The Academy Awards has a set of rules, some of which account for precursor shortlists and to get nominated. Shortlists are fun because it allows the film community to read the depths of each potential nomination, whether for sound, costume design, or original score. Best Original Song is one of these few to receive a shortlist, and going through them, has led me on a path of discovery as it tip-toes a fine line between original musical composition or a song that you eventually hear in the closing credits. It’s akin to the parallels between “Lose Yourself” by Eminem for 8 Mile (2002) and “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman (2017) winning. Every year brings unique caveats, with diversity in every spectrum and medium – documentary v fictionalized story.
This year has shown a mixture of songs that are representative of the story-themes that the film outlines and ones that do similar but integrated with the actor’s performances – simply put, there are your showy numbers, like “Dream Girl” from last year’s Cinderella adaptation and “Just Look Up” from Don’t Look Up; then there is your subtle and emotionally resonate numbers, like “Beyond the Shore” from Coda. Unfortunately, not every song is good and, assumptions aside, the voting has always confused us with its process. But we’re not here to over-analyze or break down the intricacies of the Academy; we’re here to have a little fun and pick our nominations based on the quality of the songwriting, production, and how it fits within the context of the film going down from five to one. So let’s begin.
5. Be Alive – Beyonce
Produced by duo DIXSON, “Be Alive” does what one expects from a Beyonce anthem – it has Beyonce bellowing at high octanes as the production swishes through these uproarious percussion patterns and horns. It’s reminiscent of her last album, Lemonade (2016), which explores sonic themes prevalent in African music and hip-hop, further adding beautiful layers to complement Beyonce’s songwriting. It isn’t as profound, falling into the typical trappings of the uplifting song at the end that covers the triumph we just witnessed. I wish I could love this enough to make it the best of the five, but like King Richard, which I adored, the song has become past thought where replaying it only reignites that spark.
4. Right Where I Belong – Brian Wilson & Jim James
Brian Wilson is a treasure; there is no doubt about it. Though the latest documentary on the artist is at the top of my watchlist, “Right Where I Belong” is only lighting a fire under my ass for having missed it at first release. The song is an atmospheric piano ballad that brings nuances to past orchestrations, like “Sloop John B” on Pet Sounds. The reverb amplifies Brian Wilson’s voice, giving us this sense of a larger-than-life being who is as normal as you or I, despite his musical genius-level talent. Featuring Jim James of My Morning Jacket, the song offers an inside into the love a teenage Brian Wilson has for this art and building upon this sense of belonging. It’s the essence of Brian Wilson’s craft throughout the years, playing with octanes and transitions all without leaving us hanging out to dry with a wrought focus at experimenting without a hard stop.
3. Somehow You Do – Reba McEntire, written by Diane Warren
It sucks: like many, for years I’ve been pulling for Diane Warren to finally hear her name called to the Oscar stage as she wins for Best Original Song. Unfortunately, every year she releases a dynamite hit, something comes along that comes with more force, or the Academy is eating up Disney/Pixar’s latest hit. It is likely another one of those years. However, that isn’t to discredit how mesmerizingly fantastic “Somehow You Do” hits with tender acoustics and emotional bravado that doesn’t sugarcoat the bumpy road toward the positives. From the film Four Good Days, Reba McEntire brings to life the love a mother has for her daughter as she helps her recover from her addiction. Tony Brown’s melancholic strings never lose focus underneath some elegantly coated percussion. Warren’s writing is at its peak, and the combination of all three would have me picking this in a year where more emotionally potent songs are in the potential nomination pool.
2. Dos Oruguitas – Sebastian Yatra, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda
“Dos Oruguitas” plays during a pivotal moment within Encanto that is hard to describe the emotional impact it has within the story, but what I can comment on is the arrangement of the song. It keens in on the influence of the music of Colombia – folk in this case. It’s personal, as a Colombian myself, but the song has a degree of poignancy that adds layers to the scene it plays over. Sebastian Yatra’s somber vocals contain a steady rhythm with the production, elevating and de-escalating as needed; especially, mid-track, where the background vocals bring the feelings to life. It’s not enough to gush about this song; watch the film and see it come to life for yourself.
1. Beyond The Shore – Emilia Jones, written by Marius De Vries, Matthew Dahan, and Nicholai Baxter
Like “Dos Oruguitas,” “Beyond The Shore” comes at a pivotal point in the film where Ruby Rossi performs for Berklee, and she simultaneously signs the words to the song to her family, who sneak into the performance. It emboldens the journey Ruby takes us through, from start to finish. The tender melodies are heightened by the piano-driven instrumental. It creates a beautiful parallel to the Rossi family, and their upcoming journey as they continue to strive on the shores with their fish business. It’s the best of the nominees because of how resonant it is to the characters. It adds layers when the performance comes from its lead evoking emotions with poignancy.