The credits start to roll, the lights come up, and as the crowd stands from their seats, they hear a song. It’s hard enough to keep an audience occupied for two hours. Now try holding their attention for just another two minutes before they’re out the door.
“I was hoping I had a song I could sing for as long as people wanted to hear it,” said Elvis Costello, an artist and rocker who knows a thing or two about music made to grab you. “If a song can last just until people can get to the lobby, you’re doing all right.”
On Monday night at the AMC Century City 15, TheWrap and Dolby hosted Costello and nine other Oscar contenders for this year’s Best Original Song race in a panel discussion about the songwriting craft. They explained their goal as musicians is to write music that can linger and last well beyond the end of the film.
Whether it’s Common and Diane Warren writing a call to action at the end of “Marshall,” OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and T Bone Burnett writing a love letter from Mother Earth at the end of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” or Kenneth Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle writing a forlorn, emotional capper for “Murder on the Orient Express,” they want their songs to make an impression.
“You want this to go further than just the film,” R&B singer Raphael Saadiq told TheWrap’s Steve Pond about “Jump,” a song he wrote with Taura Stinson for the documentary “Step.” “I just wanted to make sure that we put together something that speaks for them beyond the scope of the film,” Stinson added.
“I want the words to be something people can live with and walk with and can eventually, God willing, change their lives,” Common said about his song with Warren, “Stand Up for Something.”
Their closing track to the movie about Thurgood Marshall is a stately, yet bluesy and bass-driven march about finding meaning in life by taking action. “It all means nothing if you can’t stand up for something,” Warren’s lyrics read.
Warren said she was inspired by the early ’60s work of Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. “Those times were so hard, but those songs were so hopeful. They inspired you to want to change the world,” she said
If Warren is nominated for “Stand Up for Something,” it’ll be her ninth Oscar nomination, a number she’s earned by collaborating with everyone from Lady Gaga to Aerosmith to Rita Ora. Her new collaborator, Common, earned his first Oscar with John Legend for the song “Glory” from “Selma.”
“Do I want to be a downer and stay in that dark place that we were all in for a while, or do I want to put hope out there and really inspire people?” Common asked, reiterating Warren’s message of hope in troubled times. “Don’t just sit down, stand up and do something.”
Tedder and Burnett could relate to the songwriting challenge of creating a song for the times. Their track “Truth to Power,” a wistful piano ballad that scores the end of the Al Gore climate-change doc “An Inconvenient Sequel.”
Burnett and Tedder referred to their song as a letter from a lover scorned, but instead of a person, it’s the Earth breaking up with humanity. Unlike his work for his band OneRepublic, Tedder said that the film itself was his muse, and the challenge was to tap into what the story is telling you.
“I have to believe it coming from me. I can’t play a character in a movie. Ultimately it has to be authentic to your own voice,” Tedder said, adding that he was moved after speaking with Gore and learning more about climate change. “I have to connect with the content, I have to believe in the film, I have to care.”
That was a different challenge than what other songwriters faced.
Ryan Bingham, an Oscar winner for “Crazy Heart,” or “Murder on the Orient Express” director Kenneth Branagh, wrote his song for Christian Bale’s 19th-century soldier in “Hostiles” and said he imagined an Irish immigrant with just a small mandolin to his name strumming a forlorn folk song while camping out under the stars.
“What would this character play in 1890? Where’s he from? What’s his background, what’s his roots?” Bingham said. “It all had to start from there.”
Kenneth Branagh and Patrick Doyle similarly collaborated closely to find the right tone that could capture the loss felt by Michelle Pfeiffer’s character during the emotional capper of “Murder on the Orient Express.” Doyle described their song’s lilting piano counter-melody as “simple, but so powerful” atop Branagh’s “totally inspiring lyrics.”
“We felt like [the movie] needed emotional closure, a punctuation mark. It was the moment you could perhaps understand with music people in the story who were hurting and perhaps beginning to heal,” Branagh said, comparing his song “Never Forget” to the Irish ballad “Danny Boy.”
Costello said he had to grapple not just with the emotions of “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” but with his own legacy. At one point, the film uses Costello’s “Pump It Up” to set the scene.
“It was used as a historical marker, which is an unsettling moment for any songwriter, especially when it’s 40 years ago,” Costello joked.
His new song for the film, “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way,” has an elegant and classical charm with its jazzy, brushed percussion, a lush horn section, a simple piano melody and Costello’s warbling crooning. The filmmakers came to see one of his performances, and they knew he was the man for the job when they saw Costello use an image of the film’s subject, Gloria Graham, during the show.
“Your job is to echo the feeling of the film, it’s not to compete with it, not to argue with the director, writer or character, but to try and be in some sort of sympathy with the emotion of the film,” Costello said. “People are usually pretty quick to get out of the theater, so you’ve got to give them a few bars to get their attention.”
Watch the full video from the panel discussion via Facebook Live, or hear a re-broadcast on Sirius XM’s “Volume” hosted by Alan Light on Monday, December 18 at 7 p.m. ET.