Listen Up! Best Original Song

For years, I’ve been a staunch defender of the Best Original Song category at the Academy Awards even as a number of naysayers have claimed it’s become less relevant with each passing ceremony.  Throughout the history of the awards, the Oscar has been given to (and snubbed) a bevy of timeless tunes while at the same time hilariously allowing unexpected movies to be able to claim “Oscar-nominated” status: “Featuring Andrew McCarthy, star of the Academy Award nominated Mannequin!”  

Even I have to admit that recently the Music Branch of the Academy, which votes on the initial nominees, has narrowed their selections to an increasingly bland lot…and that includes the 15-song shortlist.  You get the sense the members of the voting branch have their favorites and/or friends they have allegiance to and rarely deviate from.  That’s why we’re left with very few breakthrough hits, save for “Shallow” from the 2018 remake of A Star is Born, “This is Me” from 2017’s The Greatest Showman which didn’t win but had major internet presence, and the one-two juggernaut punch of 2014’s “Let it Go” from Frozen and 2013’s “Skyfall” from the James Bond film of the same name.  Aside from that quartet of chart-toppers, even the marginal bright spots (Cynthia Erivo’s “Stand Up” from Harriet being the only one that comes to mind) barely register.  Gone are the days of nominees that had crossover potential.  I mean, just take 1985 for example.  The nominees were “Against All Odds”, “Footloose”, “Let’s Hear it For the Boy”, “Ghostbusters”, and eventual winner “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, or two years later when Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” won out over Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” and “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail.  

All of this to say…I understand why this category gets under people’s skin year over year because it’s starting to get under mine. There seems to be a serious lack of mega-watt quality that not only manages to be memorable but surprises in the least. Of course I was thrilled when the LAMB Devours The Oscars needed someone to do a write-up of the nominees so I jumped at the chance to share a listen and recap with you. This year the nominees are a mixed bag, some being the only representation for their respective films and others adding to an already hefty haul.  Before going in depth on each I think it best that you take fifteen minutes and listen to all five nominees.  Even if you’ve heard one or more of them before, turn off any other distractions and just listen to the words.  We’ll pick up below…

“Fight for You” from Judas and the Black Messiah 
Music by H.E.R. and Dernst Emile II; Lyrics by H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas
“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7 
Music by Daniel Pemberton; Lyrics by Daniel Pemberton and Celeste Waite
“Húsavik – My Hometown” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga 
Music and Lyrics by Savan Kotecha, Fat Max Gsus, and Rickard Göransson 
“Io Sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead (La Vita Davanti a Sé
Music by Diane Warren; Lyrics by Diane Warren and Laura Pausini 
“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami … 
Music and Lyrics by Leslie Odom, Jr. and Sam Ashworth 

So what did you think? Any standouts for you? It’s a moody group assembled for a year that held a lot of doubt about the future, uncertainty concerning our present situation, and a hope for change in the future and much of that is reflected in the music. While I don’t outright dislike any of these nominees I do think there are some that fly considerably higher than others and lament the artists/songs that didn’t gather enough votes to make the top five to at least find recognition. Since you asked, to get specific I’d single out John Legend’s “Make It Work” from Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Janelle “Django Jane” Monáe’s, “Turntables” from All In: The Fight for Democracy, and Sinéad O’Connor’s “I’ll Be Singing” from Wild Mountain Thyme as being more interesting choices than a few of the above singles.

Yet these are the nominees and though I could easily vote with my heart, I need to put on my “Voting Member of the Academy” jaunty hat and think about how this will play out. To do that, we need to examine the songs individually and against each other.

It’s important to note that “Fight for You”, “Hear My Voice”, “”Io sì (Seen)”, and “Speak Now” are all closing credit songs and not featured previously in the film. While the Academy rules stipulate that a nominated song must be the first musical cue in the end credits, it’s unusual to have so many in one year and that might bode well for the groundswell of support the big 11 o’clock number “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga has received over the past months. Released on Netflix to mostly positive reviews at the end of June, I find it so strange the streaming service hasn’t put more effort into promoting it (completely missing the boat on getting Rachel McAdams even a Golden Globe nomination) because the music is quite good and wholly deserving of its nomination. The movie and its soundtrack have its fervent supporters, many of whom are surprised to be humming those melodies long after its over. What’s going to hurt the chances for a “Husavik” victory in my opinion is the fact that McAdams isn’t actually singing the song, Swedish pop singer Molly “My Marianne” Sandén is (and will be performing it at the Oscars) so there’s a disconnect evident that voters may have trouble going all in for.

There’s no doubt that Leslie Odom, Jr. is performing his songs as the late Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami… and after the actor/singer has compellingly recreated a few of Cooke’s greatest hits within the film, he brings us one of his own creations as the credits roll. With his nomination in Best Supporting Actor, Odom Jr. becomes only the fourth performer to be nominated for acting and songwriting in a single year and “Speak Now” is quite good, improving in the ear on nearly every listen. It’s a song that works within the context of the film and could exist as a solo hit as well. I could easily imagine a number of voters keeping this in their playlist long after April 25th has come and gone.

While arguably creating a dynamic song for a dynamic movie that speaks to multiple generations, H.E.R.’s “Fight for You” doesn’t quite seal the deal in the musicality arena. Coming out of the gate lyrically blazing fire, it gradually regresses to a safer space that makes it feel incomplete. I vividly remember it giving me chills when it roared to life at the end of Judas and the Black Messiah and immediately looking the lyrics up before having another listen. Played in the context of the video linked above, it’s excellent. However, for voters just listening to the song I’m not sure the songwriters have given us enough to chew on.

In some way, “Hear My Voice” is a perfect fit for The Trial of the Chicago 7. Like the film, it’s mostly a slow dirge that hits some fine notes. I can’t say I was blown away by it or even by its singer Celeste who may lend a particular nostalgic echo to the song but, again, fails to reach out and grab you like the best of the Oscar nominated songs have. While its style nicely reflects the era in which the movie takes place, it’s a bit morose and just conjures up images of someone kicking a can down an alley in a rainstorm.

That brings us to Diane Warren’s “Io sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead, the minor Italian film that many thought would get 86 year-old Sophia Loren her first nomination in 56 years. Sadly, that category was all but locked up months ago but songwriter Warren’s first foray into a foreign language has resulted in her 12th nomination. Over the last five decades, Warren has been nominated for some incredibly popular hits but never taken home the prize. Many think she’s due to win this year but, just like everyone thinks Glenn Close was looking to be a sure bet for Best Supporting Actress in Hillbilly Elegy I don’t think Warren should make a space on her mantle just yet. “Io sì (Seen)” is a fine song and, as performed by co-writer Laura Pausini, reflects as a moving tribute to women from all walks of life…but it is far from Warren’s best work and I think the voters know that. To award her for this, now, wouldn’t feel like a cumulative award (just like it wouldn’t for Close), it would feel like a sympathy prize. Perhaps 13 will be her lucky number.

No, the winner will be “Speak Now” and here’s why I think so. Even snagging three nominations, One Night in Miami… was blanked in two key races, Best Picture and Best Director (for Regina King) and with Odom Jr. most definitely losing his Best Supporting Actor category (to Daniel Kaluuya for Judas and the Black Messiah), voting for him here would be like awarding two birds with one gold statute. They can recognize the film and the actor/songwriter with one vote, spreading the wealth of the Oscar around like they’ve been more attentive to doing lately. That “Speak Now” is also an excellent track makes it even more of a prime upset to Warren’s path to her victory lap.

It’s always fun to see these performed for the Oscars but this year it will be a little different. Four of the songs have been pre-recorded at the Dolby Family Terrace at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and the fifth tune (“Husavik”) will be coming to us from, where else?, Husavik, Iceland. All will be shown in a newly announced pre-Oscars telecast. I’ll be interested to see how that works out, much like I’m intrigued to see how the ceremony itself will play amidst the continued restrictions on travel, social distancing, etc. More than anything, I’m just happy I didn’t have to deal with the possibility of Billie Eilish being an Oscar nominee for her Sominex-sponsored theme song for the next James Bond adventure, No Time to Die. At least not until next year’s ceremony.