The Oscars’ original song shortlist — 15 tunes that will vie for the final five nomination slots come Feb. 8 — may be the most star-studded in Academy history.
Is the Motion Picture Academy’s music branch smitten by such A-list names, or did 2021 just happen to be a particularly strong year for well-known recording stars or high-powered writers? It’s hard to say, but one thing is for sure: the 375 members who get to vote on the nominees have a glittering array of choices.
Leading the list is Billie Eilish’s “No Time to Die,” theme for the James Bond film that finally arrived in October and marks Daniel Craig’s swan song as 007. She’s already won the Grammy for movie song, not to mention a Golden Globe, and Eilish and her co-writer Finneas are certain to be nominated. If she wins, it will mark the third consecutive Bond film to take home an original song Oscar.
Three songs hail from previous Oscar winners. H.E.R., who took home last year’s award for “Fight for You,” is in the running with “Automatic Woman” from “Bruised,” while “La La Land” songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (along with co-star Amandla Stenberg) penned the new song “The Anonymous Ones” for the film version of their Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Yet the mixed critical and audience reception for both movies could negatively impact the voting, leaving the third one with an Oscar pedigree — “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)” from the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” written by past winner Jennifer Hudson, revered pop writer Carole King and English writer Jamie Hartman — as a more likely nominee. The three writers are already nominated for a Grammy this year (and were also up for the Golden Globe that Eilish just won).
King isn’t the only legendary singer-songwriter in the running. Kenneth Branagh’s childhood memoir “Belfast” is soundtracked with Van Morrison songs, and he wrote a new one, “Down to Joy,” for the occasion. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, subject of the documentary “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road,” co-wrote and sings “Right Where I Belong,” and could be a sentimental favorite.
U2 (technically “music by U2, lyrics by Bono”) contributed “Your Song Saved My Life” to “Sing 2,” one of two animated features with songs in contention. The fact that Bono voices a key character in the film, and the song is performed as part of the film and not an end-title afterthought, could work in the iconic rocker’s favor.
The other animated film in this category is Disney’s “Encanto,” with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He entered the evocative “Dos Oruguitas,” sung by Colombian pop star Sebastián Yatra. It could become only the second Spanish-language song to be nominated (after “Al otro lado del rio” in 2004), and if Miranda wins he will officially obtain EGOT status, having already earned two Emmys, three Grammys and a trio of Tonys during his time in the post-“Hamilton” limelight.
Songs performed on screen always have an advantage, and two musicals offer numbers voters may remember: “Annette,” written by Ron and Russell Mael, aka rock duo Sparks, whose opening number “So May We Start?” is shot outside L.A.’s renowned Village recording studio; and “Cinderella,” with its pivotal, thought-provoking number “Dream Girls,” co-written and sung by Idina Menzel as the not-so-wicked stepmother.
For “Don’t Look Up,” Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi (billed as co-writers with composer Nicholas Britell and songwriter Taura Stinson) sing “Just Look Up,” which plays a role in Adam McKay’s narrative about moronic Americans ignoring scientific fact. That could make a difference for voters choosing their final five.
Perhaps the most interesting matchup pits spouses against each other: Beyoncé has a contender in “Be Alive” from “King Richard,” the story of Serena and Venus Williams’ determined tennis-coach dad, while her husband, Jay-Z, is co-writer (along with Kid Cudi and director-composer Jeymes Samuel) of “Guns Go Bang” from Samuel’s all-Black Western “The Harder They Fall.”
What’s doubly intriguing is that “Be Alive” plays under the end titles of “King Richard,” while “Guns Go Bang” has a far more prominent role (complete with rap lyrics and gunshots punctuating the rhythm track, à la old Sergio Leone movies) under the opening titles of “The Harder They Fall.”
Another end-title song that may face an uphill battle for recognition is “Somehow You Do,” which Reba McEntire sings at the end of the drug-addiction drama “Four Good Days.” The movie was practically forgotten after its April 30 release, but the song is by veteran Diane Warren, a 12-time Oscar nominee who is a show biz favorite still without a win. It’s also the only country-flavored tune in the bunch.
Another longshot is the end-title song from “CODA,” an instance of a good song concluding a sentimental crowd favorite. Star Emilia Jones sings “Beyond the Shore,” by Grammy winner Marius de Vries and co-writers including director Sian Heder.