Friday, February 10, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Original Song

Moana, which is nominated in the Best Original Song category

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Original Song

The nominees are:

“The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story
“Audition (Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land
“City of Stars” from La La Land
“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls

After a dire year last time around in this category, the music branch rights the ship with four excellent, deserving nominees and one that should be nowhere near a nomination but is at least a passably enjoyable song. So much goes wrong with the music categories each year – and I complain about it every time – it is genuinely surprising when the branch gets it right, or as close to right as they are likely to get.

Of course, these films made it easier than most. In the first place, you have a wildly popular, incredibly successful musical filled to the brim with original songs and dominating the awards race. It received two nominations, the maximum allowable under the rules. To fill out the category, try to grab the biggest stars you can because if nothing else, it will make for an entertaining performance at the ceremony, and boy, did they ever grab the biggest stars around.

My wish every year for this category is that the nominees reflect their importance to the films in which they appear, whether they are integral to the plot or simply evocative of the emotions at play. With one exception, once again, these songs pass that test with flying colors, and I am left with only praise for a branch I often find laughably out of touch and whose nominations are often downright preposterous. Okay, I suppose I had to get my shots in still, but this remains an excellent selection of nominees.

“Audition (Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land – This is going to sound hypocritical from someone who just called another group of people out of touch, but I don’t listen to the radio or even go to stores that often, so I have no idea what people are listening to when it comes to new music. However, I know La La Land is a popular film, and within that popular film, this is the most popular song. It also happens to be the song most integral to the film’s plot.

It is the turning point at the end of the film’s second act when the characters make decisions that will set them on the path to the film’s climax. In addition to being a catchy, important song within the context of the musical, the lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul perfectly capture the essence and themes of the film. Composer Justin Hurwitz builds the musical accompaniment to a glorious climax, and it becomes one of those “stand up in the theater and cheer” moments that are all too rare.

“City of Stars” from La La Land – All due respect to stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, whose performances are wonderful, but their voices do not hold up to the rigors of a musical. Stone performs admirably on “Audition,” but the deficiency is highlighted in the film’s ensemble numbers like “Another Day of Sun” and “Someone in the Crowd,” which are led by experienced musical performers. Ultimately, this does not affect the enjoyment of the film, but “City of Stars,” a duet between Gosling and Stone, loses some of its luster due to the only-passable voices of its singers.

In addition, while Hurwitz’s composition is used throughout as a key piece of underscoring, becoming a leitmotif for the film’s central couple, the song as a whole and its use in the film does not exactly cry out for recognition. Its most prominent placement is under a montage, and while it is effective, it is less effective than the film perhaps wants or even needs it to be.

“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana – I have written about this song before in some depth here, but it bears repeating just how revolutionary Lin-Manuel Miranda’s composition is in terms of Disney movies. For nearly 80 years, Disney movies have sold a certain version of young girls, and they have sold it successfully. Even those who break out of their shells tend to discover what they needed was “right here all along.” They often limit in the same breath as they empower. Not so with Miranda’s powerful ode to exploration and self-discovery.

Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a soul on a mission, and what she needs is not on her island but beyond the reef that surrounds it. It is somewhere out there, beyond anything she has ever known, and the beauty of the song is that it expresses the inner call she feels to discover whatever is waiting for her. She is conflicted, of course, caught between obligation and desire, but for once, the film does not argue for her duties and obligations but for her need to break free. Even “Let It Go,” from Frozen, the most popular Disney song in years, rings hollow in the context of the whole film. But, “How Far I’ll Go” is a mission statement and a blueprint for a heroine the likes of which we have rarely seen.

“Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls – Remember when I admitted above I do not listen to the radio? I don’t, but as soon as I heard this song, I felt I had heard it before. It has a classic, timeless pop feel to it, which makes sense, coming as it does from one of our foremost popular music artists, Justin Timberlake. Co-written with Max Martin and Shellback, two of the most successful songwriters and producers of the current century, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is disposable, bubble-gum pop at its finest.

How perfect it is then for this disposable, bubble-gum movie. Trolls is a mildly enjoyable children’s entertainment, but this song easily will be its longest-lasting cultural legacy. About a group of trolls who live by the credo “Hug, Dance, Sing” and teach a species of monsters how to find happiness through love – and music – “Can’t Stop the Feeling” is the film’s climax. Its entire payoff is predicated on the success of this song, and what do you know? It works. If the song does not quite reach the heights it purports to – teaching the power of love – it at least gets toes tapping and hips moving.

“The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story – The outlier here, the cynic in me wants to say this nomination only exists because the name Sting is attached to the credit, although co-songwriter J. Ralph is a three-time nominee himself. This is Sting’s fourth nomination but his first for a documentary, while J. Ralph has carved something of a niche composing songs for socially conscious documentaries (Racing Extinction and Chasing Ice before this).

Jim: The James Foley Story is an intimate, unflinching look at the life and death of conflict journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by members of ISIS in a now-infamous video. It is a worthwhile project, though the film does not perhaps tease out all the ideas it could from its subject matter given its narrow focus. Hopefully this nomination draws attention to the film and the issues it raises, but as a song that plays over the closing credits and accomplishes nothing the score could not, I cannot say I fully support its inclusion here. Plus, the song is just okay.

The final analysis

The only award La La Land is 100 percent certain to lose, that is only because both of its nominated songs cannot win – unless there is a tie, in which case we really would be in for an historic sweep. This probably does come down to “City of Stars” against “Audition,” and the latter simply has greater emotional impact within the film and is the more memorable composition.

Will win: “Audition (Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land
Should win: “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana
Should have been here: “Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street

Because it is a great song from a great movie and one of my favorites of last year, here is “Drive It Like You Stole It” from writer-director John Carney’s Sing Street:

Tomorrow: Best Original Screenplay

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