Stevie Wonder, Adam Levine and Pharrell Williams could join the original song race

Stevie Wonder, Adam Levine and Pharrell Williams could join the original song race
Stevie Wonder and Arianna Grande, who collaborate on the song "Faith" which is in the movie "Sing." (Illustration by Ken Fallin / For The Times)

When it comes to contenders for the original song Oscar, the limelight is on "Moana" and "La La Land," both sporting multiple contenders. There is the usual array of anthems – "Try Everything" from "Zootopia," Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling" from "Trolls," so many others – and novelty candidates (notably from the Lonely Island soundtrack for "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping" and the Alan Mencken-composed, very blue "The Great Beyond" from "Sausage Party"). Alicia Keys' "Back to Life" from "Queen of Katwe" and Florence + the Machine's alt-rock "Wish That You Were Here" from "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" also deserve a listen.

And then there are these diverse and most worthy contenders:


The animated "Sing" is a delirious jukebox spinning more than 60 pop favorites. But it's the ebullient "Faith," one of two original compositions, that marks the return to movie music after 20 years for Stevie Wonder.

Mike Knobloch, president of film music and licensing for Universal Pictures, says it was an event just to have Wonder in the studio with duet partner Ariana Grande and co-writer and producer Ryan Tedder (Francis Farewell Starlite also co-wrote).  "He would do a take, someone would hit stop on the Pro Tools, and the whole room – there would be this explosion of 'Holy crap,' witnessing something you've only known from, you know, you drop a needle on a record, you've grown up with it," Knobloch says.

"Ariana was in the booth, crying. She'd reach for her phone and you'd think, 'Oh, who's she texting?' She was texting her mom, who was on the other side of the glass: 'I can't even handle this.' She had her arm wrapped around Stevie so tight, she wouldn't let go."

For James Schamus' thoughtful adaptation of Philip Roth's "Indignation," he needed someone to help steep the film musically in the tony 1950s. He picked Jay Wadley, a 33-year-old with a background in classical composition. "In college and in high school, I was into Jerome Kern and Cole Porter," says Wadley. "I loved Sinatra. We listened to a little Dinah Shore, Patti Page. It just had to be absolutely period, something that was authentically playing on the radio."

Schamus and Wadley wrote a song so torchy it smolders. "Is It Love," sung by Jane Monheit, sounds as if it were conducted by Nelson Riddle.

"The first place I came up with the tune was on the subway, singing it into my iPhone," Wadley says, laughing. He says recording the song "was one of the most purely joyful experiences of the whole project. It was the very last thing we did on the last day. We hadn't heard it with a live orchestra, and when it came through the speakers, we all just kind of erupted with joy."

Pharrell William
Pharrell William (Ken Fallin / For The Times)

Superstar composer-producer-performer Pharrell Williams, a 2014 nominee for the ubiquitous "Happy," summoned the roof-raising "I See a Victory" for "Hidden Figures." The film tells the story of three female, African American mathematicians who were instrumental in the space race.

"I needed something that matched the confidence and determination of [the women] Katherine, Dorothy and Mary," says Williams. "These women did not let anything get in their way, including the gender and racial politics of the time. I wanted the song to serve as an auditory example of their strength, and hope audiences will feel uplifted and inspired by its jubilation.

"Kirk Franklin added his signature touch to writing the choir harmonies. He's like a magician; it was super-inspiring to see how he helped make the song really soar to a new level," Williams added.

Williams recruited jazz gospel singer Kim Burrell: "She's your favorite singer's favorite singer; just ask Beyoncé. I needed a voice that could hit the three-pointer with just seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter. She's a unicorn."

Adam Levine
Adam Levine (Illustration by Ken Fallin / For The Times)

John Carney's films have a good track record in this category, having scored previous nominations for "Lost Stars" (from "Begin Again") and "Falling Slowly" (from "Once"), which won in 2008. For his semi-autobiographical "Sing Street," he recruited collaborators including Gary Clark, best known as part of the '80s band Danny Wilson ("Mary's Prayer"), to write for teen protagonists just discovering their musical talents in 1980s Dublin.

"Apart from addressing story needs, the only thing I go on is whether I like the song or not," says Carney. "A film to me is as personal as an album – and I just couldn't stand by an ugly song, even if it served the drama.

"Some are based on ideas I wrote in my actual school band, updated and bent into shape to serve the story."

The resulting score is dotted with gems, including the dizzy-in-love "Up" and the youth-empowerment anthem "Drive It Like You Stole It." Then there's the gentle emancipation of "Go Now" (no not the Moody Blues song; sung by Adam Levine and written by Levine, Carney and "Falling Slowly" co-writer Glen Hansard) and the tender "To Find You."


"I think 'Go Now' has a beautiful vocal by Adam, and, apart from driving the film to its conclusion — the idea that the lyrics are written by [the protagonist's] brother — it's a song that stands up on its own.

"'To Find You,' by Gary, is as good a love song as you'll ever find," says Carney. Its humble piano accompaniment delicately surprises, while the lyrics convey youthful devotion mixed with acknowledgment of a painful past: "So bring the lightning, bring the fire, bring the fall / I know I'll get my heart through / Got miles to go but from the day I started crawlin' / I was on my way to find you."

"The only brief for the songwriting in this film was to try to catch that sense of youthful delusion and fearless experimentation," says Carney. "That's something a lot of us lose when we grow up – but as the brother says in the movie, 'Art is a risk: You risk being ridiculed.' "