When it comes to cultural impact, mega-sales and drama, this year’s Best Original Song category at the Academy Awards is going to have an awfully difficult time competing with last year’s category.
The 2013 winner, you might remember, was “Let It Go,” the anthem from “Frozen” that became a hit around the world and spawned a zillion amateur YouTube renditions.
And “Let It Go” was joined as a nominee by another song that was so ubiquitous that most sentient human beings got sick of hearing it before the Oscars – Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. (If you’re keeping track, that makes it the 16th biggest digital single of all time.)
The third-best known song to be nominated was “Ordinary Love,” from the biggest rock ‘n’ roll band of the last three decades, U2. The fourth was “The Moon Song,” which happened to be co-written by Spike Jonze, the director of one of the nominated Best Pictures, “Her.”
And the composer of the final nominee, “Alone Yet Not Alone,” campaigned in an unseemly manner that led to controversy, disqualification and a change in Academy rules.
Top that, 2014.
Of course, 2014 can’t, even though Pharrell is back in the game with a new song, Coldplay has taken U2’s spot and Lorde, Lana Del Rey and others are in the mix, along with several legends: Patti Smith, Glen Campbell and, um, John Legend. This year’s field of 79 tops last year’s total by four.
Every year, I round up all the qualifying songs and write about them in an opinionated guide to the entire field. (I wrote about music for years before I switched to film, so I’m used to mouthing off about it.) Last year, I called it an “annoying” year for Oscar songs, simply because the field was so big and so full of songs that didn’t have any real chance of being nominated.
This year the field is even bigger, but I’m going to lighten up and take a cue from the catchiest song in the whole group, “Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie.” The lyrics to that gloriously cheesy pop ditty include this: “A Nobel Prize, a piece of string/You know what’s awesome? Everything!”
So I’m going to adopt that attitude and say that this year’s songs are awesome, too.
Here they are:
[Note: Most of the video clips are official videos, and are not what voters are going to be seeing on their official DVDs.]
THE BIG ONES
We might as well start with “Everything Is Awesome.” It’s annoying, but that’s the point. It’s catchy, and that’s really the point. The lyrics are silly feel-good aphorisms, but … well, you know. It serves the plot in “The Lego Movie” and it’d be a hoot on the Oscar stage, though it’s so easy to underestimate and dismiss it that it could very easily lose out on a nomination.
“Lost Stars” is slightly safer, though it won’t be helped by the failure of its movie to catch on. A soaring ballad written by former New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander and actress/singer Danielle Brisebois for the John Carney film “Begin Again,” the song is one of the most substantial and persuasive in the field, and one of the most crucial to its film.
I only have two quibbles: They should have also submitted “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” another key song from the film; and it’s somewhat disquieting that the version Weinstein sent out as part of their non-Oscar “for your consideration” mailing is the Adam Levine rendition, which in the movie is presented as being an overly-sick rendition that kind of spoils Keira Knightley’s song.
The strongest competition for “Lost Stars” may be John Legend and Common’s “Glory,” from “Selma.” With a graceful melody that recalls civil rights anthems of the ‘60s and a rap from Common that ties the film explicitly to Ferguson, it has the formidable combination of history and timeliness.
Punk rock icon Patti Smith, meanwhile, is dealing in timelessness with “Mercy Is,” a gentle lullaby from “Noah” in which she sounds restless and searching, not reverent. It should come as no surprise to Smith fans that the song is both haunting and haunted.
Earlier, I mentioned that Coldplay has taken U2’s spot this year – and they’ve done so explicitly with “Miracles,” a big, chiming rocker (with a touch of Bruce Springsteen’s “Backstreets” in its intro) that pays tribute to a real-life hero by talking about his personal side. (For U2, it was Mandela; for Coldplay, it’s Louis Zamperini from “Unbroken.”)
But Chris Martin and crew are subtler than Bono and the boys, and the song doesn’t really take off until after the three-minute mark – a problem, given that voters receive a DVD of clips in which the songs aren’t permitted to run past the 3:00 mark.
Lana Del Rey was robbed last year, when her “Great Gatsby” song “Young and Beautiful” should have been a nominee, but she’s back this year with the title song from “Big Eyes.” It’s more subdued and not as classic as the earlier song, but it adopts the point of view of Amy Adams’ character and nicely conveys the fragility, the endurance and the strength the character shows.
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is a title that means a lot to viewers who’ve seen the documentary “Glen Campbell…I’m Still Here,” in which the song serves as a centerpiece of sorts. The way in which it sums up Campbell’s fight against Alzheimer’s will give extra clout to a song whose lyrics are touching but whose music feels a little undernourished.
“The Last Goodbye,” as the title implies, is the last song from a Peter Jackson Middle-earth movie to compete; two have been nominated and one has won, but those were both from his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Ed Sheeran’s song from last year’s “Hobbit” movie deserved a nomination but didn’t get one; this song, sung by “LOTR” cast member Billy Boyd, is more sentimental and elegiac, and it might have a shot if there is as much affection for the “Hobbit” films as there was for the “Rings” ones. But there isn’t.
Six-time nominee Diane Warren is skilled at crafting rousing mainstream pop-soul songs, which she does with “Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights” and “You Got Me” from “Dolphin Tale 2.” The former, sung by Rita Ora, has the advantage of being an inspirational summation of an acclaimed but little-seen movie that could stick with the people who saw it; the latter builds up a nice head of steam in its performance by Gavin Degraw.
The soundtrack to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is crucial in the way it captures the passage of time, but it mostly does so with older songs. The film, though, submitted two new compositions to the Oscar race, of which “Split the Difference” is by far the more substantial song, and the one most likely to be nominated. A moving acoustic ballad that speaks to the relationship between Ethan Hawke (who sings it) and his children, it is performed onscreen, which always helps with these voters.
(The second entry, “Ryan’s Song,” is fun but very slight.)
Lorde got lots of attention for supervising the soundtrack to “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” and she’s got the one Oscar submission from that soundtrack. “Yellow Flicker Beat” got a Critics’ Choice nomination, but I expect Oscar voters to see it as more of a showcase for the arrangement – which starts out all broody and foreboding and then gets big and bold – than a top piece of songwriting.
IF I HAD A VOTE
“No Fate Awaits Me,” from Son Lux and Faux Fix, is gorgeous and ethereal, with some of the eerie loveliness of Angelo Badalamenti’s music for David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” It’s probably my favorite piece of music in the entire field, but that could be because of my love for “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” and because of the emotional impact of the closing scenes in which the song appears.
The movie “Third Person” was largely overlooked, and Moby’s song “The Only Thing” will probably have a hard time getting much traction, either. But it’s a terrific track, with a seductive piano-and-drums groove and male and female voices layered into a driving song.
“Find a Way” from “The Good Lie” is performed by Nico & Vinz, a Norwegian duo of African descent. You can quibble with the studiously uplifting lyrics, but the African-based music is irresistibly powerful, with a contribution from Sudanese singer (and former child soldier) Emmanuel Jal.
Alex Ebert’s “America for Me” from “ A Most Violent Year” is a stark and fascinating song. The vocals are a strained chant, and the backing is a more subdued version of the kind of stomping, clanking track you might find on a Tom Waits song. It’s probably too weird for the Oscars, but it’s very cool.
Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani’s “Shine,” from “Paddington,” is not another “Happy,” that’s for sure. But it’s fun. Stefani handles most of the vocals on this big, bouncy, brass-spiked number that never quite crosses the line to catchy.
As for this year’s song from Disney’s big animation hope – well, “Immortals” from “Big Hero 6” certainly isn’t “Let It Go,” and Fall Out Boy’s lively but nondescript rock song isn’t likely to prompt any YouTube covers from little boys the way Idina Menzel’s anthem did with their sisters.
The first “Rio” got a song nomination in 2011, so the sequel has gone for broke and submitted four songs, more than any other film. “Batacuda Familia” is an uptempo tropical number very much in vein of the earlier nominee, “Real in Rio,” though not quite as infectious; “What is Love” adds a stronger pop-soul flavor but becomes a bit more anonymous as it does; “Beautiful Creatures” pumps up the percussion but slightly buries the song in the process; and “Poisonous Love” is a Broadway-style performance piece (and to a degree, a Broadway parody) for a very game Kristin Chenoweth and Jemaine Clement.
Two songs from “The Boxtrolls” are stylized to a degree that probably won’t help them with voters; “Quattro Sabatino” is spirited mock opera, while “The Boxtrolls Song” is a deliberately grating French-accented overture that lays out the movie’s backstory.
Two songs from “The Book of Life,” meanwhile, seem to have reasonable chances. “I Love You Too Much” is an elegant declaration of love that gets a little too extravagant, “The Apology Song” a touching acoustic lament.
The submission from “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is “For the Dancing and the Dreaming,” which fits with the film’s decision to give its mythical land a distinctly Celtic (and specifically Scottish) flavor. A love song that alternates between elegant and rough-hewn, depending on who’s doing the singing, it accelerates into a dance tune.
“Planes: Fire and Rescue” has a beefy and formulaic rock song, “Still I Fly,” from Spencer Lee. Grizfolk’s song from “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” “Way Back When,” is a more original uptempo folk-alternative blend, though it’ll have a hard time standing out from the higher-profile animated songs.
The sweet but slight “Color the World,” from a little-known and critically-panned film called “The Hero of Color City,” is a kiddie-style singalong.
Adding a new song to an existing musical used to be a fast track to a nomination (“Evita,” “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls), and “Annie” has gone that route with “Opportunity.” Written by singer-songwriter Sia, it fits with the older songs from the musical but points out Quvenzhane Wallis’ shortcomings as a vocalist. (She has the right attitude but struggles with phrasing, and can’t really handle the big climax.)
“Muppets Most Wanted,” the sequel to the movie for which Bret McKenzie won the Oscar for “Man or Muppet,” submitted three songs. “We’re Doing a Sequel” is an overture of sorts, a lively and clever ditty full of inside Hollywood jokes, though it plays mostly as a curtain-raiser to launch the action, rather than an integral part of that action. “I’ll Get You What You Want” will be beloved by fans of McKenzie’s comedy band Flight of the Conchords, with that band’s deadpan humor and sly genre parody. It and the extravagant love song “Something So Right” are the film’s biggest contenders, and they’ve both got amusing sequences to go with them – the latter enlisting Oscar vet Celine Dion to beef up the performance the same way a priceless cameo enlivened the “Man or Muppet” sequence.
The low-budget musical “The Life of an Actress The Musical” submitted a pair of songs. “The Life of an Actress,” a dance number set in a diner, is bouncy; “Coming Back to You,” a love duet set in an office and song by Xavier Cano and Taylor Louderman, Wendy in the recent televised “Peter Pan,” is playful but fervent. And both are a little generic.
The Music Branch has yet to show the slightest affinity for Bollywood songs, but in recent years, there’s always been a Bollywood musical in the mix. Last year, the ludicrous “Kamasutra 3D” entered five songs; this year, “Work Weather Wife” entered two. “Moon” is a slow, repetitive and lush song in which a couple sing about how they’re on a date; “Long Braid” is lusher and a little livelier, and it references Lady Gaga. Neither have the slightest chance of being nominated.
MUSIC AS A PLOT POINT
“Call Me When You Find Yourself,” which is performed onscreen in the indie “Life Inside Out,” has a little in common with 2007’s winner, “Falling Slowly,” in that it is used in a scene in which a man and woman (in this case, a mother and son) are learning the song together – though it’s unfair to compare this pleasant ditty to that resonant one.
The fictional band Willamette Stone was created for “If I Stay,” and is fronted onscreen by actor Jamie Blackley. Indie rock producer Adam Lasus is responsible for the band’s three songs: the pensive but plain acoustic ballad “Heart Like Yours,” the livelier and more distinctive “I Never Wanted to Go” and the energetic rock song “Mind.”
“Rudderless,” which marked the feature directorial debut of William H. Macy, also submitted three songs and also created a fictional band playing music. “Over Your Shoulder” builds nicely, from nervous to vigorous, while “Stay With You” is the kind of infectious, lively roots-rock number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the repertoire of an ‘80s cow-punk band like Rank and File. Actor Billy Crudup, who plays a man rediscovering songs written by his late son, takes the lead on “Sing Along,” a quiet ballad that doesn’t quite cohere.
Songs from documentaries have only been nominated twice in recent years, but one of them won (Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up,” from “An Inconvenient Truth”). And the last doc nom was only two years ago for “Before My Time” from “Chasing Ice,” which was written by a songwriter, J. Ralph, who has two entries from non-fiction films this year.
His songs couldn’t be more different. “Until the End” is a classy, brassy jazz song featuring Liza Minnelli and Wynton Marsalis from “Garnet’s Gold,” while “We Will Not Go” from “Virunga” is a vibrant, elegant and haunting song featuring the remarkable African voices of Salif Keita, Fally Ipupa and Youssou N’Dour.
From the cautionary doc about spin-meisters, “Merchants of Doubt,” Eg White’s “You Fooled Me” is a mid-tempo rocker that is blunt both musically and lyrically.
Electronic dance music has yet to show up among Oscar song nominees, and Kaskade & the Brocks will have a tall order changing that with their suitably delirious but not terribly distinctive rave-up “Summer Nights” from the EDM doc “Under the Electric Sky.”
The war doc “The Hornet’s Nest” entered the generic but engaging “Follow Me,” in which Wynonna and Cactus Moser get all growly and bluesy, which suits her; and “Chariots,” a moody slow-burn song that eventually gets big and stormy.
Alanis Morissette contributes “The Morning” to the Costa Rica-set doc “A Small Section of the World,” bringing grace and drive to a song that nonetheless never really stands out.
Among the best of this category is “Seeds” from “Occupy the Farm,” which features Ayla Nereo’s plaintive voice riding over a percussion-heavy arrangement; it’s a wonderful mixture of fragile and forceful.
Voters are not averse to nominating songs in foreign languages, and a number are in contention (including ones that mix in some English). “Hal,” from Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” is a seductive and sinuous number from Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan.
A.R. Rahman won two Oscars for the music to “Slumdog Millionaire,” and since then he has rarely been absent from the song competition. This year he entered four separate songs, one from “The Hundred-Foot Journey” and three from “Million Dollar Arm.”
The first, “Afreen,” is a percussive, uptempo dance song that builds nicely (but also mostly after the three-minute mark, which is problematic given that voters are only given three-minute clips of each song).
The “Million Dollar Arm” songs are “Million Dollar Dream,” a playful but lightweight song in which Iggy Azalea raps over an Indian groove; “We Could Be Kings,” which features K.T. Tunstall in a song that begins as a bluesy rock song until the percussive Indian touches take over; and “Makha,” a vigorous percussion-based number.
BIG MOVIES, BIG SONGS
“Transformers: Age of Extinction” has Imagine Dragons doing “Battle Cry,” which has as much bombast and as little subtlety as you might think.
But “It’s On Again,” from “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” is more interesting, as big movie songs go – co-written by Pharrell Williams, it starts with an abrasive rap from Kendrick Lamar, then shifts into a graceful, rousing Alicia Keys performance.
THE LIGHTER SIDE
“A Million Ways to Die” from, naturally, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” is a cowboy-movie parody with some clever lines about methods of demise (“there’s smallpox, and bigger pox”). But “Man or Muppet” notwithstanding, joke songs don’t normally play well in these parts.
The tagline for “Hot Guys With Guns” calls it “Chinatown meets Boystown,” but the theme song, “Something to Shoot For,” is straight James Bond parody, complete with a line about being stirred and shaken. But most Bond songs are a lot better.
Tweedy has a pair of songs in “St. Vincent,” the boomy and doomy shuffle “Everyone Knows” and the sprightlier, Beatlesque “Why Why Why.”
The two songs submitted from “The Fault in Our Stars” are Birdy’s delicate piano-based ballad “Not About Angels” and Grouplove’s bigger, bolder and whinier “Let Me In.”
The L.A. indie duo The Bird and the Bee contribute “All Our Endless Love” to “Endless Love,” a remake of the 1981 film that got an Oscar nomination for its Diana Ross/Lionel Richie theme song. This theme is more beguiling and less sappy than that one, but also less likely to be nominated.
“Garden State” posited the Shins as a band whose music could change your life, and Zach Braff’s film probably changed theirs. Their contribution to his new film, “Wish I Was Here,” will likely be less earth-shaking; “So Now What” is a lush, lilting and slight pop-rock song, not a life-changer.
Bon Iver’s “Heavenly Father” was also submitted from the film, and this one is intriguing, with bandleader Justin Vernon singing over a strained drone and intermittent drumbeats.
Former Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn’s “Sister Rust,” from “Lucy,” is a stately, orchestrated ballad that also sounds a little James Bond-y.
TINY MOVIES, GOOD SONGS
“Gimme Some” is a pretty compelling dance track from the low-budget indie “#Stuck,” with an imaginative arrangement, tonal shifts and sexual innuendos that might be a little too blunt for some voters.
“Special,” the title song to a low-budget film about women recovering from abuse, is deliberately tense and abrasive: Rather than emphasizing the prettiness in an arrangement that relies on female voices and stringed instruments, the song from Brenda Reimer, Linda Atkinson and Toni Gross looks to find beauty in a stark, strained setting.
OneRepublic’s “Ordinary Human,” from “The Giver,” is big and anthemic, yet another song that starts out quietly until its percussion begins to build. The most interesting stuff happens after the 3:30 mark, which means voters won’t hear it.
The Christian drama “Alone Yet Not Alone” won a surprise nomination last year, at least until it was taken away, so perhaps hope springs eternal for the makers of “The One I Wrote for You,” an inspirational drama about a songwriter on a reality-TV competition. But the title track, “The One I Wrote for You,” is graceful but seriously sappy, while “Grant My Freedom” is a nondescript big ballad.
“Girl on a Bicycle” submitted two songs, the bouncy, cheery and slight “It Just Takes a Moment” and the similar (but Frenchified) “Last Stop Paris.”
And in addition to Diane Warren’s “You Got Me,” “Dolphin Tale 2” also entered Cozi Zuehlsdorff’s “Brave Souls,” a big, inspirational anthem of the kind that might have an outside shot if the movie was a Best Picture nominee (which it obviously won’t be).
Realistically, fewer than half the entries have any chance at all, and fewer than 20 have any real expectation. But with a system that asks voters to watch all the songs before voting, there’s always a chance for a surprise to sneak in, particularly if it’s performed onscreen. And there’s always a chance for a big song to miss out, particularly if it’s used in the end credits, where voters tend to think of the songs as inessential add-ons.
Of course, if voters get tired of wading through 79 songs, they could easily give up before getting to the possible sleepers. I can testify that listening to everything is an exhausting process – and it’s one that lasts more than four and a half hours if you dig up the full versions of the songs, and more than three and a half if you cap every song at three minutes.
But hey, everything is awesome, right?