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How Diane Warren saved her song in ‘The Life Ahead’ — and earned an Oscar nod

Songwriter Diane Warren
Songwriter Diane Warren, shown here in 2019, earned her 12th original song Oscar nomination for “Io Sì (Seen),” written for the Italian drama “The Life Ahead.”
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Diane Warren’s 12th Oscar-nominated song almost didn’t stay in the picture.

She heard about “The Life Ahead” before it was shot, and was moved by the story of a Holocaust survivor in Italy — played by screen legend Sophia Loren — who bonds with a young Senegalese boy named Momo. Warren proactively sought to work on the project and wrote a ballad of reassurance for guitar and female singer after reading the screenplay.

Director Edoardo Ponti, Loren’s son, loved the song — “Seen” — and invited Warren to the set in Bari, Italy. She soaked up the atmosphere and, naturally, asked Loren for a selfie. (The actress, 86, humbly declined, because she was playing her death scene that day and wasn’t wearing any makeup.)

Ponti later put Warren’s song on the edited film, but then she got a call that they were going to have to lose it.

“‘The song doesn’t work at all,’” she remembers hearing. “‘It’s really jarring in the movie.’ So we tried different arrangements and all that. And then all of a sudden I was like, ‘You know why it’s not working? The movie’s in Italian. Of course it’s going to be jarring to hear a song in English!’”

So she reached out to Laura Pausini.

Laura Pausini
Laura Pausini shares the Oscar nomination with Diane Warren.
(Paolo Carta )
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“She’s the biggest female singer in Italy, just like Sophia Loren’s the biggest movie star from Italy,” Warren says. “I thought that was a cool parallel.”

The Grammy-winning, chart-topping vocalist — who has drawn comparisons to Céline Dion — was contacted by Warren virtually in August in the middle of the pandemic. Pausini saw the film and responded to its message about the power of “found family,” an idea she wants to teach her daughter.

She, too, once felt invisible but “found the strength to be strong enough to believe in someone else, and I was born again,” says Pausini, who absorbed Warren’s English lyrics and personalized them in her native language.

Warren’s original words were a response to the script, where “I kept seeing the word ‘seen,’” she says. “We all want to be seen.”

“Seen” became “Io Sì” — which roughly translates to “I do” or “I will.” In Pausini’s Italian lyrics, the song declares: “When being invisible / Is worse than not being alive / No one sees you / I will.”

The aging prostitute and the young orphan clash at first but soon grow to see each other in a way that no one else does, and the song rides on the emotions of their story into the end credits. The final image in the film is of a lioness, an imaginary symbol of Momo’s departed mother, watching him from a cemetery.

Ponti felt that Warren’s song, now in Italian, worked so well that he dropped a concluding bit of narration and let the song speak instead.

Pausini’s intention was “to let Sophia’s character speak, in her very last statement of the movie, like a legacy of love. It was the biggest emotion for me, and the best way to find the right words to adapt Diane’s lyrics in Italian. It was an honor to be ‘the voice’ of this unbelievable actress and incredible woman.”
The song was produced by Greg Wells, and Warren wanted the arrangement to maintain a certain simplicity.

Ibrahima Gueye and Sophia Loren in the movie "The Life Ahead."
(Greta De Lazzaris/Netflix

)

“You can’t clutter this song up,” she says. “You want to hear the melody, you want to hear those words. You don’t want to hear a bunch of production.”

Warren has become a fixture at the Academy Awards — she’s hoping this 12th time’s the charm — and even though she’s written radio hits for everyone from LeAnn Rimes (“How Do I Live”) to Céline Dion (“Because You Loved Me”) to Cher (“If I Could Turn Back Time”), she’s become a specialist in writing songs for movies.

Her dozen Oscar nominations include Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from “Armageddon,” Faith Hill’s “There You’ll Be” from “Pearl Harbor” and Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” from the 2015 documentary “The Hunting Ground.”
“I think I’m good at getting to the emotional truth, or the emotional core of a movie, with songs I write for them,” Warren says. “I think it’s just an instinct. And I love doing it.”

She also recognizes that not all of the films she contributes to are created equal — and only one of them has starred Sophia Loren. On a recent Zoom panel, the actress floored Warren when she said “Io Sì” was the most beautiful song she’d heard in her life.

That’s almost better than an Oscar, isn’t it?

“Yeah, it’s close,” Warren says with a laugh. “Can I have both?”


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