Oscar Nominees: Best Original Song

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Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy, some extra thoughts on each nominee/film, who was snubbed, and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

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Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: Right off the bat, let me say that I wish there was a rule that there could only be one nominee per film…but that’s sour grapes on my part because, well, read on.  The first of two songs nominated from La La Land is arguably the better of the pair, though it’s also the one that does more to solidify Emma Stone’s hopes of winning an Oscar than its own.  The 11 o’clock number for Stone’s struggling actress character, it’s got a good bridge but not much of a hook.  Truth be told, it’s largely due to Stone’s earnestly honest performance of it that makes it memorable.  Taken out of context on the live broadcast (and maybe sung by someone other than Stone), I’m wondering how strong it will feel.

Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: La La Land‘s second nomination is for the song featured heavy in the trailers and promo clips.  It’s an ear-worm of an anthem, but not a terribly tuneful or great one.  Score composer Justin Hurwitz wisely interspersed the song generously throughout the film and Ryan Gosling’s laid back jazz musician actually made me think he was coming up with the words right there on the spot.  Don’t forget that Hollywood LOVES to reward material that involves them in some way and a song called ‘City of Stars’ in a movie title La La Land hits the double target for voters that can’t get enough of their own back-patting. If neither film from La La Land takes the trophy, don’t feel too bad for composers/lyricists Pasek and Paul, they have Dear Evan Hansen, a sizable hit on Broadway looking likely to win them a Tony.

Nominee: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Song: ‘How Far I’ll Go’ from Moana
Oscar History: First time nominee
Thoughts: I’m just going to say it and I don’t care if you hate it.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is possibly the most overexposed celebrity alive today and if his song from Moana wins it will be largely due to the Hamilton fever that has taken over both coasts over the last two years.  There’s no doubt that Miranda is musically gifted and winning an Oscar here would make him the youngest EGOT winner ever (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) but the man has already won everything under the sun (even a Pulitzer!) for Hamilton…voters are either going to want to make it a clean sweep or they’ll think Miranda has filled enough shelf space this year with other statuettes.  That being said, while Moana and this song aren’t my favorite in the Disney canon, it surely makes for a positive message for young girls in that it teaches them they don’t need to pine for a prince to achieve the impossible.

Nominee: Justin Timberlake, Max Martin, Shellback
Song: ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from Trolls
Oscar History: First time nominees
Thoughts: Like Pharrel’s ‘Happy’ from a few years back, this song from Trolls is the kind of get up and shake your groove thing song that will make its performance one to look forward to.  If La La Land‘s two songs split the vote and Miranda Mania doesn’t bring Moana to the winner circle, this could (and, really, should) walk away the winner. The only caveat I can see is that this one has gotten the most radio air time and if listeners/voters are sick of hearing it every day in their gym it might make it harder for them to cast a vote for it to win.  It’s a fun song with good lyrics and a great hook…a definite party song.

Nominee: J. Ralph & Sting
Song: ‘The Empty Chair’ from Jim: The James Foley Story
Oscar History: Ralph has been nominated twice before, last year for Racing Extinction and in 2013 for Chasing Ice.  Sting has been nominated three times before, for Cold Mountain, Kate & Leopold, and The Emperor’s New Groove.
Thoughts: When the nominations for Best Original Song rolled out, I can imagine many people having to blink a few times when they saw this nomination appear on screen.  Looking over all the nominees, this is still the biggest WTF moment but digging deeper maybe it was wrong to count this one out in the first place.  Both Sting and J. Ralph have been nominated multiple times in this category and Sting especially has a lot of good friends within the Academy.  Trouble is, the song is a bit of a downer as is the documentary it’s pulled from so we could be in for a bathroom break once Sting takes the stage to perform it.  The movie didn’t get much traction…in fact, I didn’t even remember that I had SEEN this movie already, having caught it when it was broadcast on HBO earlier this year.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ from Sing Street
Why?: Oh my goodness I was SO hoping this song (or any song, for that matter) from Sing Street would make it into the nominations.  The movie has the best songs of the year in my book and any one of them could be placed in the list of nominees and outshone its competition.  Director John Carney’s previous two wide released films (Once and Begin Again) snagged nominations and Once actually won.  I think the music here is better than both of them so it’s a damn shame a song like the favored ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ couldn’t rustle enough votes to see its name announced on Oscar night.  

In my book, the Best Song of the year wasn’t even nominated.  Instead we’re left with two languid songs from the first original musical produced in Hollywood in decades, a pretty good song from a hotter than hot composer, a party anthem destined to be played in roller rinks for eternity, and a Sting track that feels like a B-Side.  So…while I’d give it to the Trolls song I’m going to go with ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land for the win.  (By the way, all five nominees were better than Sam Smith’s dreadful winning song from last year!)

Movie Review ~ 20 Feet From Stardom

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Chris Botti

Director: Mogan Neville

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The most I can ever ask from a film is that it moves me.  Now sometimes a movie will move me to the nearest exit and pronto when the lights come up but then there are the movies that you don’t want to end so you stay firmly planted in your seat until the final credits roll, the lights come up, and the usher kindly asks you to leave so he pick up all the junk left on the floor (note…take your garbage with you!!!).  20 Feet from Stardom is a film that captures your attention and doesn’t let go for a joyous 91 minutes.

In 2002 there was a documentary called Standing in the Shadows of Motown and it told the story of the legendary Funk Brothers, musicians that backed up countless numbers of Motown artists.  20 Feet from Stardom finds itself with a similar theme but instead looks at those using a totally different kind of instrument…their voice.  Backup singers don’t always get their due but filmmaker Morgan Neville shines a light on them and produces a truly magical experience that gave me all sorts of goosebumps.

Neville has an abundance of riches when it comes to famous faces that go on camera to endorse the various background vocalists they have worked with over the years but he uses people like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Sting sparingly in favor of giving more time to a handful of powerhouse talents.

Though Darlene Love may be the most known out of the group thanks to her yearly holiday appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and playing Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon films, there’s a nice balance between her story of coming up through the ranks and other, lesser known, names.  You may not be familiar with Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, or Tata Vega but after hearing some of the famous songs they sang back-up on you’ll always have a face to put with a spine-tingling vocal.

While the archival footage is fun, it was the present day material shot for the film that leaves a lasting impression.  Showing that time hasn’t changed the power in their timbre, Neville lets the ladies tell their own stories…the triumphs and set-backs, the struggles and the successes.

It’s an audience-pleasing, good for you kind of movie-going experience that I would hope everyone gets a chance to take in.  In a summer where the action movies are loud and the acting sometimes louder, it was so refreshing to see a film with a big heart to match some powerful soul.

The Silver Bullet ~ Twenty Feet from Stardom

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Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

Release Date:  June 14, 2013

Thoughts: When was the last time you really stopped to listen to the background singers on a piece of music?  Artists often contribute to their own backing vocals but more often than not those featured on the track are simply relegated to the linear notes (and with most music being digitized these well-sung, unsung heroes may never really be recognized).  The new documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom moves the spotlight from the lead singer to those a little further back that provide harmony and unity to the popular songs of yesterday and today and it looks to be a crowd-pleasing winner.  Filled with celebrity interviews and a look at a few notable backing vocalists, I’m very much looking forward to this June release.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Plenty

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Englishwoman spends 20 years to make whatever kind of life for herself at the expense of others around her in post-World War II England.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Sam Neill, Charles Dance, Tracey Ullman, Sting, Ian McKellan

Director: Fred Schepsi

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:   Here’s a curious character study drama that was adapted from the stage play its author, David Hare (The Hours, The Reader).  Already a two-time Oscar winner racking up a strong streak of films (and coming off of the undervalued Falling in Love), Streep is strangely subdued here playing a former resistance fighter that has to adjust to life after wartime.  The film has a real dreamlike quality to it and though the work among the actors is strong, it’s an aloof affair that made it a tough one to really get involved with.

The movie has a lot of layers to it, compounded by Hare’s revised script that expanded upon certain relationships previously unexplored on stage.  Director Schepsi relies on the strength of his actors to maneuver through a middle act that sags a bit but succeeds in a strong opening and closing to the piece.

Along with Streep (who, even subdued, is mesmerizing) there’s commendable work by Neill, Dance, McKellan, and Ullman.  Ullman and Streep formed a nice bond onscreen and off and it’s nice to see Ullman in this type of role as she’s primarily known for her comedic work. 

The overall experience of Plenty may not be enough to warrant a second viewing but for Streep completists interested in her early evolving body of work it’s worth a look.  Her next film would be Out of Africa and I tend to look at this film and Falling in Love to be a bridge between the types of performances Streep gave in Silkwood and would give in Out of Africa.