Front-runners in the Oscar best song race


American Gangster (Universal)

"Do You Feel Me"
Written by Diane Warren, performed by Anthony Hamilton

Backstory: It was Universal's president of film music, Kathy Nelson, who tapped Warren to pen an original song for "American Gangster." This should come as no surprise as Warren has garnered Oscar noms for her songs from Universal's "Armageddon" (1998) and "Pearl Harbor" (2001). The surprise, however, comes from Warren's musical departure. "Kathy called me about this movie and said she needed something with more of a retro-soul feel," recalls Warren. "I'm known for the big ballads, but I've also written other types of songs people wouldn't normally associate me with. So I tapped into my Al Green side. This is was a very different type of movie for me to write for." Inspiration: "Do You Feel Me" plays out over the scene where Frank Lucas first sees the woman he's going to marry. "I want people to hear the song and relate to it," says Warren. "Because everybody at one time or another has the same feeling -- that 'you're not sure how someone else is feeling' feeling, and you wish you could just read their mind." The Hook: "Definitely that certain '70s era of songwriting. It was a very cool collaboration between producer Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy), the soul singer Anthony Hamilton and me -- the person known for big movie ballads."

August Rush (Warner Bros.)

Written and performed by John Legend
Backstory: All it took for Legend was one look at a highlight reel to know he wanted to work on the film. "The music is the center and core of the plot of the film," he says. "From the footage, I got the spirit of the film. It seemed like an interesting project with a compelling story, so it didn't take much. I sat at the piano and started composing." Inspiration: "The whole film is about three people who became separated and have to find their way back to each other. I wanted the song to have a sense of longing with a soaring chorus. It appears in the end sequence of the film." The Hook: "The chorus. It's simple and direct and has an anthemic quality to it. I even based the key of the song on the same key as the score so to create a seamless transition between the two. I wanted to match the final image of the film with the song, which has a sweeping feeling to it, with all the emotional buttons that are pushed -- I wanted it to correspond with that."

Beowulf (Paramount)

"A Hero Comes Home"
Written by Glen Ballard and Alan Silvestri, performed by Idina Menzel (Robin Wright Penn in the film)

Backstory: The team who scored a nom with the song "Believe" from 2004's "Polar Express" reunited with director Robert Zemeckis on another mocap adventure that was two years in the making. "Being part of the vision that Bob has had for this project from the beginning has been amazing. It's very inspiring," says Ballard. Inspiration: "The song had to function as both a prophecy and as a seduction. When Beowulf comes to save the kingdom from the monster, Robin Wright Penn's character sings the song as a cautionary tale. 'A hero can pay a price for their glory,' she sings. Bob also showed us early on some incredible drawings of what this movie was going to look like, and that too fueled our inspiration." The Hook: "Idina Menzel. Her voice can carry the epic qualities of the song, and there is also a bittersweetness to the subtext of the song that she carries beautifully." Silvestri and Ballard also used a translation of Beowulf from Seamus Heaney as the basis for the song's rhythm.

The Bucket List (Warner Bros.)

Written and performed by John Mayer

Backstory: "(Director) Rob Reiner brought me on to the project, and it was a huge compliment to be on his radar. I read the script and liked the role of the song in the film. I found myself relating to the movie and jumped at the chance to be a songwriter for it. He gave me no direction for the song, which is the ultimate compliment and the ultimate challenge," Mayer explains. "Everything about the song is completely engineered for the movie. This was absolutely starting from emotional ground zero, watching the movie and reading the script. The song is married to the film." Inspiration: "The tone of the film. Everything about the movie was so authentic, so I tried to write a song from that place of authenticity. I tried a dozen different approaches to the song, and as you try different approaches, you find themes that are always present, and the theme here in the movie is, 'Don't waste any more time.'" The Hook: "This song is from the heart and from the gut. It tears at your heart but doesn't try to hang from it," says Mayer, who collaborated with composer Marc Shaiman on the tune. "Who better to help with the string section than the guy who wrote the score? He helped musically tie the two together."

Dan in Real Life (Disney)

"To Be Surprised," "I'll Be OK" and "My Hands Are Shaking"
Written and performed by Sondre Lerche

Backstory: "Dan in Real Life" director Peter Hedges followed a less formulaic approach by attaching 25-year-old Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche to the film's score. "Although it wasn't a musical, I worked with the actors during production," recalls Lerche. "For me it was an unusual way to score a Hollywood film. I even coached Steve (Carell) on how to look like he was playing guitar for the scene where he and Dane (Cook) sing their version of my song 'Let My Love Open the Door.'" Inspiration: "The inspiration for all the songs was Dan," says Lerche succinctly. The Hook: "The romantic element. And this film is about love at first sight. Peter wanted a song to be a part of that kick-start to the film. 'To Be Surprised' is where the film really starts. 'I'll Be OK' plays during the scene where Dan first meets Maria. It seemed to sum up how Dan is feeling. He's a positive guy who is being challenged. And for 'My Hands Are Shaking,' the song appears after Dan keeps hitting low point after low point."

Enchanted (Disney)

"Happy Working Song," "That's How You Know" and "So Close"
Written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, performed by Amy Adams

Backstory: After eight years in development at Disney, "Enchanted" finally came to life. "I thought it was such a clever idea, but for a time it didn't seem like it was in the cards," recalls Schwartz. "Disney wasn't planning on 'Enchanted' being a musical. There was only going to be one song in the animated portion. But right before it went into production, we got it." Inspiration: Both Schwartz and Menken say they drew their inspiration from the decades of rich Disney musicals and, of course, the script. "Director Kevin Lima was very clear about what he was looking for; in fact, there were songs written into the script at the time without a title or lyrics," says Schwartz. The Hook: "For 'Happy Working Song,' there was already that notion that Giselle would call to her animal friends in New York City, and New York City-type animals would show up -- as opposed to the cute little bunnies or blue birds you would expect to see in a Disney film -- and then break into song. 'So Close' would send up (1991's) 'Beauty and the Beast,' not only the music but with the camera moves. 'That's How You Know' is the big number. We decided to slightly send up the Disney animation production numbers conceived in the world of 'Under the Sea,'" explains Schwartz. Menken adds, "'That's How You Know' has a great build. You have the melody, and then a counter melody, and then a third counter melody -- and in many ways this is the heart of the film. It's a musical illustration of how this joyous attitude Giselle brings with her is contagious. Literally."

Grace Is Gone (the Weinstein Co.)

"Lullaby for Wyatt"
Written and performed by Sheryl Crow

Backstory: "(Director) James (Strouse) and I discussed the song and the scene over the phone," recounts Crow. "He expressed that he wanted the song to paint the picture of how painful it might be to experience such grief. He hoped the song might be beautiful but somber." Inspiration: "I wrote 'Lullaby for Wyatt' after having watched 'Grace Is Gone.' My son Wyatt was 3 weeks old. The theme of the movie -- the idea that as parents, we want to protect our children from hurt and loss -- really moved me to write the lullaby. It plays over the scene where John's character is driving while his daughters sleep in the backseat, (so a lullaby seemed appropriate)." The Hook: "The hook asks the question, 'How do we protect our young from all the painful moments that life will hand them?'"

"Grace Is Gone"
Written by Clint Eastwood and Carole Bayer Sager, performed by Jamie Cullum

Backstory: Clint Eastwood, who has worked with Carole Bayer Sager in the past on a Diana Krall song, was responsible for bringing the Oscar winner on board. Inspiration: Bayer Sager, who has had six Oscar noms and one win, says the inspiration for her lyrics was basic but powerful. "The horrifying concept of telling one's children that their mother or their father was killed in war and that they won't be coming home, that to me is so tragic," explains Bayer Sager. "What I particularly loved about the film, along with John Cusack's very sensitive performance, was that they really made an anti-war film without ever hammering on the war." The Hook: "Eastwood's melody," she says. "It's haunting -- somewhat pop, somewhat jazz."

The Golden Compass (New Line)

Written and performed by Kate Bush

Backstory: "I was asked to write the song, and I was very excited because I'm a huge fan of the books," says British singer-songwriter Bush. "One of the producers, Ileen Maisel, asked me, and I was very enthusiastic to be a part of the project." Inspiration: "The books," says Bush, who as both fan and friend of "His Dark Materials" author Philip Pullman, was able to quickly sketch an outline for the song. "The song is about Lyra and her journey. I wanted the song to reflect what had happened in the film, which is what I feel an end-title song should be. I knew that with this fantastic story that the film would be good. Beyond a fantastic story, the books are beautifully written, and that's what makes the books so special." The Hook: "I used a choir as well as a keyboard synthesizer," says Bush, adding that the real hook is "this extraordinary little girl."

Hairspray (New Line)

"Come So Far (Got So Far to Go)"
Written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, performed by Queen Latifah, Nikki Blonsky, Zac Efron and Elijah Kelley

Backstory: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman joke that "It's a law," when adapting a popular musical for the screen, "you must write a new song." But all joking aside, it was the serious talent at their disposal that moved the pair to pen another toe-tapping musical number. "Because the credits don't roll at the beginning of the film," Shaiman explains, "the end-title sequence was created as a real curtain call for all the performers, so it gave us this opportunity. The opportunity being that the song could actually be an overview of what the basic ideas are of 'Hairspray.'" Inspiration: Wittman says, "It came from the five years of being around Broadway and listening to comments." Shaiman adds, "We would hear, 'Isn't it fun to look at all those crazy hair styles and those clothes that we wore?'" Wittman goes on to say, "We got a beautiful letter once from a woman who had seen the show with her children, and the children were asking her, 'Was that real? Were blacks and whites not allowed to dance together? Seems silly now.'" The Hook: "The passing of the (lyrical) baton," says Shaiman, who had to ask himself, "Is this key going to work for all four people?" "When we wrote the song, they were all off on different projects. So I wrote the song, then demo'd it, then sent it out to all the performers, and then recorded all four people separately."

Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage)

"Guaranteed" and "Rise"
Written and performed by Eddie Vedder

Backstory: At first, Vedder didn't really see his music in Sean Penn's adaptation of "Into the Wild," the story of privileged Chris McCandless, who abandoned society to wander America. "I got a call from Sean and he just said, 'Have you read this book?' and 'I want to show you this movie,'" explains Vedder. "When he showed it to me, it was great. I didn't see why he needed any help with it -- didn't seem to be anything missing. There was already good music in it, but Sean said just go with it ... see what happens." Inspiration: "If you read the book, one thing that comes screaming through is that this young man is probably the last guy that would ever want a movie written about him, certainly not a commercial feature that was blown out of proportion." The Hook: "There was a motivation to get different sounds than we normally would. I kind of grabbed everything I had from the house, then even looked into getting a couple other instruments that I'd never even laid hands on before, like a mandolin."

Written by Jerry Hannan, performed by Eddie Vedder

Backstory: Jerry Hannan came on board after seeing a rough cut of the film and handed in "Society" a few days later. "Once I saw the movie, the song came to me quickly," says Hannan. When discussing who should sing the song, Vedder seemed a natural. "His name came up and I thought, 'Yeah. Of course.' I met Eddie the night before recording the song, and we had a great recording session that was one of the easiest recording sessions I've ever had. It was very raw and there was a lot of magic in the recording. He breathed so much life into the song." Inspiration: "I don't really get along with society myself," Hannan explains, "so the film really struck a chord with me. This one nails the feeling on its head." The Hook: "I originally recorded it on a steel-string guitar, but that sounded a bit rough so I switched to nylon (strings). I wanted the song to sound ambient, dark and mellow. The hook of the song is about the main character trying to reject and make peace with society at the same time. I tried to keep the song simple and use silence to make that point."

The Last Mimzy (New Line)

"Hello (I Love You)"
Written by Howard Shore and Roger Waters, performed by Waters

Backstory: How do you get Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame to write a song for your movie? If you're director and New Line executive Bob Shaye, you simply ask. "Last year Bob asked if I would be interested in co-writing a song with Howard Shore for a movie he was directing," recounts Waters. "I really like doing things other than my own work, particularly if it is something like a song and working with other musicians. Howard and I had a very easy collaboration. Howard is a great composer, and the 'Lord of the Rings' soundtrack was stunning." Shore adds that there are very few situations that afford a composer like himself and a rock icon like Waters the opportunity to collaborate. Inspiration: "Childhood innocence," says Waters. "I feel that we're all born pure, and we become tainted by the world we discover. All our lives are a struggle to retain the purity that we were born with, and that's sort of what the movie as well as the song is about. The song has a few references to my work with Pink Floyd. The lyrics of the song fit the melody and they fit the movie as well. The question applies to the core of the film." The Hook: Shore and Waters used a whisper from the film's Rhiannon Leigh Wryn as a lead-in to the song, which touches on themes of childhood and innocence. "It's about expressing love rather than negativity -- that's the message."

Love in the Time of Cholera (New Line)

"La Despedida"
Written by Shakira and Antonio Pinto, performed by Shakira

Backstory: "I was originally approached by (director Mike Newell) to be an actress in the movie. But I was in the middle of my tour so it was not possible," says Colombian pop star Shakira. "(Gabriel) Garcia Marquez also called me at that time and said he wanted me to be part of the project in some capacity. I can only say I did this project with a great amount of devotion for Garcia Marquez and my country." Inspiration: "'La Despedida' was my first reaction to the film. It is very reminiscent of the old city of Cartagena (Colombia) -- the Cartagena that Garcia Marquez fell in love with, the Cartagena that I'm in love with. This song is a farewell song; it's a song about loss and death. So writing it has been like exercising one of my biggest fears: Losing those who are close to my heart. A very therapeutic exercise, but producing it has been an adventure." The Hook: "I wanted to make it simple: Just use the voice -- because the voice helps to carry the lament of love and death -- and a few folk instruments. I was trying to bring to this song a sentiment that has existed for centuries. I decided to go with a vintage analog recording and use some trumpets reminiscent of the beginning of the century and the Caribbean sound of that time. That's how it all started. Experimenting with indigenous sounds and instruments of that region: the bombo del guerrero, bombo de caja, de chilango -- which are the roots and the heart of Latin American folk."

Meet the Robinsons (Disney)

"Little Wonders"
Written and performed by Rob Thomas

Backstory: "Disney approached me at a very early stage in the film, showing me just how integral they thought the music was going to be to the film," says Thomas. "And more specifically, how integral this song was going to be to the film. I wrote it with the idea of having someone else sing the song, but I became attached to it, and it became my own." Inspiration: "It's about an orphan trying to find out who his parents are as well as trying to save the world -- all great Disney stuff. I was trying to figure out where to go with it, and I was walking my dog and had just had the worst day. I started singing this little melody in my head, and I looked at my dog that was just the happiest thing in the world, looking up with this big smile. And I was thinking, 'I want to be like that.'" The Hook: "It's simple; it's, 'These little wonders in these small hours,' which basically means the little things in life that you could be missing while you're waiting for the big things to happen."

Once (Fox Searchlight)

"Falling Slowly" and "If You Want Me"
Written and performed by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova

Backstory: Director John Carney and Glen Hansard, two old friends, started off together in the popular Irish band the Frames several years ago. "We discussed working together again for years. John came to me and asked me to go over this idea he had for a film," recalls Hansard of his ex-bassist, adding, "The script at the time was a 16-page outline for a film. He asked me to write a couple of songs. Later John asked me to be in the film, which was amazing." Inspiration: "The music. It is a film where music takes up 60% of the screen time. If you don't like the music in the film, you probably won't like the film. The Hook: "In 'Falling Slowly,' it is the falsetto which was inspired by the idea of someone missing his girlfriend, and then you meet someone new. It's a simple idea -- his relationship is falling apart but there is a new girl." Hansard describes "If You Want Me" as the soul of the film: "This is really (Marketa's) song. It was a song John had a very specific idea of how it should sound. It's Mar's character's rebuttal to my character's insecurity. We finished the song on the day we shot the scene, which was a lot of pressure."

Ratatouille (Disney/Pixar)

"Le Festin"
Written by Michael Giacchino, performed by Camille

Backstory: "I have never written a song for a film like this," concedes Giacchino. "So when Brad said we were going to do this, I said, 'Great. Brad, you and I can write the lyrics to it,' and he said, 'No, I'm busy on the film -- you write it.'" Inspiration: "I wrote this theme that I thought would be happy, but it ended up being this very yearning melody, which ended up being the main theme, and out of that theme came 'Le Festin.'" Who would sing it was Giacchino's next challenge. "Disney in Europe had put together this list of artists and all of them were top 10 'American Idol'-type winners -- very commercial list of names. I'd hated the idea of the commercial route with this thing, so I went home and I typed 'female French vocalist' into Google and up came tons of people along with Camille's site." The Hook: "I wanted to keep it simple, and I wanted to use Camille as a background voice as well to create interesting harmonies. We used the accordion on the song and did something interesting -- different sounds that kind of sound like the accordion, but kind of like a clarinet."

Walk Hard (Sony)

"Beautiful Ride"
Written by Dan Bern and Mike Viola, performed by John C. Reilly

Backstory: As part of the Apatow camp, Dan Bern was involved with "Walk Hard" from the start. "I had a basic outline and notion of the character from the early stages of the project, which was good because the songs helped shape the character," says Bern, who worked with Mike Viola on "Beautiful Ride." Viola, who provided the vocals on the 1997 song nom "That Thing You Do," recalls the day he met Bern: "I was put in a room with him and a few guitars. We were asked to write the song that sums up not only the whole picture but Dewey's whole philosophy. Dan had a pile of lyrics. We cranked out 'Beautiful Ride' in less than an hour. We felt pretty great about that!" Inspiration: "Jake said it should sum up Dewey Cox's whole life but not be a joke," says Viola. "It should stand alone as a legit song." The Hook: "Groping after Orbison," says Viola.

"Walk Hard"
Written by Marshall Crenshaw, John C. Reilly, Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan, performed by Reilly
Backstory: "When the project was explained to me, I dug it right away," says Marshall Crenshaw. "I thought that Jake and Judd had picked a worthy target for satire (musical biographies). As soon I read the part where Dewey cuts his brother in half with a machete, I thought, 'This looks like a winner.'" Inspiration: "The movie is first and foremost a comedy. But it's also a story about somebody trying to rise from the bottom, defeat adversity, etc. So the song is humorous, but it also expresses emotion, I think. When you first hear the song in the film, it's supposed to be around 1959-61, so I tried to make it feel like a classic song from that period. When I turned in my first demo of the song it was about 2.5 minutes long; they wanted it to be longer, and that's when the four of us started collaborating. John C. came up with the spoken-word part." The Hook: "There's a riff that opens the song, and that had to be real distinctive, like a signature riff -- the kind of thing where if you were a guest on 'The Mike Douglas Show' they'd use it as your walk-on music."

"Let's Duet"
Written by Charlie Wadhams and Benji Hughes, performed by John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer

Backstory: "I loved the script and all of the people involved. John C. Reilly, Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow are some heavy names, and I wanted to play with the big dogs," says Wadhams. Inspiration: "I tried to imagine that I was a country singer who hadn't been laid in a long time." The Hook: "The hook is simply 'Let's duet,' which can mean whatever you want it to."

Waitress (Fox Searchlight)

"Baby Don't you Cry (The Pie Song)"
Written by Andrew Hollander and Adrienne Shelly, performed by Quincy Coleman (Keri Russell in the film)

Backstory: Having been good friends for many years, Andrew Hollander and "Waitress" writer-director-actor Adrienne Shelly worked together on various shorts and features before she was murdered Nov. 1, 2006, in New York. "We were really close," recalls Hollander. "When she had a script done, she would send it to me and we would start kicking around some ideas." Inspiration: "Baby Don't You Cry" is a lullaby Keri Russell's character sings to her daughter in the body of the film, a song she had heard from her mother. Hollander says old standards were the inspiration for the song. He says they wanted "Baby" to feel as though it's been around for decades while still remaining relevant. "Whether you hear it today or 100 years from now, it still resonates for people." The Hook: "Quincy Coleman," says Hollander. "The movie had such an organic feel to it that cutting the track live seemed to fit perfectly. We wanted the heart and soul of the playing to come through, and you can hear the personality of everyone who played on the track."