The Oscar song race rocks a who's who list of top stars
Here’s a look at some high-profile contenders:
THE SONGS OF ‘DREAMGIRLS’
While writing the adapted script for “Dreamgirls,” Bill Condon, who also directed, decided that certain scenes demanded fresh songs. Together with the Broadway show’s composer, Henry Krieger, the duo sought out some of the recording industry’s most coveted songwriters to flesh out new tunes.
Writers: Krieger, Anne Preven, Scott Cutler, Knowles
How tune is used: Deena (Knowles) is about to leave her husband-manager Curtis (Jamie Foxx) and declare her independence.
Motivation: “Anne and I both knew the musical both forward and backwards,” Cutler says. “When I was a kid doing musical theater classes, we all knew it. ‘Dreamgirls’ was always the hip musical. We would mimic Jennifer Holliday singing ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.’ “
Says Preven: With this song, “Deena is exclaiming, ‘You don’t know who I am, and I know I do.’ “
Lyric: “I’m more than what you made of me; I followed the voice you gave to me. But now I’ve gotta find my own.”
Song: “Love You I Do”
Writers: Krieger, Siedah Garrett
Performer: Jennifer Hudson
How song is used: Just as the Dreamettes are taking off as backup singers, Effie (Hudson) declares her love to Curtis.
Motivation: “Henry was looking for someone who could paint a picture with words,” says lyricist Garrett, who has penned tracks for Michael Jackson. “Each song in this film is scene-specific, and I had never written like that. It was a great learning experience.”
Adds Krieger: “The song covers Effie’s infatuation with Curtis. She thinks he can do no wrong. Everything he touches turns to gold, including her.”
Lyric: “I know you’re the best. You’ve passed every test. It’s almost too good to be true. You’re the perfect man for me. I love you, I do.”
Writers: Krieger, Willie Reale
Performers: Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robertson
How song is used: R&B funk artist James Early (Murphy) returns to the studio to record a message song about the late ’60s riots.
Motivation: “Henry Krieger is a great talent and dear friend with whom I have written nearly a hundred songs. I leap at every chance to add to that number,” Reale says.
Says Krieger: “While the song has a message, it’s not anything like Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.’ It’s not angry or perturbed like that. ‘Patience’ is the inversion of the protest song, but it has social meaning. It’s about living (through) tough times, having problems in the inequities of life — but you must have patience, you must persevere.”
Lyric: “There’s a river to cross, and a mountain to climb. Patience, patience. It’s gonna take some time.”
— Anthony D’Alessandro
‘THE BOOK I WRITE’ FROM ‘STRANGER THAN FICTION’
Writer: Britt Daniel
Motivation: When music supervisor Brian Reitzell approached Britt Daniel about writing a new song for the existential literary comedy “Stranger Than Fiction,” the Spoon singer pulled a sketch of a song called “The Book I Write” out of his notebook. Pure coincidence? Actually, yes. “I guess it’s hard to believe that I really did have this lyric first,” Daniel says. “I did not want to do a literal interpretation; it was just supposed to be a new Spoon song.”
He says the tune is “about wanting to make a connection. When you’re with somebody, it’s hard to remember how important connecting is, and then when you break up or you aren’t with someone for a long time it becomes very paramount. So I feel that a lot when I’m single. I guess that lack of connection is another term for loneliness.”
Personal longings aside, he agrees that the song, which kicks in with the closing credits, is “very upbeat — it’s like a little party. Those fake sax solos just send it into the happy stratosphere.”
Lyric: “I wanna open this heart/It wants so much to be claimed/But both of us stay on our guard in the same way/And I know this is the book that I write.”
‘A FATHER’S WAY’ FROM ‘THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS’
Writers: Seal, Chris Bruce
Motivation: The writers wanted a song that didn’t go the normal pop hit route, “something with a bit more sensitivity,” Seal explains about the soulful acoustic tune that rolls over “The Pursuit of Happyness” end credits. “I think I only could have written it now, having become a parent,” continues the father of three, who says he found the film “extremely inspiring.”
“It’s easy to have kids, but the issue is: Can you be a parent? Can you drop everything when they need you to? They’re not kids forever, which is basically what this song is about. They’re here, and you’re trying to do the best you can, but they’re not really yours. You’re just a caretaker, and you realize there’s going to come a day when you can’t keep those bad things out, and your job is to prepare them as best you can. And when the time comes, you let them go.”
Lyric: “I built a fence around you in a father’s way/I try to feel what it is you’re goin’ through, ’cause I’ve played many ways./When you grow, how much will it take to slow you down/half the way?”
— Steffie Nelson
‘I BELONG’ FROM ‘OPEN SEASON’
Writer: Paul Westerberg
Performers: Westerberg, Pete Yorn
Motivation: Thanks to Sony’s Lia Vollack, the Replacements frontman found himself part of what he calls a “little movement” of singer-songwriters doing music for animated children’s films (including Ben Folds, whose songs are featured in “Over the Hedge”). As fate would have it, a Westerberg solo track, “Good Day,” was already being used as placement music in “Open Season,” so it wasn’t a huge leap to bring him aboard. “I was the fool who walked in on the right day,” laughs Westerberg, who scored the movie in addition to writing nine new songs for the toon.
“I Belong” — which Westerberg agrees is the best of the bunch — shows up twice, first when the main character, a domesticated bear named Boog, decides he must return to his human “mom,” and once again when he realizes that his true home is in the wild. Says Westerberg, “The theme of the movie and the song ‘I Belong,’ in particular, closely paralleled my personal life at the time, as well as my career.” Unfortunately a recent hand injury means the singer will have to postpone his next tour.
Lyric: The version of “I Belong” that Pete Yorn sings, asks, “Is this where I belong?” Westerberg’s version has the more affirmative chorus: “This is where I belong.”
— Steffie Nelson
‘I NEED TO WAKE UP’ FROM ‘AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH’
Writer: Melissa Etheridge
Motivation: Having toured with Al Gore during his 2000 presidential campaign, the outspoken Etheridge represented a logical choice for the film’s closing song, although she admits she was a little intimidated at first.
“I thought: What in the world am I going to say to all these people who just watched this incredibly important film? They’ve just been opened up, they’re a little bit scared, a little bit confused, and they want to do something.”
Ultimately, the singer-songwriter spoke from the heart, sharing the emotions the film brought up in her. “I thought: Have I been sleeping? I need to wake up!”
As she notes, the song doesn’t even mention global warming. “It’s just about changing and taking responsibility and moving forward,” says Etheridge, who ran her tour buses on biodiesel fuel. And Gore warmed to the message. “When Al heard it, he said, ‘That’s the most important thing, just talking to people about waking up — because that’s all they have to do.’ “
Lyric: “Now I am throwing off the carelessness of youth/to listen to an inconvenient truth.”
— Steffie Nelson
‘MY LITTLE GIRL’ FROM ‘FLICKA’
Writers: Tim McGraw, Tom Douglas
Motivation: “When Fox first approached me to write a song for the film, I was reluctant because I’m trying to establish myself as an actor. Also, the songs I write have never been recorded on my albums,” says country crooner McGraw, who headlines as the father in “Flicka.”
“The whole (filming) experience influenced me to write again. I started off writing songs, and after I got a hit record, I forgot about what it was like to write.”
As for how the song fits into the film, “It’s that old saying: Give a butterfly wings; if it loves you, it will come back. It’s the message of the movie as well,” McGraw says.
Lyric: “Go on, take on this whole world/but to me you know you’ll always be … my little girl.”
— Anthony D’Alessandro
‘OUR TOWN’ FROM ‘CARS’
Writer: Randy Newman
Performer: James Taylor
Motivation: “I like the movies that Pixar makes because they need music. It’s a situation where you feel you’re needed. The relationship between a director and a composer is similar to emperor to slave; however, John Lasseter is different,” Newman says.
The song talks about how “progress is a two-sided coin. Going faster and doing things more efficiently isn’t necessarily a better way to live,” says the songwriter, who has 16 noms and one Oscar win for song, “If I Didn’t Have You” from “Monsters, Inc.” Indeed, “Our Town” is used in the scene when Sally Carrera, the Porsche, tells Lightning McQueen how the small town of Radiator Springs has been bypassed after the highway was built.
Lyric: “Main Street isn’t main street anymore/No one seems to need us like they did before./Hard to find a reason left to stay/but it’s our town./Love it anyway./Come what may./It’s our town.”
— Anthony D’Alessandro
‘YOU KNOW MY NAME’ FROM ‘CASINO ROYALE’
Writers: Chris Cornell, David Arnold
Motivation: As Cornell recalls, when he got the call from Sony Music to write a song for “Casino Royale’s” title sequence, “They told me they were looking for what the voice of Daniel Craig would sound like — which I think was sort of an unapologetic, masculine voice. At first I wasn’t sure that it was the right choice, but then I saw the rough edit of the film, and it made sense to me because it’s such a dramatic departure from the previous Bond characters.”
The singer worked with composer Arnold to create the right blend of rock aggression and sophisticated instrumentation, drawing from his own life to speak from the perspective of secret agent James Bond.
“What touched me about this story was the existential dilemma of someone who picks this for his profession, and what he would have to sacrifice,” Cornell says. “There’s an isolation in that; the stakes are very high. I’ve done a lot of living in my 42 years, and it wasn’t hard for me to relate to that.”
Lyric: “I’ve seen angels fall from blinding heights/But you yourself are nothing so divine/Just next in line.”
— Steffie Nelson
‘NEVER GONNA BREAK MY FAITH’ FROM ‘BOBBY’
Writers: Bryan Adams, Eliot Kennedy, Andrea Remanda
Performers: Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, the Harlem Boys Choir
Motivation: “Harvey Weinstein ran into me at a restaurant and told me he needed a gospel song for ‘Bobby,’ ” Adams says. “Soon after, I was working in the Caribbean and going to churches where they have these amazing gospel ceremonies. … A person would be given the mike and go off for 20 minutes. It was an exorcism of their thoughts.”
The song’s message talks about how “nothing can break a person’s faith in God — even if they were involved in tragedy. At the end of the film, I thought the song should be like a prayer. And I didn’t want it to be about Robert Kennedy. The idea of someone dying — they’re actually set free. The whole concept of ‘Faith’ was what it would be like if one could write the Lord’s Prayer,” says Adams, who has three previous Oscar noms for song.
Lyric: “You can lie to a child with a smiling face./Tell me that color ain’t about a race./You can cast the first stone/you can break my bones/but you’re never gonna break — never gonna break my faith.”
— Anthony D’Alessandro