(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
This year's Academy Award nominees for best original song are a mix of old and new. Songs by Beyonce, Billie Eilish and Lin-Manuel Miranda are squaring off against tunes by boomer mainstays Van Morrison and Diane Warren.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
They're all emotional songs, which is no surprise, though some are more anthemic than others. But whichever original song takes home the Academy Award this year, it stands to make some kind of Oscars history, including a possible EGOT. I'm Stephen Thompson.
WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about this year's Oscar-nominated original songs on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WELDON: OK, it's just the two of us today. Original song's always been kind of a weird category because a lot of the time the songs can seem kind of shoehorned into a movie, especially if they play over the closing credits, as they do in a couple instances here. So that can't help but feel a little thirsty, like the melodic equivalent of a for your consideration billboard. Stephen, what do you make of this year's original songs category overall?
THOMPSON: Well, this was bound to be a highly competitive category this year, in part because so many major best original song-type movies didn't come out last year. Usually, this category has at least one big Disney heavy hitter. It has a big blockbuster. And we didn't get very many of those last year. So for example, what would have been last year's front-runner - "No Time To Die" by Billie Eilish - came out in February 2020 as a single. That was supposed to be accompanying a movie that was pushed to this year. So you kind of have a little bit of a pileup this year where you've got heavy hitter after heavy hitter after heavy hitter. So you've got Beyonce competing against Billie Eilish competing against a Disney juggernaut, you know, kind of all vying for supremacy. So it's a very, very competitive category this year.
WELDON: It really is, and let's start with the Disney juggernaut. "Dos Oruguitas" is not the song from "Encanto" that everyone's talking about, which, of course, is a song about someone that everyone is not talking about. It's written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, performed by Sebastian Yatra. If he wins, Lin-Manuel Miranda would be the 17th person to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. This is the EGOT we were talking about. I think we both agree, Stephen, he probably should've EGOTed (ph) for "How Far I'll Go" from "Moana" because that was the year that "City Of Stars" won. Talk to me about "Dos Oruguitas."
THOMPSON: Well, it is part of a Disney juggernaut. And I do think the fact that the "Encanto" soundtrack has taken off the way it has does give this track a certain amount of momentum. There is a lot of goodwill around Lin-Manuel Miranda in the movie industry. He has become a go-to songwriter for Disney. "Tick, Tick... Boom!" was also extremely well-regarded. He directed that. I mean, it's Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lin-Manuel Miranda is not widely hated, right? So I think there is a certain amount of heat under this song.
To me, this is very much a two-horse race in terms of what is actually going to win. And I think that this particular track, which does provide really the emotional heartbeat of this movie - as much as "We Don't Talk About Bruno," you know, became a TikTok sensation and is the song that everyone's kids are singing, "Dos Oruguitas" is a very, like, emotionally rich song. If that song falls flat, then the entire emotional payoff of the movie doesn't work. So to me, it is a perfect candidate for this category. It is a song that is extremely well-integrated into the movie itself and packs an emotional wallop.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOS ORUGUITAS")
SEBASTIAN YATRA: (Singing in Spanish).
WELDON: I agree with you. And it is the emotional linchpin of the movie, the kind of turning point. I love the feel of the song. The weight of it is palpable. Even if you don't understand the lyrics, you understand it as something big is happening in the movie. Once you see the lyrics translated into a cold white screen in English, they do seem a little forced, maybe. It's about two caterpillars in love who are forced to separate because if they stay together, then they can't form the chrysalis that they need to spend time to themselves and transform into the butterflies they need to become. I'm sure it's a lot more beautiful and elusive in Spanish because it sure as hell sounds like it is.
And you're absolutely right. It fits so neatly into the film because the film is about expectations and the dangers of holding onto something too tightly. I really love Yatra's voice here. It's a relatively simple orchestration. It really sells it. I am pulling for this. I'd love a song from a musical to win best original song just on principle. And I agree with you that Bruno is lending this song momentum by proxy, I guess you could say.
WELDON: All right, let's go on to "No Time To Die," which you mentioned. It is the opening theme from last year's Bond film, written by Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O'Connell. It's performed by Eilish. It is their first Oscar nomination. This song has already won a Grammy, and - I don't know what this is. A Golden Globe - is that anything? I don't know what that is. If they win, they will be the first American songwriters to win for a Bond film. That would be fun.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I remember when I was putting together my kind of ranking and discussion of last year's best original song nominees. I remember noting if this song had been able to be eligible, it would have been an absolute shoo-in last year. And I think there are a lot of people who think it is an absolute shoo-in this year. It is, to my mind, an excellent Bond theme. It is vastly, vastly, vastly superior to other Bond themes. I think it stacks up really well especially against recent vintage Bond songs that have won Oscars. "No Time To Die" - this song has all that Bond-ian atmosphere coupled with a vocal performance that is really striking and lovely.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO TIME TO DIE")
BILLIE EILISH: (Singing) Fool me once, fool me twice, are you death or paradise? Now you'll never see me cry, there's just no time to die.
THOMPSON: So you hear all that Bond-ian portent. And more to the point you hear the exact tone that that movie is striking for its entire two hour and 43 minute running time.
THOMPSON: It is trying to capture this - a certain amount of haunted moodiness that comes through in that film. So to me, it is a really nice marriage of song, artist and tone of movie.
WELDON: Right. And fitting this to the film should be a metric we should be looking at here, right?
THOMPSON: I agree completely.
WELDON: Because it's an original song that's matched to the film. Look, I love this song. If I'm never going to get my Portishead Bond theme, which I'm never going to do...
WELDON: ...This is as close as I'm going to get, and I'm fine with it. There's never going to be a Bond movie called "Sour Times," which is already kind of a Bond theme. But anyway, there's a really nice build here, as you mentioned. It's slow, it's smoky, it's sensuous, and it is somber, which is fitting, as we say, for the film in question. I would say I just need - in a Bond theme, I need a little bombast, some emotional release, which does come here.
THOMPSON: It builds to something kind of grand and orchestral.
WELDON: Exactly. And she does really sell it, but it comes, like, at three minutes and 30 seconds into a four-minute song.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And I think the only thing that is working against it besides the momentum of "Encanto" is the fact that this song came out in the run-up of what was supposed to be the release date for "No Time To Die." So we're talking about a song that dropped two full years ago. And it is very hard to maintain kind of wire-to-wire front-runner status for two years. But I think if we're trying to answer the question for people's Oscar pools - which song is going to win? - it's going to be one of these first two songs that we've talked about.
WELDON: But let's talk about the others anyway.
WELDON: Let's go to "Be Alive," which is from the Will Smith movie, "King Richard." It's a biopic about the father and coach of Venus and Serena Williams. It's written by DIXSON and Beyonce, performed by Beyonce. It is the first nomination for both of them. What'd you think?
THOMPSON: First of all, I'm really surprised it's Beyonce's first Oscar nomination.
WELDON: I know, right?
THOMPSON: (Laughing) Doesn't it seem like she should have had a few under her belt by now?
THOMPSON: I mean, this is a - this is a closing credits jam. And often I tend to ding them when they just drop at the closing credits because it feels like a little bit of a cop-out. But this song does reflect the theme of the movie. It matches the plot of the movie. Lyrically, it's a touch on the sloganeering side...
THOMPSON: ...Where it's not necessarily tapping into what I think Beyonce does the very best, which is making these big, grand songs feel a little bit more personal, feel like they could only come from her. I'm not necessarily sure this song could only come from Beyonce, but I think she sells the hell out of it. And it's a big victory lap at the end of this kind of triumphant movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BE ALIVE")
BEYONCE: (Singing) Knock it if they tried - this is hustle personified. Look how we've been fighting to stay alive so when we win, we will have pride. Do you know how much we have cried?
WELDON: Yeah, but because of that, it kind of puzzled me. This is a banger. It's anthemic. This is what I was mentioning before. This is psych-up music. It's workout music.
WELDON: It reaches this really driving, forceful, fist-pumping insistence that felt to me like it wanted to transcend. It wanted to surge into something else - not necessarily, you know, more emotion, but maybe a hook. This felt like kind of an extended bridge to me. But it fits the film so perfectly, right? Because you could lay this over any training montage...
WELDON: ...Or any victory or any defeat or any - like, there's a lot of traveling in the film - because it's about perseverance and dedication. And you can't help - I couldn't help but wonder why it was shunted off to the credits because it could go anywhere in the film. But maybe they wanted to keep it period-appropriate. That was the only thing I was thinking.
THOMPSON: Yeah, that's a really good point. You absolutely could set the song to a training montage. The song is a training montage.
WELDON: (Laughing) Yep.
THOMPSON: You are running up the steps of the Philly - wherever the "Rocky" thing is.
THOMPSON: This is what you want playing.
WELDON: All right. Next up is "Down To Joy" from Kenneth Branagh's gently nostalgic film, "Belfast." It's written and performed by Van Morrison, and if he wins, he's going to be the oldest Oscar winner in this category at age 76. What'd you think?
THOMPSON: Well, it's interesting. I mean, Van Morrison really provides the heartbeat to the movie "Belfast." I mean, in addition to "Down To Joy," there are eight other Van Morrison songs kind of peppered throughout the soundtrack, and it is really capturing that sweetly nostalgic tone that the movie is trying to get across. And it's intriguing to me, listening to "Down To Joy," like, how much it feels and sounds like kind of a composite sketch of everything Van Morrison...
THOMPSON: ...Has ever made famous. It feels kind of like the proto Van Morrison song in a way. And as such, it works really well in the movie, and I think it's interesting. And when we talk about these songs that roll harmlessly over the closing credits to movies, in the very first moment of "Belfast," this song just kind of comes crashing in on the soundtrack. It's not an afterthought. It's a tone-setter. Now, Van Morrison has spent the last couple of years kind of on an ill will tour.
THOMPSON: He has always been an extremely crabby and irascible figure. I think this may work to this song's detriment in this category among Oscar voters. But I don't think you can deny that it works in the context of the movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN TO JOY")
VAN MORRISON: (Singing) I had a brand-new story when I was coming down to joy. Man, I felt the glory when I was coming down to joy.
WELDON: Absolutely. And he also sounds great here.
THOMPSON: He sounds so good.
WELDON: I had no idea this was a new song...
WELDON: ...Because everything about it feels so familiar, which is another way to say it's classic Van Morrison.
WELDON: It's singularly, I would say, Van Morrison. And because of that, a weird thing happens. It sounds so familiar, while you're watching this nostalgic movie, it kind of hits the same emotional real estate. So it kind of conjures that feeling of nostalgia. It's a perfect fit, the way that these songs play into what the film is doing. And we're going to close with "Somehow You Do" from the Mila Kunis, Glenn Close addiction drama "Four Good Days," which is totally a film that came out last year and not something we just made up.
WELDON: It is written by the Susan Lucci of this category, Diane Warren, performed by Reba McEntire. It is Diane Warren's 13th...
WELDON: One-three nomination - and would be her first Oscar. Stephen, where'd you come down?
THOMPSON: Hoo boy (ph). OK. Let me preface this by saying I think Diane Warren should have won two Oscars. I think she should have won in 2015 for a song she wrote with Lady Gaga. I think she should have won for "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" by Aerosmith. This is not only her 13th Oscar nomination. This is her fifth year in a row being nominated for what is unquestionably the fourth or fifth best song in each year's field. I was really struck by how flat this song falls, how on the nose it feels, how much of an afterthought it feels like in the movie. This is absolutely your closing credits song, and it is just the most boilerplate, could-have-been-written-by-an-app kind of song of perseverance and pick yourself up attitude that you're going to hear.
And it feels to me like kind of just such a missed opportunity for this category. If you look at the songs that were shortlisted for this award, you know, you could have nominated U2 in there. You could have had - I'm not a fan of the Ariana Grande song from "Don't Look Up," just as I wasn't a fan of anything from "Don't Look Up," but you could have had some much grabbier songs than this instead of just kind of slotting Diane Warren in as a - by force of habit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEHOW YOU DO")
REBA MCENTIRE: (Singing) Some way, somehow - somehow you do.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, Reba can do no wrong, right?
THOMPSON: Reba can do no wrong, but it doesn't bring out her personality at all.
WELDON: It's that - she's not doing much. What she's doing is not much. And I think it's not that she's underselling it exactly, but there are times when Reba has to rush the lyric because it doesn't kind of sit in the line. It doesn't sit in the melody easily. And you don't want to do that to Reba McEntire (laughter). It's message does jibe with the film, as you mentioned - the reality of addiction, the notion of keep going, it's going to seem like you can't, but that's all you can do. And this is when I have to rethink my metric. It's not just that the song fits. It has to advance, I guess?
THOMPSON: I guess where the song matches the movie is that sometimes you just have to plod along in the face of incredibly uncertain odds.
THOMPSON: But I don't think - the movie, to me, did not suggest triumph over adversity, and I felt like the movie wanted to go deeper than the song does.
WELDON: That's interesting. Well, we want to know what you think about this year's Oscar-nominated original songs. What will win? What should win? Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks for joining us, Stephen.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Glen.
WELDON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we will see you all tomorrow.
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