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The Best Song category at the Oscars has always seemed isolated from others. Frequently, films wouldn’t gain a foothold in this section if the movies otherwise steamrolled the nominations, like frontrunners American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave. As such, not only are those three films not participants among these five selections, but there is only one Best Picture honoree represented here.
This is one of the better years, however, particularly considering at some points the category would have only two to three nominations overall. There was a field of 60-plus contenders for Best Song, and even with that variety, Academy members often find themselves doubling down and including multiple songs from the same film. That wasn’t the case in 2013, as the voters truly spread the wealth, resulting in five very diverse, unexpected selections.
DARK HORSESThat being said, what the hell is Alone Yet Not Alone? In the biggest example of how sometimes Oscar voters aren’t at all paying attention, they lavished a nomination on songwriter Bruce Boughten (one previous nomination for the score to Silverado) for the title track to this Christian film that had to have been seen by zero Academy members. Songs from Inside Llewyn Davis were deemed ineligible because they contained the DNA of earlier, similar folk songs, but that was a film that focused primarily on music and used songs to advance the narrative. Why should something as funny and free-flowing as Please Mr. Kennedy be pushed aside for a song nominated strictly via friendly favors?
Academy rules suggest that a film needs to be released for one week in Los Angeles, and this film complied, though it did so with one daily showing over those seven days. There’s no real public record of the film’s overall release, apparently in the "heartland," though it did amass a $13k plus per-theater average. If that was in only one theater, then that box office tally is decent, if unremarkable. There’s also the public matter that Boughten, a former head of the Academy’s music branch, apparently cold-called voters, pushing them to vote in this direction. And if we must: the song is dreadful church-hymn garbage, the sort of Sunday afternoon pabulum you’d hear on Bible Belt radio in between pledge requests. The nomination is the win for this film, which opens in wider release later this year. If it garners enough support to take the category… well, if you take any Oscar voting seriously, that’s the sort of thing to make you want to stop.
The Weinsteins gambled hard on Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, hoping that there was a narrative that Oscar voters could support. And the Oscars responded with a resounding LOL NOPE and awarded them one nomination between the three movies, for Irish rock sensation U2’s sprawling Ordinary Love from Mandela. And as far as U2 songs, it doesn’t even sound like Coldplay, but rather tepid Coldplay soundalike Keane in its emphasis on a piano backbeat. U2 has contributed to several soundtracks, but this is one of their weakest additions, and it doesn’t even play during the movie, laid out in the end credits instead. Because voters are no longer watching the film, end credit songs tend to suffer, particularly when the film is as dry and pedestrian as Mandela, a check-the-boxes biopic that runs well over two hours. The combination of end-credits placement and a forgettable movie means that there’s no visual imagery to associate with the song other than Bono, which likely means the song’s chances are kaput.
CONTENDERSPharrell Williams is still new to movie music: he participated in the first Despicable Me and will contribute to this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But even though Happy from Despicable Me 2 is easily the bounciest and most joyful track among the nominees, Williams is definitely a guy who the voting branch will feel has to pay his dues. Despite the groundbreaking win for Theme From Shaft 40 years ago, this category remains hostile to R&B, and Williams’ relationship with the genre might actually hurt once the song is isolated from its family-friendly context.
But man, listen to that song. It immediately puts the listener in a great mood, doesn’t it? An up number from a hit animated movie (with a whole lotta handclaps!) would normally be a frontrunner in this category. Happy unfortunately suffers because, ultimately, it has very little bearing on the film, which is very much not a musical. Many children’s animated films are expected to feature characters that carry a tune, so the fact that none of them in Despicable Me 2 actually sing the song probably hurts its chances.
There’s a little extra juice to the odds for The Moon Song given that it emerges from Her, the sole Best Picture representative in this category. It’s a simple song with a lovely melody that emphasizes the emotional bond growing between Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore and Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha, and while you hear it in the film, it also earns a lovely reprieve during the credits thanks to Karen O. Music is a big part of the emotional architecture of Her, and savvy voters will likely know that singling out The Moon Song, as lovely as it is, somewhat minimizes the rest of the film’s sonic soundscape. Simply put, the song isn’t entirely indicative of the film’s spirit or its sound, and combined with the limited musicality of the tune (which will turn off some of the more hardcore voting musicians), it’s easy to predict this won’t be the evening’s big winner.
FRONTRUNNERWhen we’re talking Disney musicals, it’s almost like a bunch of people bringing pea shooters to a gunfight. Let It Go from Frozen is the most poppy and hard-charging of the tracks in this category, and it’s not only sung by the characters, but it greatly informs the story. Frozen has tunes that recall the Disney of the nineties, and this brassy show-stopper is the hit film’s highlight. And when the film is successful enough to dominate the box office from late November into the middle of January, having a musical moment that’s also a highlight certainly helps.
To win this category, a song doesn’t need to be a chart-topper, but it certainly helps. If Boughten made enough calls to get Alone Yet Not Alone, imagine how pushy Disney and its employees in the Academy sold their own product. Kids have been singing the song for months now, and the track even has the benefit of having a single version performed by Demi Lovato (the film version is sung by Idina Menzel). There’s a bit of awareness in regards to putting on a good show, and having Menzel on the program performing would be a bigger boost to the Academy and its ratings, particularly in specific demographics, than bringing Pharrell, Karen O. or the overexposed U2 to the stage.