So many songs. So many stars.
And so many shattered dreams when Oscar nominations are announced on January 24.
For seven years at TheWrap, I’ve been tracking down and listening to every one of the eligible contenders in the Best Original Song category. The number of qualifying Oscar songs has ranged from a low of 39 in 2011 to a high of 79 in 2014 — but then along came 2016 to shatter that record, and give me a ridiculous 91 songs to locate.
They include songs written or performed by Tori Amos, Burt Bacharach, Common, Florence + the Machine, Peter Gabriel, Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Iggy Pop, Trent Reznor, Shakira, Sia, Sting, Justin Timberlake, Lucinda Williams, Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder and many others.
I’ve found them all and listened to them all, more than five-and-a-half hours of music if you put them back to back. (The DVD of song clips that the Academy sends to Music Branch voters cuts each song to a maximum of three minutes, which takes about an hour out of that running time.)
Honestly, about 50 of these Oscar songs have no chance at all of being nominated. Back in the days when members of the Music Branch couldn’t vote unless they attended special screenings that showed the songs as they’re used in their films, it was possible for a little-known song to make an impression and slip through. But now that things are on the honor system and voters are simply asked to list their five favorites, it’s much harder for under-the-radar tunes to get enough attention, particularly if they can’t afford a campaign.
But that doesn’t mean that the best-known songs are always the most deserving, or that there aren’t a number of gems lurking in the dark corners of little movies. So here’s my annual opinionated guide to the entire field, compliments of a former rock journalist who still enjoys sounding off about music from time to time.
Note: Wading through all 91 of these songs, I was struck by how many songwriters apparently think that the way to make a song cinematic is to start out with a quiet, understated arrangement and then get really big and dramatic one or two choruses in. That particular dynamic played out so often over the course of these songs that it became downright annoying.
I’ve separated the eligible Oscar songs into categories, though there’s lots of overlap, and many of the songs could be placed in more than one of these categories.
This year’s 800-pound gorilla in the song category is clearly “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle’s musical for which Justin Hurwitz wrote seven new songs, one with John Legend and the others with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It’s not only the Best Picture frontrunner, it’s a freakin’ original musical, which will no doubt endear it to all songwriters in Hollywood.
Of the film’s three submitted songs, “City of Stars” is the one to beat, a graceful, melancholy love song that serves as a melodic theme throughout the film. (It’d also make a great Oscar show opener, but that might be showing too much favoritism.)
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is a sung-through narrative by Emma Stone that serves as the basis for one of the film’s standout scenes, but doesn’t sum up the movie quite as aptly as “City of Stars.” And “Start a Fire,” which is performed by John Legend in the film, is a tight, commercial pop-R&B number that has the movie working against it: In the film, it’s supposed to sound like a commercial sellout to Gosling and Stone’s characters.
Still, at least one of the films is all but guaranteed a well-deserved nomination, and two of them could easily make the final five.
But “La La Land” isn’t the year’s only great musical. John Carney, the director of “Once” (which yielded the 2007 Oscar winner, “Falling Slowly”), came back with the utterly beguiling “Sing Street,” which was loved by almost all of the (relatively few) people who saw it.
Its submitted songs are “Go Now,” which was co-written by Carney, Glen Hansard and Adam Levine and performed by Levine, and which builds gloriously to a magnificent, stirring coda; and the peppy and slightly cheesy “Drive It Like You Stole It,” a made-to-order ’80s new-wave hit that sounds just like it should, like a song written by a guy who has real talent but has listened to a little too much Duran Duran.
Like many of Disney’s most celebrated animated features, which dominated the song category in the ’80s and ’90s, “Moana” is essentially a musical, with “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda a potential EGOT winner. “How Far I’ll Go” is the obligatory Disney Princess Anthem, yearning and ultimately triumphant, if not quite as tuneful as the classics of this genre. “We Know the Way” is the less likely nominee but the better song, with a heavy rhythmic groove that captures the flavor of the movie and a great vocal from the gifted Pacific island singer Opetaia Foa’i.
Illumination’s “Sing” is also a musical of sorts, though most of the songs are existing pop hits. A notable exception is the new Stevie Wonder song “Faith,” performed with Ariana Grande. The bouncy dance tune is marvelously catchy, if a bit one dimensional, and it could give Wonder a chance at an Oscar to go with the one he won for 1984’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
Also in the running from animated films are Justin Timberlake‘s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from “Trolls,” and Shakira’s “Try Everything” from “Zootopia.” Timberlake’s song, a worldwide hit before the film was released, is slinky and irresistible, while Shakira’s song is equally irresistible and substitutes a touch of Latin spice for Timberlake’s disco-tinged slinkiness.
Pharrell Williams was nominated in 2014 for his own animated-feature song, “Happy,” but he’s back in the running with a pair of songs from the historical drama “Hidden Figures.” “I See A Victory,” sung by Kim Burrell, is an undeniably joyous gospel-spiked celebration that sums up the crowd-pleasing movie, while “Runnin'” is a marvelously crafted, rhythm-driven song with a funky and playful arrangement.
The rapper-actor Common won the Oscar in 2015 for “Glory,” his collaboration with John Legend from the Ava DuVernay film “Selma.” Like the movie, that song was ultimately triumphant – but now he’s in the race with a tougher, angrier DuVernay film, the documentary “13th.” There are similarities between “Glory” and his new “Letter to the Free,” two rousing calls to action, but the currents of hope in the powerful new song are slipped in between defiant verses.
Two more documentary songs in the top rank come from two-time nominee J. Ralph and Sting, and from Tori Amos, who contribute intimate and touching songs from sobering films. Sting and J. Ralph’s “The Empty Chair” from “Jim: The James Foley Story” is a stark acoustic song that Sting sings in his lower register, which makes it even more affecting. Amos’ lovely “Flicker,” from “Audrie & Daisy,” is based around the plea “shine a little light on me,” and pays compelling tribute to one girl who killed herself because of cyberbullying, and two others who overcame it.
You can’t rule out three-time Oscar winner and songwriting legend Burt Bacharach, whose song “Dancing With Your Shadow” from the tiny indie “Po” is his first movie song in more than a decade. Bacharach clearly hasn’t lost his touch for tuneful, elegant pop ballads with slippery melodies that pack real emotional clout; Sheryl Crow picks up the torch from past Bacharach interpreters like Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield.
And finally, you have to put Lorraine Feather and Eddie Arkin’s introspective and delicate ’50s style pop ballad “The Rules Don’t Apply” in this category, simply because of its importance to the Warren Beatty movie “Rules Don’t Apply.” The movie didn’t have a title when Feather and Arkin penned the song, which was persuasive enough to not only anchor the second half of the film, but give it a title.
SIA’S THREE OF A KIND
The arty Australian pop star Sia has three different songs in the running this year, all good, from three very different movies. “Angel by the Wings,” from the documentary “The Eagle Huntress,” is as lush and slickly produced as the movie it comes from, but Sia’s song is edgier, odder and far more interesting than the film, while remaining appropriately uplifting and anthemic. “Waving Goodbye,” from “The Neon Demon,” is another sleek and stylish pop song that starts quietly and builds to a big, declaimed chorus. And “Never Give Up,” from “Lion,” is the best of her three entries – big and bold like the others, but also rhythmically compelling, with a beat drawn from the music of India, where much of the film is set.
With four nominations in the last four years, and a win in 2007 for “I Need to Wake Up,” songs from documentaries are being submitted in increasing numbers each year. Apart from the Common, Sia, Sting and Tori Amos doc songs, more than a dozen more of this year’s submissions come from non-fiction films.
Five of those are from films about musicians, though it’s worth nothing that in recent years only Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” has come out of a music doc to land a nomination. The best shot might be “I’m Still Here” from “Miss Sharon Jones!” – although the chorus isn’t as effective as the autobiographical verses, it’s hard to deny the emotional punch of the last song that the great R&B singer Jones co-wrote before her death in November.
From “They Will Have to Kill Us First – Malian Music in Exile” comes “Petit Metier,” a new song from the great Malian band Songhoy Blues, which uses electric blues forms to create an exhilarating hybrid. “Petit Metier” showcases the band’s acoustic side; it’s not as genre-bending as much of their work, but it’s still rich vocally and rhythmically.
The terrific doc “Presenting Princess Shaw” documents how Israeli musician Kutiman assembles mesmerizing songs from amateur performances he finds on YouTube. “Stay Here,” based around a living-room vocal from New Orleans nursing-home caregiver Samantha Montgomery (aka Princess Shaw), is an engrossing and inspiring sound collage.
“La Venus,” from the rock doc “We Are X,” is a massive power ballad in the distinctive style of the band X Japan – bombastic, enormous and symphonic in scope. In the film, the late Beatles producer George Martin says that if drummer/composer Yoshiki’s music was in a movie, it would win the Oscar – now we get to see how prophetic Martin was.
And “Cateura Vamos A Soñar (We Will Dream)” is composer Michael Levine’s end-credits song from “Landfill Harmonic,” a documentary about children who build musical instruments from materials they’ve scavenged from a dump in Brazil. The uplifting pop song featuring vocalist Mariana Barreto has enough of the rough-hewn charm of the “Recycled Orchestra of Cateura” to supply a fitting end to the film.
Two songs from environmental documentaries have it both ways: “A Minute To Breathe” from Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Before the Flood” is a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross song with a strained, fragile Reznor vocal, and music that moves at a crawl; you can take this as the song of a person who is brokenhearted, or of a person (or a planet) who’s just plain broken. And despite the odd title, in “Sixty Charisma Scented Blackbirds” from “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change,” Gabriel Mayers delivers an evocative acoustic ballad about longing for connection.
Notable songs from nonfiction films include “On Ghost Ridge” from “100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice,” a moody and dramatic song in which Malaysian singer Yuna’s vocal is slowly suspended as the track builds underneath her; and “Kiss Me Goodnight” from “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four,” a tropical lounge song that composer Sam Lipman uses to add a dose of irony to the end credits of a film about a horrible, homophobia-driven miscarriage of justice; wisely, the song slips in enough discord to not feel like a happy ending.
Other doc songs include Clamp’s yearning, jangly and tense indie tune “One Frame at a Time,” from “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life”; “I’m Back” from “Never Surrender,” a gravelly and fairly one-dimensional helping of bravado with a banjo; “Torch Pt. 2,” Short Sleeve Heart’s straightforward and bombastic rock ode to resilience from “Citizen Soldier”; Deana Carter’s “Celebrate Life” from “Queen Mimi,” a piano-based ballad whose elegance isn’t quite enough to overcome the sappiness of its relentless positivity; “Smile” from “The Uncondemned,” a song of empowerment with a Maya Jupiter rap whose curious lyrics include clunky lines like “I understand in many cases the system is complacent/But these complainants all of that’s about to change”; and “Think About It” from “The Red Pill,” a peppy and slightly annoying pop-rock song about the need to question information, which might be unintentionally apt for a movie that’s been repeatedly lauded by Breitbart.
Of the songs from animated features that haven’t already been mentioned, Hans Zimmer’s two songs from “The Little Prince,” both performed with vocalist Camille, warrant special attention. “Turnaround” is a charming and bouncy French chamber-pop tune with a coquettish vocal, while “Equation” is slower and sparer, highlighting a sparse, inventive arrangement.
While Stevie Wonder and Justin Timberlake get most of the best-song attention for “Sing” and “Trolls,” a pair of actresses, Scarlett Johansson and Anna Kendrick, also take the lead on songs from those films. “Set It All Free,” the “Sing” number performed by Johansson, is an energetic rock song that hardly matches Johansson’s strengths as a vocalist; “Get Back Up Again,” Kendrick’s “Trolls” song, is a peppy little ditty that erases the line between catchy and insufferable (though if I were forced to come down on one side or the other, I’d probably opt for the latter).
Elsewhere in Toontown, Blake Shelton offers up “Friends,” a catchy pro-forma buddy song from “The Angry Birds Movie” that works hard but doesn’t go anywhere; the Lumineers supply the forgettable big-beat song “Holdin’ Out” in “Storks”; Jessie J sings the poppy, peppy and inconsequential “My Superstar” in “Ice Age: Collision Course”; and Celine Dion gets reverent in “Snowtime!” with “Hymn,” a slight but pretty acoustic prayer that has a sparser arrangement than usual for Dion.
From the sort-of-animated category, two songs were entered from “Pete’s Dragon.” The Lumineers’ “Something Wild” is a gentle ballad of dislocation that builds a nice head of steam, while Lindsey Stirling’s “Nobody Knows” is a persuasive song, helped out by a great fiddle break, that takes even less time to go from quiet to anthemic.
Meanwhile, songs from “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” have that same sort of dynamic: The “Miss Peregrine” song, “Wish That You Were Here,” is by Florence + the Machine, who are very good at big, dynamic, massive pop songs that are meant to shake the heavens, while Pink’s “Alice” song, “Just Like Fire,” takes a similar tack but is not as thunderous, sporting a slyer arrangement.
It’s possible to get a nomination with a novelty song meant largely to bring humor to a film: witness “Blame Canada.” And it’s possible to win: “Man or Muppet” did. But is it likely? Not so much.
Comedian/actress Melissa Rauch co-wrote and starred in the raunchy comedy “The Bronze” – and if you saw the movie and were amused by her character, then her song “F That” could be an amusing coda; it’s a profane rap with wall-to-wall F-words, so gleefully over-the-top that it wouldn’t have a prayer of being performed on the Oscars in the unlikely event that voters took it seriously.
Almost as profane is “The Great Beyond,” which serves as an overture of sorts to “Sausage Party.” The music to this parody show tune is by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken, the man responsible for songs like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Under the Sea” – and while there’s something delicious about that guy being a party to this, it’s too bad the song itself isn’t more distinctive once you get beyond the naughty language.
Andy Samberg’s musical spoof “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is hit-or-miss, but it’s hard to resist an egocentric ditty like “I’m So Humble,” which is studded with lines like, “My apple crumble is by far the most crumble-est/But I act like it tastes bad out of humbleness.” And then there’s “The Ballad Of Wiener-Dog” from Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog,” a curious but delightfully dead-on parody of the western story-songs of yore, sung by Eric William Morris and co-written by Marc Shaiman.
AMERICAN MUSIC, PART 1: POP AND JAZZ
Actor-director Clint Eastwood is also a pianist, composer and jazz fan, which he showed off by co-writing the song “Flying Home” from his movie “Sully.” Performed by a small combo and sung by vocalist Tierney Sutton, it’s a pretty pop-jazz ballad with a simple, classic arrangement. And Rita Wilson, the actress wife of “Sully” star Tom Hanks, wades into similar territory with “Even More Mine,” an elegant piano ballad of devotion from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.”
The Jerry Lewis movie “Max Rose” didn’t get a lot of attention, but don’t write off its pop ballad “Hurry Home,” which is sung by Melissa Errico in a performance that hearkens back to movie songs of the ’60s and ’70s. That makes sense, because it was written by French movie-music legend Michel Legrand with three-time Oscar winners Alan and Marilyn Bergman.
J.K. Rowling was famously resistant to using pop music in the “Harry Potter” movies, but the bouncy new jazz-pop ditty “Blind Pig” is performed by Emmi in the Potter spinoff “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” It’s hard to take it as much more than a novelty. Leon Redbone’s “Seeing You Around,” from “Ithaca,” is a more substantial, piano-based old timey jazz-blues tune, delivered with Redbone’s trademark insouciant charm. And Miles Davis’ jazz is the basis of “Gone 2015” from Don Cheadle’s adventurous non-biopic “Miles Ahead”; Robert Glasper takes a Davis-style track and adds a forward-looking rap, in the process probably doing a better job of putting Miles in a modern context than the movie did.
AMERICAN MUSIC, PART 2: FOLK AND BLUES
On the rootsier side of American music, the standout is Lucinda Williams’ “I’m Crying,” a mournful lament from “Free State of Jones” – because nobody can deliver a wrenching lament like the brilliant Williams, who has an ache in her voice unequalled by anybody this side of Hank Williams.
Ben Nichols’ “Loving” is a gentle folk song from the film of the same name by his brother Jeff; one of the strengths of the movie is that it’s so understated, but its title song, while acoustic, is a little too on-the-nose and overstated. In contrast, actor-musician John Hawkes’ plaintive “Down With Mary,” from “Too Late,” is one of the most quietly touching tunes in the competition.
Rootsy blues-rocker Gary Clark Jr. plays down his electric side for “Take Me Down” from “Deepwater Horizon,” supplying a low-key midtempo song that, unlike the fiery, explosion-heavy movie, is a slow burner. And “Moonshine,” by Foy Vance featuring Kasey Musgraves, from Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night,” is a gutbucket blues ode to bootleg liquor, fun and spirited if not particularly deep.
THE SOUND OF SPORTS
Inspirational sports movies can be crowd-pleasing, but they can also be hackneyed and predictable, and so can their music. Case in point: “Let The Games Begin” from “Race,” an attempted inspirational anthem whose energy can’t overcome the fact that singer Aloe Blacc is burdened with more clichés than the typical postgame interview.
You could say the same thing about Usher’s verses in “Champion” from the Roberto Duran movie “Hands of Stone,” although that song is helped by Ruben Blades offering some more evocative verses in Spanish. (Although maybe if you speak the language, those are just as platitudinous.) And “Rise,” an Andy Madadian song from “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” is a big, nondescript, sentimental power ballad that hits all the expected notes.
An Oscar winner for “Slumdog Millionaire,” A.R. Rahman pays tribute to a Brazilian soccer hero in “Ginga” from “Pelé: Birth of a Legend.” The song is based around a heavy chant, which is probably appropriate for soccer stadiums but a little nondescript out of them.
The best of the sporting batch might be “Find My Victory” from the 1936 Olympics documentary “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice,” because the grace and power in Tony Hightower’s voice makes this gospel-tinged song more inspiring than most.
Here’s a surprise: Unlike most years, no Bollywood musicals or Indian extravaganzas submitted multiple songs in the Oscar race. Instead, the Indian drama “Veeram-Macbeth,” loosely based on the Shakespeare tragedy, submitted a single song, “We Will Rise.” Written by Jeff Rona, the song is a gracefully melodic ballad that builds to a big chorus and manages to be more stirring than most of the Oscar songs that use that same dynamic.
Jonas Cuaron’s tough and propulsive Mexican drama “Desierto” submitted “Land Of All,” a sonically intriguing but underdeveloped song by Woodkid that shifts between vague, atmospheric stretches and driving rhythms.
STAIRWAYS TO HEAVEN
Every year brings a few songs from faith-based movies, but this year they’re all from the same film, “Believe.” With “Glory (Let There Be Peace),” Matt Maher tries to come up with a new Christmas song – and while I’m not sure we need another holiday song about glory and peace, his is suitably lush and reverent, building to a breakdown that is genuinely rousing. Rachel Taylor, meanwhile, supplies a pair of songs: “Somewhere,” a country-pop tune with a nice lilt, and “Mother’s Theme,” a quiet, brief meditation.
C’mon, folks: Iggy Pop is in the Oscar race. Isn’t that cool? Not only that, he’s in it with a great song, the title track from “Gold.” Co-written by Iggy, director Stephen Gaghan, composer Daniel Pemberton and producer Danger Mouse, the song is doomy and foreboding, and the sepulchral rumble of Iggy’s voice makes the line “hail to the thief” a dread-laden warning.
Also kind of scary is Peter Gabriel’s “The Veil” from “Snowden.” The currents of paranoia that have always run through Gabriel’s music, and the menace in his voice, make him the ideal songwriter for Oliver Stone’s drama, and he delivers a tense, itchy track that works extremely well.
Twenty One Pilot’s “Heathens,” from “Suicide Squad,” is another song that starts out measured and menacing, and you just know it’s going to end up big and bold before long; it’s overwrought, to be sure, but that’s sort of the point. And Imagine Dragons’ “Levitate,” from “Passengers,” is built around a big beat and a big arrangement; there’s a little bit of yearning in here, but it’s mostly about size.
“Back To Life,” from “Queen of Katwe,” is by Alicia Keys, so it’s predictably elegant, with a few vocal gymnastics and then a shift into a more propulsive and persuasive (but still refined) dance groove. Green Day’s “Ordinary World,” from the film of the same name, finds the band in a sensitive acoustic mode, which is pleasant enough but not terribly compelling. And Ellie Goulding’s “Still Falling for You,” from “Bridget Jones’s’ Baby,” is sprightly girl-power rom-com pop music, with big flashes of drama.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Three of the most intriguing longshots in the race are compelling and ethereal: “Sad But True (Dreamland Theme),” from “Dreamland,” which true to the film’s title is a dreamy, melodic and Beatlesque ballad performed by Rooney; “Seconds,” from “Autumn Lights,” a ghostly dream of a song with a breathy female voice suspended over a sparse, lulling backdrop; and “Drift And Fall Again” from “Criminal,” a Madsonik song that starts out dreamy until a big beat comes in under breathy female vocals; it aims for majesty, and gets very close.
A completely different tack is taken by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell in “Montage,” from “Swiss Army Man.” A deliberately chaotic jumble over pounding drums, the number is pretty cool as a sonic construction, less persuasive as an actual song.
THE REST OF THE REST
I don’t imagine that any of these potential Oscar songs have a chance to be nominated, but the Music Branch has bewildered me before.
“The Only Way Out,” Andra Day’s song of war and revenge (and maybe a touch of mercy) from “Ben-Hur,” is dramatic, if a touch aimless. “Better Love,” Hozier’s song from another lackluster blockbuster-wannabe, “The Legend of Tarzan,” a big, dark, implacable love song that strains to hold interest. The Overnight’s “Devil’s Girl,” from “Outlaws and Angels,” starts out acoustic and gets big, and while it whips up an impressively doomy sound, it doesn’t really have anywhere to go.
Then there’s “Dance, Rascal, Dance” from the comedy “Hello, My Name Is Doris.” It’s billed to Baby Goya & the Nuclear Winters, but this accelerated synth-pop toe-tapper is actually the work of Bleachers, the side project of Jack Antonoff from the band fun. It’s very ’80s, very fun (no pun intended) and very slight.
And finally, the indie comedy “What Happened Last Night” submitted four songs, more than any other film, a move that might well tick off conscientious voters who try to listen to everything. The band Latchkey has two of the songs: “New Dogs, Old Tricks,” a bouncy midtempo rocker that is happy and catchy but forgettable, and “What’s Happening Today?,” an acoustic male-female duet that is more beguiling in its modesty. The film’s two other submissions are the 5 AM’s “Runnin’ Runnin’,” a nondescript rocker that goes on too long, and Frankie Zing’s “Who I Am,” a hip-hop-flavored pop tune more than a little reminiscent of Andy Samberg’s joke rap-pop.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If I were a voter, which I’m not, I’d agonize for a while and probably vote for five songs from this group: “City of Stars,” “Go Now,” “Petit Metier,” “Letter to the Free,” “The Empty Chair,” “Stay Here,” “We Know the Way,” “I’m Crying,” “Dancing With Your Shadow,” “The Rules Don’t Apply,” “Gold,” “Never Give Up” and “Seconds.”
But while I expect that two or three of the eventual nominees will come from that group, I don’t expect voters to listen to me. After all, I began last year’s Oscar songs roundup by practically begging the Music Branch not to vote for Sam Smith’s terrible James Bond theme. Not only did they nominate it, but the damn thing won.
Please, Academy, I went to a lot of work to find and listen to all 91 songs. Don’t do that to me again.