The aspirants for best original song from a film this year include Pharrell Williams, a performer-writer who’s familiar in the theme-song field; Regina Spektor, a singer-songwriter who’s just getting her feet wet with big-screen assignments; Diane Warren, whose name is nearly synonymous with the category; and Cynthia Erivo, who surprised everyone by being someone to reckon with for her music as well as acting contributions to her film.
A few words from the forces behind this strong quartet of songs:
“Stand Up” from “Harriet”
Actress-singer-songwriter Cynthia Erivo wanted to conclude “Harriet,” in which she plays slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, on a strong musical note.
“After spending so much time with Harriet and her story,” she tells Variety, “I felt it was necessary to have a truncated version, in a song, of the work that she had done, so if there were things that didn’t quite understand when you watched the movie, there was still a way to connect with it once the movie was finished.”
She thought about the song during shooting but didn’t actually create it until a few months later. Together with composer Joshuah Brian Campbell, she wrote “Stand Up,” whose verse “take my people with me, together we are going to a brand new home,” refers directly to Tubman’s dangerous journeys back into slave country to rescue friends and family via the Underground Railroad.
“We wanted to have a call to gospel music and traditional Negro spirituals, but still have a really cool R&B feel to it, something that felt modern, more now,” she says. “We pulled together many instrumentalists and a choir to create the right sound for it.”
Her 16-voice choir included Grammy winner Lisa Fischer (“How Can I Ease the Pain”), singing a call-and-response chant throughout, a sound rooted in the spiritual tradition that provides “a historical element. We tried to make sure that the arrangement had real elements of the South, of African music, of African-American music, that [indicated] we were still one and the same.”
The song’s final line, “I go to prepare a place for you,” is not just a quotation from scripture, attributed to Jesus — it’s also, Erivo reports, the last words ever spoken by Harriet Tubman.
“Letter to My Godfather” from “The Black Godfather”
Two-time Oscar nominee Pharrell Williams (“Happy,” “Hidden Figures”) could be acknowledged again for the song he wrote and sings at the end of “The Black Godfather,” the Netflix documentary about Clarence Avant, the veteran music executive who has been influential in so many careers.
Avant’s daughter Nicole (former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas), interested in a possible song for the end credits, invited Williams to a screening. “I thought I knew this man’s legacy,” he says. “I knew that he was well respected in the music industry, but I didn’t know what got him that respect, the propulsion he put into so many careers, things that changed the trajectory for people of color.”
He came up with a song in 6/8: “A lot of music when he started out was in 6/8, or in 4/4 but it was swinging,” Williams says. “I tried to use familiar elements but in a way that people hadn’t heard before,” including a wide array of sounds (real voices, live musicians, electronic manipulation) that represent popular music as heard throughout Avant’s 88 years.
It begins with an unusual “oo-oo-oo-oo” sound in the choir. “I wanted to mimic his facility to bring people together in a single note,” Williams says. He was inspired by the film’s graphic depiction of lines and circles connecting Avant to dozens of leading figures in music and politics (everyone from Quincy Jones and Lionel Richie to presidents Obama and Clinton to Jamie Foxx and Snoop Dogg). “Then when you hear the chord come together, that’s what it felt like to me, watching all these personal connections lead to this nucleus of a person, this big harmony of a human being.”
“He’s our chandelier to bring the light,” Williams sings. He explains: “I wanted a metaphor for this guy who brought light to these often dark spaces, those rooms you’re often signing contracts in. The man was like a beautiful chandelier of great will.”
“I’m Standing With You” from “Breakthrough”
Veteran songwriter Diane Warren, Oscar-nominated 10 times so far without a win (despite such movie megahits as Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”), is vying for an 11th with the upbeat anthem “I’m Standing With You” from the faith-based film “Breakthrough.”
“I loved the movie,” Warren says. “It’s so positive. It’s a true story about a real miracle. We live in real divisive times, when we could use a lot of miracles.” Chrissy Metz stars as a brash, assertive mom whose adopted son amazed doctors by surviving a near-death experience after a fall into an icy Missouri lake.
Surprisingly, the studio and producers pressed for Metz to also sing the song under the end titles. “I had to be talked into using her,” Warren admits. “I didn’t know if she could sing, and we could have gotten so many people, like Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson, to sing this song.”
But Warren was convinced when Metz sang the demo. “Chrissy is so believable and authentic, both as an actress and on the song,” the songwriter notes. “It’s so real, you feel the emotion.”
As usual with Warren, she takes a moment from the film and expands it into something universal. “One scene really inspired me, when they all stand up in church. It fit the movie, but then it becomes bigger. It can be about whatever you want it to be — ‘whatever you go through, I’m standing with you.’ I don’t really say what the ‘whatever’ is. I didn’t want to write anything corny. I came up with that chorus and started crying. It’s simple but it says a lot.”
“One Little Soldier” from “Bombshell”
Not every offer to do a movie song works out. Russian-born singer-songwriter Regina Spektor, asked by director Jay Roach to contribute to his film “Bombshell,” cautioned him: “I can’t guarantee anything,” she said, “because I’ve had people show me their film or their script, and I could like it a lot, but I just don’t hear anything. And sometimes I hear something right away.”
The process began two years ago, when she met Roach at a party and he mentioned his planned dramatization of Fox News czar Roger Ailes’ fall after a sexual harassment scandal. She was intrigued: “I told Jay that I wanted to try and write for any project he works on.”
Flash forward to June 2019, and Roach summoned Spektor back to L.A. for a look at the film. “We all laughed and cried, and it had a real impact on me,” she tells Variety. “It stayed with me, and I had little words and melodies floating around in my head.”
With only a few days left before her scheduled return to New York, she worked quickly. “It was all a direct response to the film,” she explains. “You’re providing something for somebody else’s art, so that’s an interesting place to be.” She called Grammy-winning producer John Congleton, and they spent two days in an L.A. studio crafting the final version.
The lyrics of “One Little Soldier” (“You’ve got them real long legs, won’t you tell us a story, doesn’t even matter what you say”) relate directly to Ailes’ behavior as depicted in the film. “It’s very sparse [musically],” Spektor says. “The song is mostly bass and drums. I play some piano and some vintage synths.
“The movie is so smart, and so important, that’s it just very cool to be a part of it,” she adds. “I love when people can talk about art, and then art happens.”