Oscar Carries a Tune: Final Analysis of the 2020 Song and Score Candidates

From the sound of Randy Newman singing “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” to Hildur Guðnadóttir writing the soundtrack to Joker definitely throwing himself away, here’s a last look at the original song and score candidates for the 2020 Oscars — with a few thoughts from the song contenders themselves, as Academy voting opens.

Four of five of this year’s song nominees were written by veteran movie tunesmiths, and four of them already have Oscars. But Academy members rarely consider that when voting, especially in recent years; they tend to choose what strikes them emotionally, or what stuck with them as they left the theater.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” ranks high on many prognosticators’ lists, as the John biopic “Rocketman” was well-liked and its sign-off song is the latest collaboration by a songwriting team that has been together for 52 years (and never won a major award together until this year’s Golden Globe). John won a 1994 Oscar for “The Lion King,” but this is Taupin’s first nomination.

“Stand Up,” from a more serious biopic, about slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, may be its chief competitor. Star Cynthia Erivo wrote (with Joshuah Campbell) and sings the gospel- and spiritual-inflected song, and if Erivo — also nominated as lead actress — is passed over for that honor, Academy voters may choose to reward her for the song.

“Into the Unknown” from “Frozen II” is also a contender. Two-time Oscar-winning songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, whose empowerment anthem “Let It Go” from the original “Frozen” became a global phenomenon, return with another Idina Menzel-sung showstopper for the sequel.

Also a two-time winner: revered pop songwriter Newman, who’s back with another song from a Pixar film, “Toy Story 4.” “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” is his amusing tune for Forky, the new toy who keeps trying to end it all. Both of Newman’s prior Oscars are also for Pixar movie songs (in “Monsters Inc.” and “Toy Story 3”).

The dark horse is veteran songwriter Diane Warren, now on her 11th nomination without
a win (despite such hits as “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and socially significant songs as “Til It Happens to You”). Her “I’m Standing With You” was penned for the fact-based but little seen “Breakthrough,” about a mom determined to keep her son alive after a terrible accident. But Warren has been everywhere during awards season and her efforts might just pay off.

Academy voters trying to make up their minds about how to vote in the original score category have a plethora of great choices, and not just the much-talked-about music for a certain DC Comics villain.

Four of the five nominees are veterans, three of them already with Oscars. John Williams set a new record with his 52nd music nomination, for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” He has five Oscars already (for such classics as “Jaws” and “E.T.”), but Williams partisans are calling his nine symphonic “Star Wars” scores “the greatest achievement in the history of film music” and believe he should be rewarded for the last in the 42-year-long saga.

Thomas Newman is another strong contender with his score for Sam Mendes’ World War I epic “1917.” Should Newman win for this music, which ranges from quiet ambient sounds to huge orchestral cues, it will mark his first victory in 15 nominations over 25 years.

Newman’s cousin Randy is also back in the competition, with nominations in both song and score categories; his two previous Oscars are for Pixar movie songs. His “Marriage Story” score, for chamber ensemble, conveys the complex feelings of a New York couple negotiating the troubled waters of divorce.

In sharp contrast is French composer Alexandre Desplat’s charming and lyrical score for “Little Women,” which borrows a page from Mozart in its musical colors: strings, two pianos, harp, flute and clarinet. Desplat already has two score Oscars .

All face off against the sole woman in the category, and one of only five ever to be nominated for composing an original score: Iceland-born, Berlin-based Guðnadóttir, for her dark and disturbing music for “Joker.” She composed a theme for the character based on a reading of the script, and when director Todd Phillips played it on the set, star Joaquin Phoenix danced to it: her unique electro-acoustic cello became the voice of the mad Joker.

A few words from the contenders in the song category:

“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from “Toy Story 4”
Music and lyrics by Randy Newman
Performed by Randy Newman

Songwriter’s POV: “I have great affection for these characters, and it was good to be back in that world again. [In the song, Bonnie’s new  toy] Forky gets it in his head that he’s disposable, so he keeps trying to throw himself in the trash can, and Woody has put himself in charge of keeping Forky from doing so.”

“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from “Rocketman”
Music by Elton John, Lyric by Bernie Taupin
Performed by Elton John and Taron Egerton

Songwriter’s POV: (Taupin) “It really made sense to write something that was wholly original, that encompasses what the film was about, which was redemption. It’s reflective, but it’s also about going forward and being positive. And the cinematic Elton and the real-life Elton performing together also made perfect sense.”

“I’m Standing With You” from “Breakthrough”
Music and lyrics by Diane Warren
Performed by Chrissy Metz

Songwriter’s POV: “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.”

“Into the Unknown” from “Frozen II”
Music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
Performed by Idina Menzel

Songwriter’s POV: (Robert) “Elsa has this unfulfilled longing. She begins the song resisting the call, protesting that she’s happy enough. When she responds to it, that’s the event that sets off the entire adventure.” (Kristen) “Idina is our muse. She’s really vulnerable; it’s a side of Elsa you haven’t heard yet, more mature, questioning. It was so fun to explore with her.”

“Stand Up” from “Harriet”
Music and lyrics by Joshuah Brian Campbell and Cynthia Erivo
Performed by Erivo

Songwriter’s POV: (Erivo) “After spending so much time with Harriet and her story, I felt it was necessary to have a song about the work that she had done. We wanted it 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. We pulled together many instrumentalists and a choir to create the right sound for it.”

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