U2, Pharrell Williams and Karen O -- names more befitting of Grammy nominations than the Oscars -- are among the contenders for the Academy Award for original song. Here, the heavy-hitters are all underdogs, as they will have to vie for Oscar gold on March 2 with “Let it Go,” the scene-stealing statement of tuneful independence that serves as a turning point in Disney’s animated phenom “Frozen."
The tune was written by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, veterans of the stage who brought a Broadway-worthy moment to “Frozen.” The song cleverly wraps feelings of relief, stubbornness and autonomy in slow-building orchestral grandeur. It’s old-fashioned Disney tradition in sound, but less so in tone, as “Let it Go” is the moment a not-so-typical princess discovers the fear and courage of going it alone.
It’s a powerful song, and the clear front-runner in a category that continues to take steps out of near irrelevance. Oscar watchers may furrow their brows at the appearance of the virtually unknown title track from “Alone Yet Not Alone” earning a nod, or wonder why Keith Stanfield’s bracing rap from “Short Term 12" is missing, but when it comes to a category that just three years ago was an also-ran, baby steps are victorious ones.
A smaller musical movie moment, such as a song that’s used as a ukulele duet between a lonely man and a computer operating system, is the sort often overlooked by film academy voters. Karen O’s “The Moon Song” from Spike Jonze’s “Her” is equal parts odd, lonesome and distant. City sounds are heard in the background, and there’s a slight echo to O’s voice, as if she were baring her soul to an empty room.
Despite the accolades for “Her,” which also received a best picture nomination this morning, this was no sure bet. Collaborations between Jonze and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s frontwoman have been overlooked before (see the whimsical “All Is Love” from “Where the Wild Things Are”), and there was a crowded field this year with recognizable artists raising their hands. Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Golden Globe winner Alex Ebert were among those vying for Oscar attention.
Yet credit academy voters, albeit tentatively, for moving away from songs tacked on to a film’s end credits. “Let It Go” is integral to the evolution of “Frozen,” a song that’s a plot device as much as it is a character study, and “The Moon Song” brings awkwardly harmonious humanity to the most unconventional of love stories. Both films would suffer dearly without them.
Considering that two years ago academy voters could find only two songs worthy of consideration -- the borderline novelty “Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets” and children’s party sing-along “Real in Rio” from “Rio” -- it’s a relief to see recognition for works that so closely match the tone of a film, especially one as melancholic as “The Moon Song.’” But that doesn’t mean Oscar voters are suddenly no longer tone-deaf, just slightly less so.
Perhaps the argument voters will make for including the namesake song from “Alone Yet Not Alone,” a film that’s hard to find even with the all-knowing power of Google to help, is that the song is said to play a major role in the picture. One won’t find many reviews of the flick online, but there are “endorsements” from U.S. politicos such as Rick Santorum and Shirley Dobson, chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, on the film’s official site.
The song from the Christian film, based on a period novel by Tracy Leininger Craven, is composed by Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel. Said to be a recurring theme throughout the film, the song is a spiritual tome that tries to move by simply being reverential.
Why it’s nominated and not, say, the more mournful yet communal spiritual from “12 Years a Slave,” or Stanfield’s aforementioned heart-wrenching rap from “Short Term 12,” is puzzling, but it’s not impossible to form a plausible theory.
Broughton is a well-known industry name who has multiple Emmy awards and a prior Oscar nomination for his score to “Silverado.” If that alone wasn’t enough to put him on the radar of voters, he has also served as a governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and is a former chair of the music branch (a spokesman for the composer says he’s about three years removed from that role).
What’s more, William Ross, who composed the score for the film, has served as music director for the Academy Awards show now three times. Unfair as it may be, it’s hard to overlook such connections when the film virtually came out of nowhere to score an Oscar nomination.
Its inclusion is questionable, and evidence that strides still need to be made when it comes to the Oscar song field. Although “Short Term 12" may not be a household name, one didn’t have to dig deep to find unconventional songs worthy of consideration. Take, for instance, M83’s “Oblivion” from the movie of the same name, a song marked by melodic gusts and luminous electronics.
But for every award show there must be a few steps forward along with those that head in the opposite direction, and Williams’ “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2" can help cleanse the palate. It’s feather-light compared to the other animated number in this category, but it’s decorated with a low-key soul groove and understated keyboard shading. It’s a buoyant, feel-good summer song at its most chill.
The field is rounded out by U2’s “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” The song won the corresponding category at the Golden Globes, but there’s typically zero-to-little overlap in which songs top each ceremony.
It’s a long-shot, but not because this is the sort of B-level arena rock song U2 can churn out with ease. “Ordinary Love” feels removed from the score and the film (it arrives at the end credits), and its presence here is a mix of the band’s superstar status and the group’s good intentions.
Plenty will cry foul with these nominations, wondering why Lana Del Rey’s snoozy and gaudy “Young and Beautiful” wasn’t recognized, or why the pop trifle “Sweeter than Fiction,” Swift’s addition to “One Chance,” was overlooked. Thanks, but one princess is enough, and three out of five isn’t bad.
Ultimately, when it comes to Oscars and music, those who are still patiently awaiting the Academy Awards to validate this little celebrated art form should heed a piece of advice from the song that will likely and deservedly win this year’s Oscar: Let it go.