Best Original Song 2018
For the first in a recurring feature looking at original music and soundtracks for film, our reviewer (a musician, in case you need to see his credentials) tunes his ear to the songs nominated for Best Original Song at the 2018 Oscars.
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, commonly known as Best Original Song, isn't the most talked about award in Tinseltown to my knowledge. In fact - in researching this piece I wasn't able to find bookmakers' odds for the award, as opposed to the 'prestige' awards of best feature, director and acting categories. Even without the bookies' help, the precedent is that more often than not a song from a Disney (or Pixar) film wins (The Lion King, The Muppets, Frozen, Monsters Inc. and Pocahontas, to name just a few) although there have been some recent upsets including Three 6 Mafia's 'It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp' from Hustle & Flow, which took the 2006 award, beating Dolly Parton and a song from Crash.
So, with nothing taken for granted, let's have a listen to this year's nominees:
Mighty River - Mary J Blige
From Mudbound, written by Mary J Blige, Raphael Saadiq & Taura Stinson.
This song is the longest of the year's nominees, clocking in at 5 minutes 14 seconds, which is a shame because it’s very ordinary. Blige's piano-led ballad channels gospel in a way that probably has some relationship to subject matter of the film (I haven't seen it*), employing the extended metaphor of a river "flowing through time". Particularly uninspired are the lyrics: “Love is the answer” Blige warbles, followed by a jarring “Hate is a cancer” - and let me guess, Rhythm is a Dancer?
And so the song plods along, slowly, inexorably, with utter indifference. Like a river, you might say.
Chance of Winning: Unlikely
The Mystery of Love - Sufjan Stevens
From Call Me By Your Name, written by Sufjan Stevens.
This Sufjan Stevens song… sounds a lot like Sufjan Stevens. He is good, you just very much know what you’re getting.
It does have some nice atmospheric accompaniment that builds over the piece, putting some flesh on the bones of the archetypal bloke-with-guitar singer-songwriter setup, although it doesn't ever get any louder, apposite for Sufjan's whisper-soft vocal delivery. If he did call you by his name, would you even hear it?
I’m surprised this got nominated (as I was with Call Me By Your Name getting four nominations in total) and would be extremely surprised if this won. In some ways, a win for this song would be a bigger upset than when Three 6 Mafia took the glory. It's just not the sort of thing the academy goes for (perhaps notwithstanding Crazy Heart's 'The Weary Kind' winning in 2010).
Chance of Winning: Extremely unlikely
Remember Me - Miguel ft. Natalia Lafourcade
From Coco, written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.
'Remember Me' is quite interesting in that it’s a dual-language song, with the first verse sung in English and the second in Spanish, which may not affect its chances of winning given Slumdog Millionaire’s 'Jai Ho' (sung in a mix of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi) was victorious in 2008.
At 2 minutes 50 seconds the song almost perfectly fits the perfect '3 minute pop song' formula, although it doesn't really have a chorus, just a repeated verse and a bridge. It's simple and effective, with the verses building to the lyrical payoff of "until you're in my arms again remember me".
More often than not a Disney song wins the Oscar, and by all accounts this is the favourite for this year's ceremony. Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have already received an Oscar for Frozen's 'Let it Go'.
On this version, which is released as a single and presumably plays over the end credits, Miguel's vocal delivery is particularly saccharine, which isn’t always the case in these Disney songs (see Randy Newman's jocular output for Pixar), but fortunately Natalia Lafourcade is more restrained and classy in her delivery.
Chance of Winning: Frontrunner
Stand Up for Something - Andra Day ft. Common
From Marshall, written by Common and Diane Warren.
I like this. Although it’s a fairly predictable ballad about liberation stuffed with the usual platitudes ("it all means nothing if you don't stand up for something, you can't just talk the talk you need to walk that walk"), it's reminiscent of old Motown / Northern Soul records, especially with the organ that blasts in the chorus, and the booming drum running throughout, drenched in Phil Spector-esque reverb.
I liked that it's in measures of three (or six, depending how you cut it), and it's the only one of these songs with a proper dynamic shift between verse and chorus. If Sufjan Stevens tried to belt out a chorus like this, he'd snap like a twig.
However, as much as I like the '90s trope of a rap middle-8, and would usually encourage their inclusion in every song, Common's intervention here is totally superfluous.
Chance of Winning: Outsider's chance
This Is Me - Keala Settle and The Greatest Showman Ensemble
From The Greatest Showman, written by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul.
I’m afraid there’s no getting around it: this song is abysmal.
It's all insufferably modern, from the interminable millennial whoops during and after the chorus to the clever-clever stops and starts which punctuate the verse transitions, for little reason apart from that they can. This song is all technique and no substance. More greatest show-off, if anything.
It's all indicative of the Instagram/Youtuber age that loudly declares "I am here" without having ever gone to the trouble of being unique or interesting; for a song which ostensibly asserts one's individuality there's very little to characterise it, apart from being obnoxious. If this is you, could you be somebody else please. And a little less loudly. And somewhere else.
Chance of Winning: Depressingly plausible
So there you have it. The winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures will be announced at the 90th Academy Awards on 4th March 2018.
*Full disclosure, I haven't seen any of these films.