Last year’s Academy Award for Best Original Song went to ‘Remember Me’ from Pixar’s Day of the Dead-inspired film, Coco. A deserving entry, sure, but perhaps not what you’d consider a timeless film song.
And so it goes with many other recent winners: in 2016 it was ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land; Sam Smith’s Bond theme, ‘Writing’s On the Wall’, won the 2015 award; and Bret McKenzie snagged the 2011 prize with his forlorn ‘Man Or Puppet’ performed by Jason Segel.
However, a deeper perusal of the category’s recent nominees reveals several standouts such as Karen O’s ‘The Moon Song’ from Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), ‘Belleville Rendezvous’ from Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003) and Jorge Drexler’s 2004 winner, ‘Al otro lado del rio’ from The Motorcycle Diaries.
As for family friendly classics, you can’t go past Randy Newman’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’ and ‘We Belong Together’ from Toy Story and Toy Story 3 respectively, plus Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ and of course ‘My Heart Will Go On’.
But how do this year’s nominees stack up?
‘Shallow’ by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born)
A Star Is Born might be Lady Gaga’s first major film acting role, but her first Oscar nomination was for ‘Til It Happens to You’ from the 2015 documentary, The Hunting Ground. The prize eluded her then, but Gaga’s Bradley Cooper collaboration, ‘Shallow’, is hotly tipped for Oscar glory.
A duet between the film’s two stars, ‘Shallow’ is a stirring power ballad about overcoming adversity that lets Gaga show off her robust vocal power. It feels a bit like a simulation of a song that would be likely to win an Academy Award, but Gaga and Cooper’s performances are convincing enough to leave you feeling at least mildly moved.
It’s not the best of the lot, but it’ll probably win.
‘All the Stars’ by SZA and Kendrick Lamar (Black Panther)
Although ‘All the Stars’ is a lot straighter than anything on Kendrick or SZA’s 2017 LPs, the feature track from the Lamar-produced Black Panther soundtrack still friggin’ slaps.
The song matches the film in displaying artistic depth and dramatic poise while also possessing elements of a formulaic crowd-pleaser. Lamar feels underused, contributing just one verse, but SZA is more than capable of owning the spotlight and her voice absolutely soars in the optimistic chorus.
It’s not groundbreaking pop music, but ‘All the Stars’ has the power to uplift and leaves you hankering to hear it again. It’s a top-two contender and deserves to win.
‘I’ll Fight’ by Jennifer Hudson (RBG)
Jennifer Hudson singing a song of resilience for a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What’s not to like? Well, the Diane Warren-penned track clearly strives to generate a feeling of empowerment, but ends up sounding like a discarded Mariah Carey demo.
That’s not a slight against Hudson’s vocal performance, though. The Dreamgirls star gives it everything she’s got, but her radiance is undercut by tired neo-R&B production and generic lyrics about showing strength and not giving up.
It might find its way onto MOR pop radio playlists, but it’s no Oscar winner.
‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ by Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns)
It’s hard not to compare ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ to transgenerational classics like ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and ‘Step In Time’. This is a bit unfair, though, given those songs are more or less woven into the fabric of Western popular culture.
‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ is a low-key, old timey lullaby performed by the film’s star, Emily Blunt. It’s not rivetingly dynamic or loaded with snappy lyrical gimmickry, and so it feels rather lightweight at first.
But this song will grow on you. While Blunt is unlikely to branch off into a music career, her voice adequately matches the 1930s tone. The lyrics are neatly wrought, featuring clever moral counsel like “Nothing’s really left or lost without a trace / Nothing’s gone forever, only out of place.”
It’s a pleasant candidate, but too indistinct to take home the award.
‘When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings’ by Willie Watson and Tim Blake Nelson
Coen brothers films have given us a number of memorable songs over the years, such as ‘Down to the River to Pray’ from O Brother, Where Art Thou? (performed by Alison Krauss) and ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’ from Inside Llewyn Davis (performed by Oscar Isaac).
But while those were both re-recordings of traditional folk songs and thus didn’t qualify, David Rawlings and Gillian Welch knocked out this charming original for the Coens’ series of short films, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
The film series is set in the Old West, and ‘When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings’ is a suitably rootsy country number performed by actors Willie Watson and Tim Blake Nelson. The wings referenced in the title are those of an angel as the song tells the tale of a cowboy losing a gunfight and being lifted to heaven. Rawlings and Welch are pros and the song is packed with sweet harmonies and ageless melodies.
It’s an outside chance, although probably not zeitgeisty enough.
See who takes home the prize at the 91st Academy Awards on Monday February 25.
Image via Warner Bros. Pictures.