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From Lady Gaga to Queen, Why Music Swept This Year’s Oscars

Oscar voters were determined to spread the love around this year, and boy, did they, with each of the eight best picture nominees getting at least one award, and none getting more than four. Nonetheless, there was a clear sweep on the show — by music. In a year where, only a month ago, the conversation was about how the telecast’s producers were working as hard as they could to rid the show of excess music, in the end, the Academy Awards were dominated both by striking musical performances and movies with music as a central element.

Could it be more ironic? Wherever he is now, musicals-meister Stanley Donen had to be smiling (even if he did have the audacity to die apparently past the Academy’s In Memoriam deadline). Somewhere up there, he was singin’ in the shallow, like the rest of us.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper were a movie unto themselves Sunday night, creating an off-the-scale level of emo chemistry that viewers will remember long after any shock and awe over a “Green Book” win has worn off. Never underestimate the power of two charismatic vocalists giving each other an extended soul kiss with their eyes, positioned where a single wandering camera can capture all the carefully choreographed splendor and smolder of a psychic makeout session.

Kendrick Lamar and SZA declined to perform “All the Stars” — and the Academy declined to invite Debbie Allen to create an interpretive “Black Panther” dance in their stead — so that left three nominees for best original song, all condensed down to the roughly two-minute range. The shortest, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” came in at 1:55 (still 10 seconds more than Sufjan Stevens got last year, so that’s something). Really, though, all three performers of the sub-“Shallow” nominated tunes made the most of their two minutes. Maybe too much, in one case.

Yes, Jennifer Hudson hit a bum note, during “I’ll Fight,” the Diane Warren-penned song from “RBG.” And yes, it happened to be a climactic note that was designed to go on for a very, very long time, and there was nothing to do but remain committed to it. Twitter lit up with incredulity that a vocal talent as great as Hudson could strike a bum one, but there was a lot of “We’re with you anyway, queen” sentiment, because who is rooting for Jennifer Hudson to fail? The problem probably had to do either with her in-ear monitors, as many sympathetic tweeters surmised, or with the fact that she had 90 seconds to build up to that climax, which is kind of like cutting corners on building a skyscraper.

Given how Hudson nailed the rest of the shortened tune, no one should be having any second thoughts about her being the best pick to play Aretha in that planned biopic. And, in front of those Ruth Bader Ginsburg-honoring LED Supreme Court pillars, she happened to pull off the look, wearing an outfit that was masculine on top, feminine on the bottom, speaking to the “RBG” theme of a woman revolutionary making it in a man’s world. (If only she and Billy Porter, who apparently bought off the same rack, had gotten together for a photo op.)

The other two nominated songs were both about death — “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” from “Mary Poppins Returns,” and “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” They have little in common beyond that and some serious songcraft. Bette Midler was a warm and wise choice to fill in for Emily Blunt as the singer of the “Poppins” lullaby; if ever there were a tenderly maternal voice you’d want to hear to assure you that your late mother is fine, wherever she is, it’d be Midler’s.

There was no particular gravity, meanwhile, to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ reading of their contribution to the one-fifth of “Buster Scruggs” that is a movie musical. In her introduction to the performance, presenter Kacey Musgraves read from a script that called “Spurs for Wings” “haunting” and added, “It could have been an absurd and comical moment in the film, but the song elevates it into something authentic and beautiful.” Well, maybe, or maybe Welch and Rawlings are just really good at doing deadpan and that moment in the film is absurd and comical. They played it pretty straight, though, in their Nudie suits in front of a Monument Valley backdrop. Rawlings even somehow got in a 10-second acoustic guitar solo amid the rush, and this queen and king of Americana surely grew their cult a little with the mass exposure to their harmonizing.

They won’t, they won’t rock you. That was up to Queen + Adam Lambert, possibly the best choice of a musical guest to open the show since Ann-Margret back in ’77. They came in second, behind Gaga, in the Oscar-or-is-it-Grammy sweepstakes, with a potent opening performance hampered only by the Academy’s determination to squeeze a medley of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” into a time slot just under four minutes. Clearly what the audience in the Dolby Theatre and at home wanted was all six minutes of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” regardless of whether that would have put off the inevitable look-ma-no-host jokes that followed a couple of minutes more. Still, Queen in a hurry beats no Queen at all. And it did allow for the endearing sight of an industry audience that is still not sure exactly how to stomp and clap along with “We Will Rock You” after 40 years of practice.

An outcome where people actually wished the musical numbers at the Oscars went on a little longer must have been highly unexpected to the Academy, a month after word leaked that they were looking to make the already speech-heavy show more talk, less rock. But all you really had to do to read the tealeaves was look at this year’s lineup of nominees, not just in the two music categories, but also across the board.

Of the eight best picture nominees, 37.5% were about musicians — “A Star Is Born,” “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” There was “Black Panther,” which relegated most of the songs Lamar curated to the end credits or a companion album, but which also produced the winner in the score category, with strikingly cross-cultural music by Ludwig Göransson that had the Swedish-born composer thanking both his African collaborators and London-based classical musicians. “Roma” benefitted from a thoughtful and subtle use of source music and had Alfonso Cuaron crafting its own eclectic companion album. “Vice” had a particularly thoughtful score by Nicholas Britell, as did, outside of the top category, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Also outside the marquee divisions, “Cold War,” too was about musicians, and “Mary Poppins Returns” was a full-on movie musical, as was the first fifth of the Coen brothers’ omnibus Western, “Buster Scruggs.”

The presenter choices seemed to reflect a possibly late-dawning realization on the Academy’s part that music should play a greater, not lesser, role this year. Musgraves, who just won the album of the year trophy at the Grammys two weeks ago, was seated on the aisle and managed to rack up about as many reaction shots as anyone in the audience. Other presenters included Pharrell, quoting the Bible in short pants, and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, in a tux.

And then, off the Academy books, there was that “American Idol” commercial that made an effective mini-musical out of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”… and that made you wish we could forget all about the Broadway jukebox musical the group already had, the atrocious “We Will Rock You,” and start with another one from scratch.

But in the end, this wouldn’t have been music’s big night at the Oscars if it hadn’t first been Gaga’s. And not just because she was the person responsible for getting the other nominated songs on the telecast by purportedly telling the Academy that she wouldn’t sing if everybody else wasn’t allowed to.

There was a magic to her and Cooper’s performance — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t use that word loosely for music on TV — starting with the radically casual start to it, which involved no introduction, a curtain going up, the sight of stagehands pushing a piano out, and a couple of people getting up from the front row to saunter onto the stage in no particular hurry at all. It was if they had an instinct that the performance would come off as more spectacular if it started off ridiculously casually. They only had four minutes to work with themselves, but Gaga and Cooper managed to masterfully pull off what Musgraves would refer to as the slow burn.

And whether this was the performers’ choice or the producers’, a decision was made to shoot “Shallow” exactly like all the performance footage was filmed in “A Star Is Born” — not from the audience’s point of view, because that’s boring, but from the artists’, or somewhere between them and the drum riser. Of course, successfully managing that means the duo had to face each other and not the crowd… something these two chemists don’t have any problem with. When their heads touched at the end for what stopwatch-holders said was a good 24 seconds, there was great swooning across the land. The swooning of little monsters and big-time romantics, sure, but also of anyone who thrills to see music presented in a galvanizing way on-screen.

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