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Ryan Tedder, Sufjan Stevens, Chris Cornell Among Rockers Making a Play for Oscar

A closer look at three of the frontrunners.

The rock world is seemingly fielding ever more contenders in the Oscars’ Best Original Song category, with artists including Sufjan Stevens, Elvis Costello, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, Sara Bareilles, and the late Chris Cornell all performing end-title themes they wrote or co-authored. A closer look at three of the frontrunners:

“Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon”
from “Call Me By Your Name
Music and lyrics by Sufjan Stevens

“It was a dream come true,” says director Luca Guadagnino about working with indie-rock hero Stevens, of whom he’d long been a “big fan.” It wasn’t initially easy even getting to Stevens for the ask — “The approach took a long time,” the filmmaker admits — but once he did, he got more than he bargained for, with the singer delivering two original songs. That went even further toward Guadagnino’s hope to “envelop the movie and its emotional fabric in Sufjan’s world,” which has always tended to mix the melancholic with a sense of wonder — ideal for a coming-of-age love story that goes the way of most such romances.

He left Stevens to his own devices, without much input about which sections of the coming-of-age drama to illustrate.  “He had the book, he had the script, and we had three or four conversations about the characters and the kind of movie I was doing. I may have said to Sufjan that I wanted to make an idyll. I may have said that I was making a movie that was very straightforward and simple in its approach. And that was it. If you overbake something, if you overanalyze things, if you micromanage an artist, then you are going to have something that may disappoint you. But if you empower somebody, I think you end up having something as great as we got.”

Besides the two fresh songs, Stevens also delivered on Guadagnino’s request for a remix of “Futile Devices,” a song that has been interpreted as possibly describing a gay relationship, which fit the movie’s subject matter, even if only subliminally, since the new version is an instrumental. “We asked him to rearrange it,” says the director, “and he gave us a beautiful liquid piano that plays very well and organically with the general piano-driven classical pieces of music we chose for the film.”

“Visions of Gideon” plays over one of the most memorable end-credits scenes in memory, a live-action single shot that’s as powerful as anything that occurs before the credits roll. “This question that repeats itself – ‘Is it a video?’ –it’s such a powerful thing when it comes to this moment, for its intellectual bravery and evocativeness and obliqueness. That idea of a memory as something that can fade, or that can feel like it never happened but was just enacted, is so powerful.”

As powerful as that is — what about the other song, “Mystery of Love,” which plays through mid-film, and is more wistful, less shattering? That’s the one most Oscar bloggers have latched onto as the contender. In this case — unlike some other films with multiple original song possibilities, like “Coco” or “Greatest Showman” — the studio submitted both. Should Stevens’ fans and “Call Me” lovers in the Academy coalesce around just one, so as not to split the vote? “I don’t know!” protests Guadagnino. “You put me in an embarrassing situation, because I really love them both.”

The Promise
from “The Promise
Music and lyrics by Chris Cornell

“For most title songs, as you know, basically you make the movie and you kind of just attach someone at the end of it, and they’re not really part of the team all the way through,” says “Promise” producer Eric Esrailian. This instance couldn’t have been more the opposite: He’d been family friends with Soundgarden singer Cornell since 2010, talking about the plan to make a drama about the Armenian genocide of the 1910s for that entire period, long before it became time for an invitation to write the theme. “So it’s just sad that, after all this time, right after Chris had finally done this, he’s not here to talk about it.”

Two months did transpire between the release of the movie and Cornell’s shocking suicide — a period during which he performed the song on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “CBS Saturday Morning” and even visited the Vatican with the filmmakers for a papal screening. “We both were interested in the situation of refugees in the Mediterranean and what was going on there,” says director Terry George, “so there was the whole idea of the ‘keep the promise’ campaign [for contemporary human rights causes], along with talk of meeting up again as friends. So it was one of those things where you make plans with someone, and then this thing hit me like a sledgehammer. Somebody texted me and said ‘Chris has passed away,’ and I was trying to think of all the Chrises I know — it never for a minute entered my head it was him.”

When Esrailian first brought up using the rocker for this period piece, George “wasn’t particularly aware of his music, apart from ‘Casino Royale,’ and he wasn’t the person I thought of first for that song,” the director admits. He was won over by Cornell’s personal commitment to contemporary refugee causes, which allowed him to craft a hope-and-despair ballad “that was inspired by the Armenian genocide but could be relevant to people around the world,” as Esrailian says.

The passion-project movie had a short life in theaters, but the song is helping it alive. Regardless of its Oscar chances, “The Promise” did get a Grammy nomination for best rock performance — a testament not just to Cornell, but to legendary arranger Paul Buckmaster, who also died since its completion. Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch organization gave Cornell a posthumous award at a dinner in November.

“Truth to Power”
from “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Music and lyrics by Ryan Tedder and T Bone Burnett

It’s difficult to figure out for sure whose idea it was for first time co-writers Tedder and Burnett to team up for the sequel to the environmental doc “An Inconvenient Truth” (which yielded an Oscar for Melissa Etheridge’s song). Burnett says he’d been interested in meeting Tedder before Al Gore called Burnett to ask what he thought about bringing him in. Interscope’s film head asked Tedder about the movie and got a quick assent before even getting to Burnett already being signed on.

That didn’t hurt: Tedder “grew up listening to a lot of his records, to be honest. I tore apart (Burnett’s production of the Wallflowers’) ‘One Headlight’ a hundred different ways back in the day when we started a band. And I think T Bone and I share an affection for super-throwback Delta music. In the last 10 years I listened to more Muddy Waters than anything — says the guy who does stuff with Ed Sheeran; I know it doesn’t make any sense.”

Tedder wanted the song to start small before it got to a choir. “If you’re trying to get on KIIS-FM, go write a song for ‘Fast and Furious Part 10’,” he says. “That’s a different animal. To me, this needed to be reverential. And my default mechanism when writing is very often gospel, and some of the songs that we had done that were referenced when I got brought in are more gospel-leaning records. And when I watched the climactic parts of the film with Vice President Gore giving this speech at Stanford, where he becomes more and more emboldened as the speech goes on, by the end of it, I was like, oh, God, he’s just doing like an altar call right now. And I went to Oral Roberts University, so I’ve seen my fair share of altar calls.”

Gore asked them if they could drop the movie’s subtitle into the lyrics, and Tedder initially resisted, thinking the phrase “truth to power” was too on-the-nose. They found a solution. “The cliché is speaking truth to power, of course,” says Burnett. “I loved the idea of when truth turns to power.”

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