When it comes to Oscar categories, usually one of the most slight is Best Original Song. It’s often either fairly obvious what the winner is going to be, or simply a handful of songs most people have never heard of. Back in the 80s and 90s, original songs were a pretty typical part of the moviemaking process—remember The Bodyguard? Films had memorable soundtracks to boost their profiles, usually with a famous pop star front and center. But today, that’s a thing of the past. Academy rules are such that a film can only be under consideration for Best Original Song if the song actually plays during the movie itself, not only over the credits. And soundtracking scenes of your movie to a new song by a famous recording artist just feels kind of old fashioned.
So, yeah, Best Original Song isn’t usually one of the most exciting categories on Oscar night, but that’s definitely not the case this year. In fact, 2016 may offer the category’s most competitive year yet, as a number of fantastic original songs are vying for contention, with some serious talent to boot.
The obvious frontrunner is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s poised to EGOT if he wins this category for his work on the Disney animated feature Moana. There are two songs in the film that are eligible, “We Know the Way” and “How Far I’ll Go”, the latter of which appears to be Disney’s best bet as the studio is pushing it quite hard. Disney has a long history with Best Original Song, winning as recently as 2013 for Frozen’s “Let It Go”, and indeed it’s certainly more organic to include an original piece of music in an animated musical than a traditional live-action film. Plus, Miranda’s starpower is insane right now as the Hamilton creator is one of the most beloved artists working today.
But this is also a good time to remind you that when Academy members are voting for Best Original Song, they don’t see who’s responsible for writing the song. The ballots are laid out so that for this category, the nominees only appear as the song title and the movie. This explains how a song like “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre beat out Lady Gaga’s “’Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground. That said, Moana’s a pretty recognizable title and Miranda is omnipresent, so one imagines voters won’t have too much trouble remembering this particular contender.
And then we have La La Land, the current frontrunner for Best Picture, which also happens to be a musical. Lionsgate/Summit is playing this one really smart, only submitting two songs for consideration from the film even though the movie features a bevy of original music. “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, sung by Emma Stone, is the film’s best bet and indeed a serious contender in this category at the moment, but the other song the studio is pushing—“City of Stars”—is basically the film’s main theme, so it’s got a solid shot as well. Support for La La Land will no doubt be huge on Oscar night, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility to think that’ll extend to the Best Original Song category.
Although this year isn’t without its starpower elsewhere. You’d be hard-pressed to find a voter who hasn’t heard Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls, as the song is not only an Oscar contender but also a major pop hit. And the music-centric animated feature Sing has a formidable entry in the form of “Faith,” performed by Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande and written by hit-maker Ryan Tedder, while Zootopia has Shakira’s “Try Everything” in the mix and Pharrell Williams could find himself a nominee for his Hidden Figures track “Runnin.”
There’s also “I’m Still Here” to consider from the documentary Miss Sharon Jones, which could find a groundswell of support in the wake of the doc subject’s sad passing last month. Also contending as a documentary song is Tori Amos’ “Flicker”, from the tactful and moving sexual assault documentary Audrie & Daisy.
And the category is even more competitive when you throw in Sing Street, a film whose release was positively botched this spring by The Weinstein Company, but managed a Best Picture – Musical or Comedy nomination from the Golden Globes this week. The musical hails from Once filmmaker John Carney, and if there were any justice in this category he’d be a contender for Oscar-eligible songs “Go Now” and “Drive It Like You Stole It.”
So as you can see, Best Original Song is positively stacked this year. And that’s without even mentioning Common’s “A Letter to the Free” from 13th, Sia’s “Never Give Up” from Lion, or Alan Menken’s “The Great Beyond” from Sausage Party, which is being pushed much harder than one might assume. In reality, any one of the songs mentioned here could land a nomination, and the competition to actually win is fierce. Things will become clearer in the coming weeks, but as it stands right now, Best Original Song is one of the year’s most exciting Oscar categories.
For more Oscar Beat click here, or peruse the links to my other early predictions below.