This Friday sees the release of “A Star Is Born” — otherwise known, in internet meme terms, as that movie where Bradley Cooper asks Lady Gaga to turn around so he can get another look at her. But Warner Bros. knows that people aren’t writing off its Oscar heavyweight as a joke; the studio knows that people are laughing with the movie, and not at it (for the most part, anyway). And that’s because Lady Gaga won’t let us.
“Shallow” was probably always going to be a phenomenon, but not even Warner Bros. could have anticipated that even casual fans would know the words to this soaring power-balled before they ever saw “A Star Is Born,” or that the music video they slapped together for it would amass more than nine million views in less than 100 hours. Written by Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, and Andrew Wyatt, the song is a sublime vehicle for Gaga’s voice, and has genuine “My Heart Will Go On” potential. Needless to say, it’s already the prohibitive favorite to win the Oscar for Best Original Song, even though “Mary Poppins” surely has a surprise or two hidden up her umbrella. Not since “Let it Go” ran away with the category in 2014 has there been such a clear and obvious frontrunner — at least, that’s how it seems on the surface of things.
And yet, for all of the song’s self-evident genius, it’s not quite the safe bet it seems to be. Gaga and the rest of her gang might well find themselves being called to the stage of the Dolby Theatre on February 24, but they’ll have to triumph over a handful of killer tracks to get there (including “Maybe it’s Time” and a couple of other standouts from “A Star Is Born!”). Here are five songs that suggest the competition is a bit deeper than it seems on the surface.
1. “Ashes” — “Deadpool 2” (Written by Petey Martin, Jordan Smith, and Tedd T; performed by Céline Dion)
It’s important to note that songs don’t have to be “good” in order to win or be nominated for an Oscar; historically, in fact, quality has been something of a major disadvantage. No, all a song needs to be in order to land one of those coveted slots is loud, deeply emotional, or funny, and it helps if it’s performed by a major star who everyone wants to see onstage. God help us all: Céline Dion’s power-ballad parody from the “Deadpool 2” soundtrack somehow manages to check all of those contradictory boxes at once.
A tongue-in-cheek tribute to the humorless anthems that were often tacked on to big movies in the ’90s (kind of like Dion’s own “My Heart Will Go On,” but less organic and incredible), “Ashes” is the kind of bald-faced appeal for a Best Original Song nomination that only something like Deadpool could pull off with a straight face. Spoiler alert: It’s going to work. Complete with a chorus that Adele would kill for, and laced with knowingly groan-worthy lyrics that Dion’s soaring voice infuses with all manner of empty emotion (example: “Can you use these tears to put out the fires in my soul?”), “Ashes” is sure to contend in its category, just as its inevitable nod is sure to be the subject of a self-referential joke in “Deadpool 3.”
2. “All of the Stars” — “Black Panther” (Written by Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Sounwave, and Al Shux; performed by Lamar and SZA)
“Black Panther” was always going to be more than just another Marvel movie, but it wasn’t until they hired Kendrick Lamar to quarterback the soundtrack that some people started to realize how much more it was really going to be. Beyond the basic credibility that he brought with him, Lamar also contributed a couple of different songs to the album that he curated for the superhero phenomenon, including lead single, “All the Stars,” which has now been stuck in your head for more than 10 months. Ridiculously catchy from the moment SZA starts flexing atop a slinky trip-hop beat, the track only gets more addictive when Lamar rolls up with all of the swagger and sensitivity that make T’Challa such a natural born king.
Given how corporate this franchise is — and how small the overlap between profits and artistry can be in the Venn Diagram of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — it’s pretty incredible to hear two of the contemporary music world’s best artists come together and perform a genuinely fantastic song that was inspired by Wakanda. And while “All the Stars” might be the most broadly accessible track on the album, it’s not even the only one that could merit serious Oscar consideration; The Weeknd’s “Pray for Me” (which also features Lamar) might even be more forceful and dynamic. The soundtrack is all the more impressive when you consider how dull and forgettable the music has been in almost every other superhero movie, and it’s one of the many things about “Black Panther” that deserves to be celebrated at the Academy Awards.
3. “Suspirium” — ”Suspiria” (Written and performed by Thom Yorke)
Now that Jonny Greenwood has firmly established himself as one of the most exciting film composers in the world today, his Radiohead bandmate Thom Yorke is trying to follow suit. So far, so great. The haunting and eccentric score that Yorke composed for Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake is a recurring highlight in a movie that is almost entirely comprised of highlights, and makes us optimistic that Yorke and Guadagnino might forge a musical collaboration as strong as the one between Greenwood and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Unlike Greenwood, however, Yorke is a singer (his ominous falsetto is one of the most affecting instruments in the “Suspiria” score), and several of his contributions to the film meet the Academy’s criteria for Best Original Song. Chief among them: The plaintively beautiful “Suspirium,” which plays over the opening credits and sets the tone for the psychological evisceration to come. Running atop a lilting piano melody, and set to incisive lyrics that cut to the heart of Guadagnino’s remake (“This is waltz thinking about our bodies/what they mean for our salvation”), the song is as fragile and tortured as the movie for which it was written, and it only grows more unnerving once a solo flute starts dancing above the closing sections.
Yorke’s clout would force “Suspirium” into consideration even if it weren’t one of the best non-Radiohead tracks he’s ever written, and there’s no reason why he couldn’t slide into the spot the Academy usually keeps open for “alt” stars (e.g. Sufjan Stevens, Anohni, Björk). Of course, those “alt” nominees ever actually win the damn thing, but there are plenty of people who would settle for the chance to hear Yorke sing in the middle of Hollywood’s biggest night.
4. “Hearts Beat Loud” — “Hearts Beat Loud” (Written by Keegan DeWitt; performed by Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman)
A sweet and scrappy charmer about a widowed Brooklyn dad (Nick Offerman) who forms a band with his reluctant daughter (Kiersey Clemons) during the summer before she goes to college, Brett Haley’s “Hearts Beat Loud” is one of those movies that was always going to live and die on the strength of its music. The whole plot, such as it is, hinges on the two lead characters writing, rehearsing, and performing some indie rock together; almost everything we learn about them is expressed through the songs they create. Not only that, but those songs have to be good enough to justify a plot in which they catch fire on Spotify, and stoke enough interest for the daughter to question her dream of going to med school and becoming a doctor.
Thanks to stalwart film composer Keegan DeWitt and Haley’s hyper-winsome cast, those songs are good enough and then some. Warm and propulsive synth and guitar-driven jams that allow Clemons and Offerman to sing with their hearts on their sleeves, DeWitt’s anthems make for some of the best music that Chvches have never written. While all of the tunes are rock-solid, the standout is the title track, which chugs along on the strength of a bittersweet little hook (and the power of Clemons’ expressive voice) before popping into a full-throated plea for love and connection.
Not only is “Hearts Beat Loud” a radio-friendly hit in the making, but it’s also used to soundtrack the rehearsal montage and the climax of the film that shares its name. If only that film weren’t a tiny indie that grossed less than Lady Gaga’s hat budget on “A Star Is Born,” it might have a more legitimate shot at a nomination. As it stands, the song might still be catchy enough to get there on its own merits.
5. “The Flower of the Universe” — “A Wrinkle in Time” (Written by Sade Adu, Andrew Hale, and Ben Travers; performed by Sade)
Ava DuVernay could hardly contain her excitement when the great Sade (and her band of the same name) agreed to write a song for “A Wrinkle in Time,” and the director had good reason to be excited. For one thing, “Flower of the Universe” is the first original song that the legendary soul artist had written in more than seven years. For another thing, it’s a stone-cold knockout. A simple ballad that’s built atop a gentle strum and glazed with Sade’s inimitable voice, the tune is a proud and achingly beautiful ode from a parent to their child, and in just a few short minutes it manages to capture so much of the heart that beat inside DuVernay’s special effects spectacular. Even if “Flower of the Universe” might prove a touch too soft and gentle to threaten “Shallow” in a meaningful way, the Academy — and all of us watching at home — would be lucky to hear Sade croon this gorgeous lullaby on their stage for all the world to see.
Other songs that could factor into the race:
“Revelation” — “Boy Erased” (Troye Sivan and Jónsi)
“Gravity” — “Free Solo” (Tim McGraw and Lori McKenna)
“The Big Unknown” — ”Widows” (Sade)
“For You” — ”Fifty Shades Freed” (Liam Payne and Rita Ora)
“Finally Free” — “Smallfoot” (Niall Horan)
“Love Lies” — “Love, Simon” (Khalid & Normani)
“Turning Teeth” — “Under the Silver Lake” (Jesus, the Brides of Dracula)
“Here Comes the Change” — “On the Basis of Sex” (Kesha)