An angry chronicle of urban ills that packs a real punch coupled with the opening-credit graphics in Spike Lee‘s movie, it’s one of the field’s more powerful combinations of music and image.

DOING IT ON SCREEN
The Oscar system has long been biased in favor of songs that are performed on screen, with 25 of the last 41 nominees and six of the last 10 winners fitting that description. So you figure that a song performed on screen by 19-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep would be gold, right?

Maybe, but Streep plays a not-particularly-successful bar-band musician in “Ricki and the Flash.” And the eligible song, “Cold One,” is the kind of middling ’80s-sounding rocker you would have heard somebody like Patty Smyth sing back then — its full-band version is serviceable but nothing special, although Streep’s acoustic rendition from the film is far more affecting.

How about eight-time nominee Al Pacino, who plays an aging rock singer in “Danny Collins” and performs two eligible songs? “Hey Baby Doll,” shot when Pacino walked on at a Los Angeles concert by the band Chicago, is sort of catchy, but so slight as to be insubstantial. “Don’t Look Down,” written by Ryan Adams, is an affecting acoustic ballad — and while it cries out for a singer with a far bigger range than Pacino, the actor’s fragile whisper of a voice is effective, to a point.

A far more obscure film about performers is “The Rumperbutts,” which deals with a husband-and-wife team trying to be serious artists after a stint as a costumed, kid-friendly duo. The couple is played by real-life married couple Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, who make up the indie-pop duo Mates of State and contributed “Someone Like You,” a likeable mid-tempo song more relaxed and straightforward than much of their off-screen material.

And then, of course, there’s “Flashlight” from “Pitch Perfect 2,” one of the few songs in the film that isn’t an a capella cover of somebody else’s hit. The rousing pop song serves as the basis for the film’s climactic scene, which give it a leg up with voters.

DOC POP
While “Til It Happens to You” is in the first rank of contenders, eight other songs from documentaries are hoping for surprises like the one that came three years ago, when “Before My Time” from the doc “Chasing Ice” was an unexpected nominee.

That song’s writer was J. Ralph, a prolific composer who specializes in nonfiction films — and he has a completely deserving nominee this year in “Manta Ray,” a gorgeous and ghostly collaboration with the gifted New York singer Antony from the cautionary environmental doc “Racing Extinction.”

Andra Day’s “The Light That Never Fails,” from “Meru,” at least has the advantage of coming from a shortlisted doc, where it gets a spot in the end credits. But it’s sort of an all-purpose inspirational anthem rather than a call to arms, which the other doc nominees have been in recent years.

Terry Steele’s Pink & Blue,” from the doc “Pink & Blue: The Colors of Hereditary Cancer,” is a soul ballad with lyrics so thuddingly obvious that they dilute the intense performance. And “Brother,” a song by ROSE and Jake Goldman from “Godspeed: The Story of Page Jones,” is a piano based ballad with distractingly idiosyncratic phrasing.

“Came to Win” is a Get Fr3e song from “Sweet Micky for President,” a doc about Fugees member Pras Michel working on the presidential campaign of a Haitian dance-pop star; it works hard to be a hip-hop-inflected anthem, and gets by more from the energy of its music than the bite of its simplistic lyrics.

The documentary “Becoming Bulletproof,” about a group of disabled actors mounting a Western, has a worthier entry in the fetching rough-hewn song “Stem to the Rose” from Sons of the Sea, a collaborative group from Incubus’ Brandon Boyd and producer Brendan O’Brien.

And Swedish singer-songwriter Eva Dahlgren’s “The Movie About Us,” from “Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words,” is one of the more intriguing and affecting of the doc songs, remaining intimate and introspective even as it builds to a crescendo.

NOTE: This category also contains “Birds of a Feather” from the doc “Poached,” the one song from this year’s list that I was unable to track down. Perhaps I’ll like it a lot if I ever get to hear it.

TOON TUNES
The dozen songs from animated films are for the most part eager to please. “Home,” from “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip,” is pretty much what you’d expect: pop music that’d be pretty nondescript except that it’s sung in those speeded-up chipmunk voices, which just makes it annoying.

The movie “Home,” meanwhile, entered four songs, none of which stand out. Two are by Rihanna, though she doesn’t seem to be trying very hard: “As Real As You and Me” is a breathy, boring ballad, while “Dancing in the Dark” has a modicum of energy but is at best the third-most-interesting song with that title. Jennifer Lopez‘s “Feel the Light,” meanwhile, borrows John Williams’ “Close Encounters” theme but then turns into dutiful dance-pop. And Charli XCX’s “Red Balloon” is perkier but only slightly more memorable.

“The SpongeBob Movie’s” two entries are “Teamwork,” a one-minute duet between SpongeBob and Plankton that’s fine in the movie but annoying otherwise; and “Squeeze Me,” from the reunion of Pharrell Williams‘ band N.E.R.D., which at least bounces to an attractive island beat.

“Feels Like Summer” from “Shaun the Sheep Movie” is a Beach Boys-style pastiche from Tim Wheeler, and it’s quite good if you’re looking for a bouncy replacement for the new Brian Wilson song from “Love & Mercy” that the music branch disqualified.

Meghan Trainor’s “Better When I’m Dancing,” from “The Peanuts Movie,” is lively pro-forma dance pop, no more original but no less pleasing than the movie it comes from.

The songs from smaller animated films are more interesting. Priscilla Ahn’s “Fine on the Outside,” from “When Marnie Was There,” is gentle, introspective and touching, while Damien Rice’s “Hypnosis,” from “Kahlil Gibran‘s The Prophet,” is an evocative acoustic lament that grows more formulaic as it gets bigger and lusher.

And then there’s “None of Them Are You,” which is as weird as the movie it comes from, “Anomalisa.” With lyrics by co-director Charlie Kaufman and a pained, flat vocal by Tom Noonan, who provides nearly every voice in the movie, the song is cringeworthy in a completely intentional and entirely fascinating way — it’s kind of terrible, but that’s kind of great.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS
The Pakistani Qawwali singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, nephew of the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, has already appeared on the soundtracks to “Apocalypto,” “The Four Feathers” and “Dead Man Walking” (the latter with his uncle). His haunting “Ya Rahem Maula Maula” comes from “Dukhtar,” which was Pakistan’s Oscar entry in 2014 but also received a qualifying release this year.

Two other foreign-language films are responsible for 11 eligible songs — and it’s no surprise that they’re both Indian, part of a country whose active film industry never tires of sending songs to the Oscars. (They’ve gotten a handful of nominations in recent years, but only for songs from films that also receive Best Picture nominations: “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Life of Pi” and “127 Hours.”)

The Hindi film “Salt Bridge” submitted an inexplicable seven songs, which will likely not do much but annoy conscientious music-branch voters who don’t use the chapter-skip button as they’re watching their DVD.

All the songs are composed by Abhijit Deonath — and to these ears, the most interesting of them are “Sooka Hi Rang Daalo,” which is playful and percussive with both male and female singers, and “Kyaa Bataaun Tujhe” a sparsely arranged ballad that is more stark and haunting than the film’s other songs.

The others are “Aankhon Me Samaye Dil,” a pretty ballad sung by Subhamita over a spare arrangement and some Australian instruments; “Bachpana Thaa,” a droning song that could prove elusive to Western ears; “Kanpne Lage Tum” and “Le Jaaye Jo Door Tumse,” an uptempo song and a croony ballad that could be considered Hindi synth-pop; and “Na Jaane Kitni Door,” which tends more toward a Western pop song.

(Note: My comments on the “Salt Bridge” songs are based on hearing excerpts from each song that average a little more than two minutes in length; the full songs are longer.)

By comparison, the Malayalam-language drama “Jalam” was relatively restrained, submitting only four songs. “Bhoomiyilenganumundo,” “Yathra Manoradhamerum” and “Koody Vaykkan” are all atmospheric ballads featuring vocals by female singer Sakthi Sree; the last of them has the most dramatic arrangement. “Pakal Pathichari,” with singer Binny Krishnakumar, is more piercing. And with so many songs from the two Indian films entered in the race, virtually none of them have a chance of standing out with voters.

FUNNY BUSINESS
Many of the narrative films that submitted songs fall loosely into the comedy category. The Mary Agnes Donoghue dramedy “Jenny’s Wedding,” in which Katherine Heigl plays a young woman coming out to her conservative family, entered two songs from Kristina Train. The understated “True Love Avenue” is mild but charming, while “Lost in Love” is a statelier wannabe anthem.

Miranda Lambert’s “Two of a Crime” starts out as a rock song, veers country and throws in some mariachi horns borrowed from “Ring of Fire,” all in a rather clunky attempt to musically sum up the dynamic between “Hot Pursuit” stars Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara.

Catherine Hardwicke‘s Drew Barrymore/Toni Collette film “Miss You Already” received mixed reviews, but it contains two fine songs: the All-American Rejects’ “There’s a Place” is a spirited, rough-hewn charmer, while Paloma Faith’s “The Crazy Ones” (another Diane Warren song) is a smoky, appealing ballad.

“Joanna” is a slinky and playfully alluring love song from Geoff Zanelli and Mark Ronson, featuring Miles Kane — but would voters really want to give the flop Johnny Depp vehicle “Mortdecai” an Oscar nomination?

Another song that could run up against resistance because its movie was such a flop is Isa Machine & LP’s “Torch,” from the Bill Murray comedy “Rock the Kasbah.” The atmospheric track is pretty slight, particularly compared to the work Isa Machine (a.k.a. Isabella Summers) does as the keyboardist in Florence + the Machine.

The first “Ted” did receive a nod for its Sinatra-style pop song “Everybody Needs a Best Friend,” and creator Seth MacFarlane has gone back to that well with “Mean Ol’ Moon,” a retro torch song pleasantly sung by co-star Amanda Seyfried without the verve Norah Jones brought to “Everybody.”

Also retro, but less likely to be noticed, is “Paranoid Girl” from the Spanish dramedy “Paranoid Girls” (or “Chicas Paranoicas”), a torchy but mundane English-language tune.

The indie comedy “Dope” features “It’s My Turn Now,” a driving and nicely textured rock/hip-hop hybrid written by Pharrell and credited to Awreeoh, the movie’s fictional band comprised of stars Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons. Fellow Sundance sensation “Diary of a Teenage Girl” went with an agreeably twee indie-pop confection from Nate Heller and Amber Coffman, “Dreamsong.”

SERIOUS STUFF
The Julianne Moore/Ellen Page drama “Freeheld” includes “Hands of Love,” a mid-tempo love song in which Miley Cyrus tries out a couple of Kate Bush moves. Not surprisingly, they don’t work.

Songwriter and composer Keegan DeWitt wrote the music for the Blythe Danner vehicle “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” including the film’s title song, a bouncy acoustic trifle that is not without its charms.

“The Mystery of Your Gift” would have a better shot if it weren’t the end-credits song to “Boychoir,” since songs that play over a list of names tend not to stand out on the Music Branch DVDs. But the song is so lush and soaring, with a typically impeccable Josh Groban vocal and a choral backing that ties it to the film, that it could appeal to the conservative side of the branch (which is considerable).

One pleasant surprise is “Love Was My Alibi” from the Russell Crowe period drama “The Water Diviner.” The yearning ballad features a raw and affecting vocal from Swedish singer-songwriter Kristoffer Fogelmark. Another worthy song from a little-seen movie is “Happy” from “Altered Minds,” a sultry and touching Erin Sax/Patrick Kelly song about escaping the darkness.

In addition to “Pray 4 My City,” which is mentioned in the “frontrunners” section, “Chi-Raq” has two more songs in contention. “I Run” is a gospel-styled lament distinguished mostly by a scorching performance from Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, while “Sit Down for This” is a sinuous ballad that takes the point of view of family members who’ve lost someone to urban violence.

JOCK POP
A dozen years ago, Eminem became the first rapper to win the Oscar, and he richly deserved that trophy for “Lose Yourself” from “8 Mile.” His song from “Southpaw,” “Phenomenal,” is rougher, messier, more frantic and not nearly as good, though it works well in the film’s training montage. On the other hand: Do voters really want to reward a song from that hoariest of all boxing-movie clichés, the training montage?

Speaking of films with training montages, “Creed” submitted three of its songs: co-star Tessa Thompson‘s “Grip,” which is all slow beat and heavy atmosphere, a mood piece but not much more; “Waiting for My Moment,” which nods in its arrangement to Bill Conti’s brass-heavy original “Rocky” theme, but could come across as more of a tribute than an original contribution to the canon — at least until its last minute, when it shifts abruptly into rapping; and “Fighting Stronger,” an aggressive rap/orchestral bolero that also echoes Conti’s original music, but which has the advantage of playing under a memorable scene of Michael B. Jordan racing up a Philadelphia street.

Colombian musician Juanes enlivens “McFarland, USA,” the Kevin Costner movie about high-school track, with the lilting Latin pop of “Juntos.” And on the extreme sports front, there’s “Still Breathing,” a big but dull rock song performed by Dig the Kid in “Point Break.”

 

FAIRY TALES
Finally, Peter Pan and Cinderella contribute three songs to the mix. Sonna Rele’s “Strong,” from “Cinderella,” is the kind of heroine’s-statement-of-purpose anthem that was trotted out in Act 1 of every Disney animated film from the ’90s, except that Alan Mencken did them better.

Then there are Lily Allen’s two songs from “Pan.” “Little Soldier” is sprightly, “Something’s Not Right” is pretty, and there’s nothing memorable about either.

And that — whew — is the Oscar-song class of 2015. Voters can no doubt find five worthy songs to put on their ballots from among those 74, but it sure takes wading through a lot of filler to get there.

The Oscar producers, meanwhile, are probably crossing their fingers and hoping that the voters give them a slate that’ll put Lady Gaga, Wiz Khalifa, The Weeknd, Rihanna, Miranda Lambert and maybe even Sam Smith on the Oscar stage.

We’ll know on Jan. 14, when nominations are announced.

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