Typically, I hate this category. Not only are the eligibility rules arcane, but most of the nominated songs add minimal value to their actual films, as they frequently just play over the closing credits, when most moviegoers are shuffling out to the parking garage before their validation expires. It's why I usually dump my analysis into a larger post that addresses all of the music and sound categories at once. This year, however, one of the candidates is so extraordinary that it practically demands its own essay, while two others (one nominated, the other not) further illustrate how smartly written songs can actively complement movies, rather than simply serve as tacked-on denouements.
Alone Yet Not Alone—"Alone Yet Not Alone" (Bruce Broughton, Dennis Spiegel)
Despicable Me 2—"Happy" (Pharrell Williams)
Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
Her—"The Moon Song" (Karen O, Spike Jonze)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom—"Ordinary Love" (Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen)
This category is less predictable than you might think. Songs from
musicals are obviously the most visible, but that exposure hasn't always
translated to Oscar success (Dreamgirls and Enchanted
provided a trio of nominees in 2006 and 2007, respectively, only to lose
out to lesser-known competition). And despite accusations of
stodginess, the Academy has routinely embraced more populist forms in
this category, including awarding trophies to hip-hop artists Eminem and
Three 6 Mafia. So as tempting as it may be to give a cursory look at
this quintet of nominees and swiftly declare Frozen's "Let It Go" to be an absolute lock, the possibility of an upset remains, well, possible.
But good luck settling on a challenger. Alone Yet Not Alone is so obscure—it grossed a mere $134 thousand at the domestic box office—that its out-of-nowhere nomination incited controversy
regarding the music branch's process, so I can't imagine it garnering
more than a handful of votes. But at least it's received publicity,
albeit negative; Despicable Me 2 made a boatload of cash, but how many people have even heard of "Happy"? Her's
"The Moon Song" is a more intriguing dark horse, but while its
quasi-duet provides for an utterly hypnotic moment in a movie full of
them, voters might not respond to its improvisational, deceptively
The most plausible competitor is U2's "Ordinary Love", which
surprisingly snagged a Golden Globe win. But the Globes' music
selections rarely match up with the Oscars—the two ceremonies have
honored the same song just thrice in the past 12 years—and indeed, U2
has played this particular game of musical chairs before (in 2002, when Gangs of New York's "The Hands That Built America" lost to the aforementioned Eminem for 8 Mile's "Lose Yourself"). Furthermore, unlike with Dreamgirls and Enchanted
and their trio of nominated songs, "Let It Go" is immune to inadvertent
cannibalism, as Disney wisely declined to submit other songs from Frozen
for consideration in order to avoid vote-splitting. Throw in the gulf
between the two songs' actual cinematic usage—"Ordinary Love" plays
meekly over Mandela's credits, whereas "Let It Go" serves as Frozen's
unquestioned artistic apex—and U2 basically needs a huge sympathy vote
to make up the ground. Somehow I doubt that voters will feel all that
sorry for one of the most popular bands of the past three decades.
Disney bags another Oscar with "Let It Go".
As with virtually everyone else in the country, I haven't seen Alone Not Yet Alone, though I did listen to the titular song,
courtesy of a wondrous invention called YouTube. Musically, it's a
relatively pleasant piano-based hymn, though lyrically it features some
unfortunate rhymes. Given the religious bent, it's obviously designed to
be inspirational, but it comes off as little more than innocuous and
I haven't seen Despicable Me 2 either (the Netflix disc is
roughly three feet away from me as a write this, so I'll watch it in the
near future), so I can't comment on how Pharrell Williams' "Happy"
integrates into the film. As a song, it features an appealing
syncopated beat, but it's a grating tune, with Williams' strained vocals
clashing against the hand-clapping gospel chorus. It's liable to get
stuck in your head, a quality that in this case proves irritating rather
I did see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, though that hardly matters when evaluating "Ordinary Love",
given that it plays after the movie concludes. It's basically
boilerplate U2, which is to say it generates a steady build before
arriving at a pretty electric hook. The lyrics are typical nonsense
("Birds fly high in the summer sky and rest on the breeze/The same wind
will take care of you and I/We'll build our house in the trees"), but
once the percussion heats up and the bass starts blaring, it's easy to
be seduced by the casual splendor, even if it feels like Bono composed
the arrangement in his sleep.
Unlike with "Ordinary Love", it's impossible to separate the musical
rendition of "The Moon Song" from the film in which it appears. Taken on
its own terms, the song is flimsy and straightforward, featuring
nothing more than an acoustic guitar accompanying a pair of seemingly
childish verses. In the context of Her, however, "The Moon Song"
feels downright majestic, a literal soundtrack to two entities'
flourishing romance. And the simple, playful nature of the lyrics makes
sense, given that Scarlett Johansson's character is purportedly making
up the words on the spot. (Johansson sings during the actual film
version; Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O provides a tender reprise over the
credits.) That sense of musical spontaneity—that we're witnessing the
creation of art rather than its canned reproduction—yields a marvelous
moment at the song's end, when Joaquin Phoenix's character cottons on to
the lyrics and joins in for a final, whispered chorus. "The Moon Song"
may just be the idle scribbles of a futuristic computer caught in a
romantic mood, but it's also a startling demonstration of the power of
music in cinema, of how instrumentation and song can elevate movies to
Which brings me to Frozen and "Let It Go". Please forgive me, but
in order to adequately describe this song, I need to briefly discuss my
own relationship with Disney. My childhood coincided perfectly with the
so-called Disney Renaissance, meaning that I grew up with the music
from such animated luminaries as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.
Yet while I watched those movies in the theatre, I can't honestly
remember the first time I heard enduring pop-culture staples like "Under
the Sea", "Be Our Guest," "Friend Like Me," or "Hakuna Matata". To this
day, I know the words and the tunes by heart (and if you're a movie fan
my age, odds are you do too), but it's not as though I actively learned
them—they just existed. And by the time I became a teenager, memorable
Disney songs had vanished from the multiplex, meaning that during my
formative moviegoing years, I never received theatrical exposure to
songs that ultimately became embedded into the nation's musical lexicon.
I spent my youth surrounded by classic Disney music without ever really
experiencing that music in the first place.
Until now. Because when, half an hour into Frozen, Idina Menzel
launched into the chorus of "Let It Go"—"Let it go, let it go, can't
hold it back anymore/Let it go, let it go, turn away and slam the
door"—I felt transported back to my childhood, to that first time when I
must have heard "A Whole New World" or "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"
And that's amazing. For someone who evaluates movies critically and
dispassionately, those few moments of uninhibited joy are sacred. I
realize that sounds exaggerated, but there's something deeply moving
about sitting in a theatre as a curmudgeonly adult and suddenly feeling
like a giddy kid.
But even ignoring my highly personal response to "Let It Go", there's a
more rational explanation for my seemingly excessive praise: The song
is—to put it in terms both adult and juvenile—fucking killer. Not that
it's particularly complicated; it features a fairly typical verse-chorus
structure, with a quiet piano that gradually crescendos before being
joined by a full orchestra. But there's a beauty to the music's
simplicity, and it serves to highlight Frozen's single greatest
asset: Menzel's voice. It's both precise and awe-inspiring, and Menzel
possesses the discipline not to swing for the fences throughout the
song; she shapes the low-register passages with weight and body before
unleashing her full, stunning power for the high notes. As "Let It Go"
reaches its stirring conclusion, Menzel belts out, "Here I stand in the
light of day/Let the storm rage on, the cold never bothered me anyway."
In narrative terms, it's a princess jubilantly embracing her
identity as an outcast. In musical terms, it's the sound of triumph.
(Note: "Let It Go" is destined to be remembered by children for eons,
but I sincerely hope that it's Menzel's rendition (which appears in the
actual film) that receives countless downloads and satellite-radio
plays, rather than the slick Demi Lovato version (which plays over the
credits), which feels overproduced and inorganic. Lovato is a fine pop
singer with a decent voice, but there's a reason Menzel is a Broadway
superstar: She has a ferocious set of pipes, and the in-film version
wisely just stands back and bears witness as she lets it rip.)
MY IDEAL BALLOT
Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
The Great Gatsby—"Young and Beautiful" (Lana del Rey)
Her—"The Moon Song" (Karen O, Spike Jonze)
Short Term 12—"So You Know What It's Like" (Destin Daniel Cretton, Keith Stanfield)
Trance—"Here It Comes" (Emeli Sandé, Rick Smith)
"So You Know What It's Like"
is a single-take, a cappella showstopper, with young Keith Stanfield
delivering an angst-ridden rap that seethes with rage and confusion but
never panders or asks for sympathy. "Here It Comes"
nicely marries Rick Smith's trance beats with Emeli Sandé's full-bodied
vocals, resulting in something rather rare: operatic house music.
Those are both good songs, but the Academy's omission of Lana del Rey's
"Young and Beautiful" is downright criminal. Del Rey is often maligned
as a shallow songwriter, sometimes fairly, but she has a singular, husky
voice, and the song's apparent superficiality brilliantly complements The Great Gatsby's
obsession with wealth and opulence. It's also used to great effect in
the actual film, essentially signifying the apotheosis of the movie's
doomed courtship, and del Rey is the perfect cipher for that level of
materialistic grandeur. Whether voters were bamboozled by an alleged sabotage attempt
or simply turned off by the songstress' manufactured stardom, they
refused to acknowledge del Rey's undeniable talent and, in so doing,
failed their industry.
My ideal winner: Frozen—"Let It Go" (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez).