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Does Doja Cat’s ‘Vegas,’ Which Interpolates Elvis Presley’s ‘Hound Dog,’ Qualify for an Oscar?

elvis
Everett Collection

Does Doja Cat’s hit song “Vegas” qualify to be an Oscar best song nominee?

The short answer is: Maybe. But the tune from Baz Luhrmann’s biopic “Elvis” faces more challenges than the average new movie song.

The three-and-a-half-minute, commercially released version of “Vegas,” a portion of which is heard during the first half-hour of the film, interpolates the 1950s classic “Hound Dog,” although more in its repeated use of a famous lyrical phrase (“you ain’t nothin’ but a…”) than any musical element.

Because of that, original “Hound Dog” songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are co-credited as writers on “Vegas” along with Doja Cat (under her real name, Amala Zandile Dlamini), David Sprecher and Roget Lufti Chahayed, the latter two of whom are the credited producers.

The question for Oscar music-branch judges — who will ultimately determine its eligibility for the golden statuette — is, does it meet the Academy’s criteria? Oscar rules state that any nominee “must be the result of a creative interaction” between filmmakers and songwriters “who have been engaged to work directly on the motion picture.”

Leiber died in 2011, and while Stoller is still alive, sources say he was not directly involved with the film (he was unavailable for an interview). Leiber and Stoller penned the blues number in 1952 for Big Mama Thornton, who turned it into a No. 1 hit on the R&B charts; Elvis Presley covered it in 1956 and it too went to No. 1 on the pop, country and R&B charts — simultaneously.

A second Oscar rule would appear to eliminate Leiber and Stoller from consideration. “Expressly excluded from eligibility are… partial contributors (i.e., any writer not responsible for the overall design of the work),” reads a later passage in the Academy regulations.

And yet a respected veteran branch member believes all of these issues may not necessarily mean an automatic disqualification. This individual pointed out that these questions are rarely black-and-white and that the branch executive committee will probably debate it if there is a question about eligibility.

The Academy source focused more on another rule, that “there must be a clearly audible, intelligible, substantive rendition” present in the film.

“Elvis” uses less than a minute of the Doja Cat vocal during a montage of Beale Street scenes, as young Presley overhears Thornton (played by Shonka Dukureh) sing “Hound Dog” and experiences the Memphis musical scene. (Dukureh died July 21 in Nashville; she was 44.)

Doja Cat’s rap is original and was written for the film, but sources say the film’s official cue sheet – which details every musical moment in the film, with specific timings, songwriter and publisher information – lists the “Vegas” song as including the “Hound Dog” interpolation and songwriters, which complicates the decision-making for the judges.

The “Hound Dog” vocal and the “Vegas” song, which itself samples Dukureh’s “Hound Dog” cover, essentially overlap, and the cue sheet declares a minute and 20 seconds of “Vegas” song as being heard in the film.

Music submissions are due Nov. 1, and the branch executive committee will begin weighing the issues that month. Warner Bros. is expected to enter the song for consideration and studio executives are hoping for a positive result.

Curiously, despite his reputation for creating lavish, expensive, music-filled films, no song from a Baz Luhrmann movie has ever been Oscar-nominated. “Come What May” from “Moulin Rouge” was nominated for a 2001 Golden Globe but was disqualified for the Oscar because it was actually written five years earlier for Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.”

“Vegas” peaked at no. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and reached No. 4 on Hot Rap Songs and No. 6 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart.