In a wild Oscars show, the music could’ve been wilder

John Legend performs a song from "La La Land" during the telecast of the 89th Academy Awards.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Pop Music Critic

Did the Oscars watch the Grammys this year?

That was one way to look at the wild — and undoubtedly conversation-starting — conclusion to Sunday’s 89th Academy Awards, in which presenter Faye Dunaway accidentally named “La La Land” best picture before her co-presenter, Warren Beatty, realized that “Moonlight” had in fact won the film industry’s most coveted prize.

The mix-up recalled this month’s Grammy Awards, which ended with a similar jolt when Adele said she couldn’t rightfully accept the trophy for album of the year since it meant she was taking it from Beyoncé.

In an increasingly crowded awards-show scene, it’s dramatic moments like these that producers value above all others.


And the Oscars definitely needed such a jolt.

Full coverage: 2017 Academy Awards »

Though the show featured plenty of real-deal pop stars — including Justin Timberlake, John Legend, Sting and Sara Bareilles — the musical portion of this year’s Oscars was mostly a snoozefest.

In part that may have been because the two musical categories — original score and original song — felt like a such a lock going into Sunday’s event.

As widely expected, “La La Land” took those two prizes — no surprise, given the movie musical’s recycling of a burnished Old Hollywood sound practically designed to appeal to aging film academy members.

Yet it wasn’t merely a lack of suspense that drained the energy from the show (at least until that unpredictable “Moonlight” finale).

The Oscars seemed also to emphasize a cool professionalism over the kind of heated spontaneity that can define a transcendent performance — especially at a moment as politically charged as this one.


Timberlake tried his best to kick things into gear with his opening performance of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from the animated movie “Trolls.” And any music fan had to appreciate his interpolation of a bit of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” whose bass line “Can’t Stop the Feeling” all but borrows.

But overall, Timberlake’s performance felt a bit too careful, as though he were (still!) trying to convince a roomful of grown-ups that he’s more than a teen-pop survivor — something his many successes (in both music and movies) should have done years ago.

A similar eagerness coursed through Auli’i Cravalho’s performance of “How Far I’ll Go,” the inspirational power ballad written by Lin-Manuel Miranda for the animated “Moana.”

But because her vocal was so beautifully assured — and because the 16-year-old is, y’know, an actual teen — you could forgive the stage-school polish.

Sting didn’t bring much to his performance of “The Empty Chair” — not even an empty chair.

Rather, the veteran English singer stood simply with an acoustic guitar and delivered his and composer J. Ralph’s tender folk ballad from “Jim: The James Foley Story,” about the journalist killed by members of the Islamic State in Syria in 2014.


A quote from Foley did flash across the screen at the end of the song in a seeming reference to President Trump’s combative attitude toward some journalists.

“If I don’t have the moral courage to challenge authority,” the words read, “we don’t have journalism.”

It was one of the night’s few moments of political expression from a big Hollywood star.

That left creamy-voiced crooner Legend to finish off the evening’s music with his rendition of two songs from “La La Land” (in which he plays a small role).

Some of the criticism sent that film’s way has had to do with the casting of two nonsingers in Emma Stone (who won the Oscar for lead actress) and Ryan Gosling.

And, sure enough, Legend made clear he could sing, showing off a range considerably wider than both actors’ put together.

But he also milked the emotion of “City of Stars” (which won original song) and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” in a way that made each feel slightly glib, as though he were showing off to his show-business peers rather than tapping into “La La Land’s” childish if well-meaning ideas about ambition and inspiration.


If only he’d known what was to come, Legend might’ve mustered some real feeling.

Twitter: @mikaelwood


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