Tragedy struck earlier this month when — for unknown reasons that will hopefully be explained by a hard-hitting true crime podcast at some point in the future — “Glasgow” from “Wild Rose” was denied a nomination for Best Original Song at the Oscars this year. In a season full of terrible snubs that made all too much sense, this one was truly baffling. Co-written by Caitlyn Smith, Kate York, and Academy Award-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, and sung to soul-lifting perfection by Jessie Buckley, this gorgeous country anthem must not have fit into the songwriting branch’s increasingly narrow idea of what an Oscar-worthy song should sound like (bland, somehow genre-less, and transparently written for no other reason than to be nominated for this one award).
And yet, in a decision that historians of the future will describe as “perverse,” the Academy has decided not to scrap the entire category out of shame. Indeed, there will still be a Best Original Song trophy handed out at the Oscars this year, and the film community will applaud them as politely as the tennis world did Novak Djokovic when he won the 2016 French Open after Rafael Nadal had to withdraw due to a wrist injury in the third round. And truth be told, the winner may well be a worthy one; it’s hard to completely thumb your nose at any group that includes the likes of Cynthia Erivo, Elton John, Randy Newman, and Diane Warren.
Here are the five non-“Glasgow” songs nominated for Best Original Song this year, ranked in order of merit.
5. Song: “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” (Randy Newman)
Movie: “Toy Story 4”
All respect to the great Randy Newman — we stan the original maestro of Mumblecore — but it’s straight-up deranged that he’s received the latest of his 15 Oscar nominations for writing this tedious suicide-prevention song about a spork who literally can’t stop trying to throw itself away (as the repetitive lyrics of “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” so artfully explain). Newman has been nominated for his work on all three of the previous “Toy Story” movies, and the win he earned for the last and least memorable of those felt like a nice way of recognizing his overall contribution to Pixar’s signature trilogy. But then Pixar decided to make another one, giving Newman the chance to show us what “diminishing returns” really sound like.
It’s actually unfathomable that members of the Academy’s songwriting branch listened to this song and agreed that it was more deserving of recognition than “Glasgow,” or the somber ode to real estate that Bong Joon Ho wrote for the end of “Parasite,” or even that awful song about a haunted litter box that Taylor Swift wrote for “Cats” (that’s what that song’s about, right?). Forky is my friend and they deserve better.
4. Song: I’m Standing With You” (Diane Warren)
It wouldn’t be a Best Original Song category without a brilliant artist belting out a stoically mediocre power hymn called “If I Rise,” “Raise It Up,” or some other generic variation along those lines. This year generously offers voters two such options from which to choose: “Stand Up,” from “Harriet,” and “I’m Standing with You,” from the Christian drama “Breakthrough.” And while the latter makes the daring artistic decision to go with a title that reveals who or what it is that someone is standing for, the former has the benefit of being sung by Cynthia Erivo.
Chrissy Metz is of course a formidable talent in her own right, but she doesn’t exactly distract from the feeling that “I’m Standing With You” should only be played over a saccharine montage during a very special episode of “This Is Us.” Written by the brilliant Diane Warren — an 11-time nominee (and zero-time winner) who reliably sells her least inspired work to any documentary or biopic in need of some standard-issue uplift to carry it into the awards conversation — this lite FM ode to the wonders of solidarity feels like a discarded rough draft of the eminently forgettable song Warren penned for “RGB” last year (“I’ll Fight”), which itself felt like a faint echo of the tune she contributed to 2018’s “Marshall” (called — you guessed it — “Stand Up for Something”). At this point, Warren doesn’t seem to know or care what will bring people to their feet, she really just wants an invite to stand on that Oscar stage. She’s a genius, and the Academy embarrassed itself when they awarded Best Original Song to a throwaway from “The Prince of Egypt” over Warren’s immortal Aerosmith power-ballad “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” but “Breakthrough” has little chance of following through on the promise of its title.
3. Song: “Stand Up” (Joshuah Brian Campbell & Cynthia Erivo)
Stay on your feet, everyone. Layering a modern pop feel over the echoes of spirituals from the Underground Railroad, “Stand Up” is a fittingly forgettable soundtrack for the closing credits of an ultra-safe Harriet Tubman biopic. Co-written by the mega-talented Erivo — who earned another Oscar nomination for her work in the rest of the movie — this perfunctory anthem is powered along by the richness of its history, the righteousness of its message, and the inimitable force of Erivo’s voice. The song thrives in its smaller moments, as Erivo channels Tubman’s resolve over a rhythmic field chant that evokes the indignities of her time. Alas, that specificity evaporates as soon as Erivo arrives at a muted chorus that never brings you to your feet; she sings about feeling the call of freedom in her bones, but “Stand Up” is too broadly functional to be sung with the same oomph she brings to the rest of her work.
2. Song: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”
Essentially a plot song that plays over the closing credits and recaps everything that “Rocketman” just covered, this bouncy, second-rate Elton jam ends the authorized biopic on a triumphant note of self-love. It’s a fool’s errand to follow two hours of bonafide classics, but (“I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” is boisterous enough to hold its own, if also a bit too anodyne to register as anything more than an over-produced attitude. The catchy chorus goes a long way, the saxophones channel the bouncy spirit of a movie that maintains its pulse even during the darkest moments of John’s life, and there’s something particularly sweet about how Bernie Taupin’s lyrics are filtered through the voice of his “very best friend.” This would be one of the weaker Best Original Song winners in recent memory — every champion since 2010’s “We Belong Together” has carried at least a little more cultural weight — but it would still be a fitting and inoffensive prize for a movie that dared to mess with the stale biopic formula.
1. “Into the Unknown” (Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez)
Movie: “Frozen II”
After “Frozen” became a second language for every kid on the planet and the Oscar-winning belter “Let it Go” helped elevate the princess movie into a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that now includes video games, television shows, a Broadway musical, a widely despised short film about the snowman, and your child’s last five birthday parties, there was no way that Disney was going to release a sequel without a soaring mega-hit of a song to go along with it. In fact, it’s likely that songwriting power couple Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez had to come up with a monolithic ear warm before production would move forward on the rest of the film.
Needless to say, they did just that. “Into the Unknown” might not spark with quite the same lighting in a bottle quality that “Let it Go” used to power an entire brand, but it’s another sky-high tidal wave of a song that Idina Menzel seems to unleash from somewhere inside your rib cage. It starts with a mythic smallness, as AURORA’s enchanted coos swirl around a delicate and lilting piano melody. Then Menzel makes her way into the mix, the string section chugging to life as the singer gives voice to Elsa’s uncertainty about whether she ought to face her fears and follow a calling that no one else can hear. Menzel is unstoppable as always, the chorus is an absolute monster that leaps from the bottom of her range to the top in a single bound, and — best of all — the song plays a pivotal role in the movie, as the heroine seizes her purpose and speeds into the unknown with such momentum that you can’t help but follow her.