From 'A Star Is Born' to 'Boy Erased': Breaking Down the Oscar Chances for 15 Original Songs
Blockbuster ballads, star-backed tunes and a few hidden gems all vie for the five original song spots.
The 15 original songs that landed on the Academy's Dec. 17 shortlist provide plenty of star-studded Oscar bait, with a few gems hidden in the bunch. The standout tunes from 2018 come from music-driven pictures like A Star Is Born as well as films that foregrounded black protagonists, including Black Panther, Quincy, Sorry to Bother You and Widows.
Among the familiar fare are a handful of songs that come off as more melodramatic or trailer-centric: Arlissa's "We Won't Move" from The Hate U Give, "Revelation" from Boy Erased by Troye Sivan and Jonsi (of Sigur Ros fame), and Jennifer Hudson's "I'll Fight" from RBG (written by nine-time nominee Diane Warren) don't always pack the inspiration they promise.
Walt Disney Studios' Mary Poppins Returns has two songs in the mix — "The Place Where Lost Things Go" and "Trip a Little Light Fantastic," both written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman — that sometimes feel like flattened sound-alikes of the indelible tunes from the original Julie Andrews vehicle.
Let's face it: No one can match Andrews' voice (although Emily Blunt's take was met with strong reviews). And Lin-Manuel Miranda's singing and dancing skills, on full display in his number, don't equal his powers as a writer and a creator. Likewise, Thom Yorke's "Suspirium," from Suspiria, can feel like a Thom Yorke B-side from the '00s but gets extra buzz from its association with the cult of Radiohead. These songs feel serviceable but bland. However, never underestimate the Academy's appetite to reward a star or a music legend.
Now, on to the most deserving candidates-to-be-candidates. Sampha turned in a low-flying piece called "Treasure" from Beautiful Boy that is sublime, ghostly and piano-drenched — basically that Thom Yorke song but soulful, good and a real earworm.
Disney has a much stronger contender in "A Place Called Slaughter Race" from Ralph Breaks the Internet. While not exactly revolutionary, with the vocal stylings of Sarah Silverman and Gal Gadot, the song by stalwart composer Alan Menken has a shot at being the comedic musical theater tune to sneak onto the Oscar ballot.
Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan delivered possibly the best stand-alone song — one that works regardless of its film — with "Keep Reachin' " from the documentary Quincy. Could it be a little too funky for the Academy? Similarly, the Coup's "OYAHYTT" from Boots Riley's surrealist class-conscious indie Sorry to Bother You brings hip-hop edge to the race, but might lose traction thanks to lyrics by the writer-director like "I'm Boots Riley, they ain't merc'd me yet / Gon' get shit popping like Percocet."
Sade's extra down-tempo banger "The Big Unknown" from Steve McQueen's Widows has the advantage of coming from an often elusive artist. Who wouldn't want to see Sade win an Oscar, even if that possibility is on the less likely side?
One of the favorites to receive a nomination is the Kendrick Lamar and SZA collaboration "All the Stars" from Black Panther, which rode the tide of the film's success — jibing effectively with its overall vision — to push through to the Academy's next round.
In the country department, Willie Watson and Tim Blake Nelson's "When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings" from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a strong genre contender, perhaps more so than Dolly Parton's "Girl in the Movies" from Dumplin', which — like the movie itself — has its charms but underwhelms as a whole.
Coming from one of the top film contenders, a clear frontrunner has been crowned in A Star Is Born's "Shallow," written by Lady Gaga with Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt.
Its performance is the high point of the movie, which is itself the pinnacle of the worlds of film, music and pop culture coming together this year. The moment arrives when Gaga's Ally walks onto the concert stage and sings this heart-melting duet with Bradley Cooper's Jackson Maine in front of a sold-out crowd. It perfectly captures that feeling of new love, before everything falls apart. It's electric, and this story of ill-fated music-star love echoed events in the real world, circa 2018 — witness the troubled and torrid romance between Offset and Cardi.
On paper, "Shallow" offers everything the Academy is looking for: big, sweeping, melodramatic, fundamentally cinematic moments. And it delivers in spades, making it a virtual lock for the final five and presenting a tough challenge for whichever tunes sit alongside it on the Oscar ballot.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.