By Alex Beene and David Hopper
The entertainment phrase “the show must go on” has never felt quite as relevant as now. This Sunday, the Academy Awards will take place, as have other awards shows during the pandemic, after lengthy delay. Last year’s ceremony was lucky in retrospect, as it was able to be a normal broadcast just weeks before a global shutdown occurred.
Discussion in the weeks leading up to the show normally centers around the big categories, like Best Picture and acting accolades. The night of the event is usually different, as live performances of the Best Original Song category dominate social media posts and award-watching talk and texts. Since being introduced in 1934, the category has honored some songs that would begin as a simple scene in a run-of-the-mill film and would go on to become global cultural milestones that are still known decades after release.
David and I picked out 10 songs from the 90 years of winners that we feel are the cream of the crop. This certainly wasn’t easy; there are enough iconic tunes to fill a top 50 list. Still, we think these exemplify the best of what the Academy has selected as “best in show.” It’ll be interesting to see if this year’s winner and future years’ nominees can stack up with this illustrious group.
“The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time (1936)
So many of the standards that make up the “The Great American Songbook” were written for films, plays, and musicals. “The Way You Look Tonight” is a fine example of a classic song that made its debut on the silver screen. (Also nominated in 1936 were Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Pennies from Heaven” from the film of the same name). While Fred Astaire is best known for his dancing, he was also a capable singer. In the film Swing Time, Astaire sings “The Way You Look Tonight” to his longtime dance partner Ginger Rogers. The Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields-penned tune went on to be Astaire’s most successful single. However, the most recognizable – and arguably definitive – version was cut by Frank Sinatra with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra in 1964. (More on Ol’ Blue Eyes later). – D.H.
“Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
What is there left to say about this absolute masterpiece of a ballad? Perhaps the greatest shock is “Over the Rainbow” didn’t really set the world on fire upon its debut in 1939, as you might expect. “The Wizard of Oz” was a financial dud for MGM during its original theatrical release and wouldn’t gain popularity until the 1950s when television introduced it to a new generation of viewers. The Academy luckily didn’t skip out on the film like the general public did and awarded composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg with an Oscar. It would go on to become Judy Garland’s signature song at live performances until her passing, and is today widely recognized as one of the best songs in cinematic history. – A.B.
“When You Wish Upon A Star” from Pinocchio (1940)
Amazingly, the year after “Over the Rainbow” took home an Oscar, the Academy would again honor a song that would be heard in another box office bomb for its time that would go on to be a classic. Written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, “When You Wish Upon A Star” was the central song to “Pinocchio,” Walt Disney’s second animated feature film. But as with The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio would end up being largely unattended by audiences at the time. Over the last 80 years however, the song has become a Disney icon, appearing as the background music for Disney theatrical intros, theme park commercials, and so much more. And, while the Best Original Song category contains many Disney Studios produced work, “Wish” arguably remains the best, and certainly the most enduring. – A.B.
“White Christmas” from Holiday Inn (1942)
Fans of holiday jingles may be stunned to learn “White Christmas,” the Irving Berlin song famously sung by sound and stage legend Bing Crosby, was written for the 1942 film “Holiday Inn.” And while the film may remain somewhat popular among classic-film aficionados, it has nowhere near the towering legacy enjoyed by the song it featured. “White Christmas” would go on to become the world’s best-selling single, having sold over 50 million copies since its release. It would also become a permanent staple of Christmas soundtracks during the holiday season every year. It still routinely makes an appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 when December rolls around. – A.B.
“All The Way” from The Joker is Wild (1957)
Frank Sinatra’s performance of “All The Way” in the film The Joker is Wild captured the legendary crooner at his peak. In 1957, he was in the middle of his remarkable run of concept albums for Capitol. That year alone saw the release of three classic LPs: the upbeat Swingin’ Affair and the somber ballad collections Close To You and Where Are You? With music by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Sammy Cahn, “All The Way” was released as a single with “Chicago” (also featured in the film) as the B-side. It peaked at #15 on the charts. Sinatra would record the gorgeous ballad again for his own label Reprise, and it was featured on his 1964 album of Oscar winners, Sinatra Sings Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, and Other Academy Award Winners. – D.H.
“Theme from Shaft” from Shaft (1971)
Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft,” which topped the pop charts in 1971, is an unforgettable fusion of soul, funk and proto-disco featuring wah-wah rhythm guitar, a flute, strings, horns, and a dramatic bassline. Hayes’s velvety baritone doesn’t enter until nearly three minutes in, describing Richard Roundtree’s iconic character as “a black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks!” and “a bad mother… (shut ‘yo mouth!)” The tune paved the way for a slew of great Blaxploitation soundtracks from R&B artists, among them Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man, and Roy Ayers’s Coffy. – D.H.
“Streets of Philadelphia” from Philadelphia (1993)
One of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest songs, “Streets of Philadelphia” was the perfect song for the powerful, emotional film Philadelphia. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his role as a gay lawyer with AIDS who sues for discrimination. With its heavy use of drum loops and keyboards, “Streets of Philadelphia” sounded like nothing The Boss had done before. The song, Springsteen’s first for a film, takes aim at the homophobia surrounding the AIDS epidemic and the devastating effects of the disease: I was bruised and battered, I couldn’t tell what I felt/I was unrecognizable to myself. Neil Young was also nominated for Best Original Song for the film’s title track. – D.H.
“My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic (1997)
Like Judy Garland 60 years prior, Celine Dion found her signature song, “My Heart Will Go On,” in an Oscar-nominated film. While audiences initially rejected The Wizard of Oz, the same certainly couldn’t be said for Titanic, which featured this dramatic ballad. Titanic would quickly become the top-grossing film of all time, sending the composer James Horner and lyricist Will Jennings’ song into the stratosphere. In the late ‘90s, it did face some backlash, with some cynics arguing the song was overplayed; it became the subject of more than a few parodies. As with most classic records, the criticism has been muted with time, and today it’s recognized for its merits as a damn powerful song, not just a popular relic of ‘90s culture. – A.B.
“It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow (2005)
“For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one,” cracked host Jon Stewart at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006. At the time, Scorsese had yet to win an Oscar for Best Director, while the Memphis rap crew snagged a golden statuette with their first nomination. Actor Terence Howard, who plays the film’s protagonist DJay, a Memphis pimp and aspiring emcee, impressively did the rapping himself. The catchy track features the Dirty South hip-hop production style with its hi-hats and snare rolls, over which DJay details his city’s rough conditions: Done seen people killed, done seen people deal/Done seen people live in poverty with no meals. VH1 ranked “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” No. 80 on their 100 Greatest Songs of Hip-Hop list. – D.H.
“Let It Go” from Frozen (2013)
There is likely no parent of the last decade that can forget “Let It Go.” The Frozen song that was composed by husband-and-wife songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez dominated children’s pop culture for months after release. Much like “My Heart Will Go On,” its popularity easily lent it to increased criticism and a large number of parodies, yet the song maintains its widespread acclaim because of its message. While Disney has a storied history in the Best Original Song category, many of its ballads link back to forced romance and tradition. This song broke free of the shackles of old-school fairy tales, and has rightfully been embraced as one of the Academy’s better selections in modern times. – A.B.
We hope you enjoyed our list. We’ll be watching this Sunday to see which song will take home the Oscar for Best Original Song in the 93rd Academy Awards. And the nominees for 2021 are:
“Fight for You” – from Judas and the Black Messiah
“Hear My Voice” – from The Trial of the Chicago 7
“Husavik” – from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“IO SÌ (Seen)” – from The Life Ahead (La Vita Davanti a Se)
“Speak Now” – from One Night in Miami…
And the 2021 best song Oscar goes to…