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There are four songs vying for Best Original Song at this Sunday’s Oscars. Los Angeles Times music writer Todd Martens joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to preview the field.
Though there are some major stars writing several of the songs in this category, Todd Martens says “Let it Go” is “definitely the favorite.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. And it is Oscar week. The Academy Awards are this Sunday, and we're going to focus on one specific category right now - the four nominees nominated for best original song. Now, the artists behind the music come from a range of styles - Broadway, RNB, pop and rock - but who will take the prize this Sunday? Here to go through this year's nominees is Todd Martens. He is music writer for the Los Angeles Times, and he's with us from LA. Todd, welcome.
TODD MARTENS: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
HOBSON: Well, first of all, how are the best original song nominees chosen?
MARTENS: All of the nominated songs from a shortlist this year, you know, there's usually about 50 to 70 songs that are actually, you know, deemed eligible. All of those songs are then put on a DVD. That DVD is sent out to all of the members of the music branch of the Academy Awards. So then they all watch the DVD. So you all watch the way the song appears in the film, whether the song is in the end credits or the song is in the actual, like, middle of the movie.
So you just watch that scene, and then you make your selection after, you know, watching that DVD. So, you know, ideally, you know, you're looking for something that, you know, reflects what is happening on the screen or, you know, either echoes it or somehow answers it, you know, something that really shows that the film is, you know, made better for having this piece of music in it.
HOBSON: All right. Well, let's get to some of the nominees. First of all, there is "Let It Go." It's from the Disney film "Frozen." It is written by the husband-and-wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and it's performed in the film by Idina Menzel. Let's hear a little.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT GO")
IDINA MENZEL: (Singing) Don't let them in. Don't let them see. Be the good girl you always had to be. Conceal, don't feel. Don't let them know. Well, now they know. Let it go. Let it go. Can't hold it back anymore. Let it go. Let it go. Turn away and slam the door. I don't care what they're going to say. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway.
HOBSON: Well, it certainly sounds like a song from a Disney movie.
MARTENS: Yeah. I can't hear that song without starting to tear up a little.
HOBSON: Well, that's the one everyone says is going to win, right?
MARTENS: It's definitely the favorite, you know, and I think if you look historically at the category, if there's a song from a Disney film in contention, it usually gets nominated. Sometimes multiple Disney songs get nominated. And plus that scene is such an integral part of "Frozen." If you remember the film - we've all seen the film - you know, Princess Elsa - Queen Elsa then is sort of building this ice palace. You know, it's these grand sort of overtures of music and gusts of snow.
It's a really beautiful moment in the film and so - and it's also a moment that sort of signifies what the character is about, which is why I think it's had, you know, such resonance with fans of the film. So yeah, I think that's definitely the favorite.
HOBSON: And there were a couple of versions of the song that were released, actually, the one sung there by Idina Menzel and also another version by the pop star Demi Lovato. How common is that?
MARTENS: That's pretty common. I think in this instance, you know, with something where, you know, the song in the film is much more of the sort of Broadway, you know, "Wicked" influence sort of style - you know, they went with sort of the big-name pop star, and her song is at the end credits. And I think they've actually been a little surprised because the one that seems to have connected with audiences is the one that's in the scene in the film and not the one that's sung by, you know, the teen star.
HOBSON: Let's get to another nominee. This is the song "Happy." It's from "Despicable Me 2." It's written and performed by one of the biggest stars around, of course, multiple Grammy Award winner Pharrell Williams.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")
PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) Because I'm happy. Clap along if you feel like a room without a room because I'm happy. Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth because I'm happy. Clap along if you know what happiness is to you because I'm happy. Clap along if you feel like that's what you want to do.
HOBSON: See now, I'm a big fan of Pharrell Williams. But tell us about this song.
MARTENS: So yeah. This song in the film appears pretty early in the film. It's one of the main characters. That sort of skinny-fat sort of main character guy goes on a date that goes very poorly, and then he's very happy that it went poorly. And then it sort of sets off this montage where he, you know, sort of dances around to the song. He's got, you know, those little rubber duckies he's playing with. And so it's this very sort of big, sort of, sort, you know, skipping-down-the-street moment.
And that's a, you know, really cool song. It's got this, you know, very sort of light, sort of Curtis Mayfield-type groove. It's a little understated for Pharrell. You know, it's a good summer song. It's upbeat and a little subtle.
HOBSON: OK. Well, let's move right along to the next nominee. This is "The Moon Song." It's from the movie "Her." This is the movie all about the guy who falls in love with an operating system. And this song is written by Karen O, lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The version appears in the end credits. But in the film it is sung by Scarlett Johansson, who plays the operating system. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MOON SONG")
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (Singing) I'm lying on the moon. My dear, I'll be there soon. It's a quiet, starry place. Times were swallowed up in space. We're here a million miles away.
HOBSON: So Todd, I'm not in the Academy, but if I were, I would be voting for this one.
MARTENS: It's such an odd little song. It's very beautiful. And if you keep listening to it, you know, there are sounds of like the city sort of move in there. And it's the exact kind of song that the Academy Awards didn't use to sort of put in this category. You know, Karen O has written songs with Spike Jonze before for "Where the Wild Things Are." That one was overlooked. You know, it's a really sort of beautiful moment in that film. And yeah, I was definitely glad to see it nominated.
HOBSON: Why is it something that the Academy wouldn't have thought of before?
MARTENS: I think, you know, if you look in recent years, they really tend to focus, you know, very heavily on, you know, if not movie musicals, you know, movies where like music is like paramount, like, you know, "The Muppet Movie" or you know, animated movies which generally have these big sort of, you know, song medleys. So they've tended to focus a little bit more on that side, you know, something where a song is a little bit more sort of soft or quiet, you know, that tended to get overlooked.
HOBSON: And for people who haven't seen the movie, by the way, it is so perfect in setting up the loneliness of this guy who falls in love with his operating system. But let's get to the last nominee. This is "Ordinary Love" from "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." It was written and performed by U2.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORDINARY LOVE")
U2: (Singing) The sea throws rocks together, but time leaves us polished stones. We can't fall any further if we can't feel ordinary love. We cannot reach any higher if we can't deal with ordinary love.
HOBSON: Todd, a great song although it sounds just like another U2 song, doesn't it?
MARTENS: Yeah. I was going to say that's pretty much the same thing we've heard from U2 for the last five or six years.
HOBSON: But what about it? Does it have a chance?
MARTENS: You know, despite being U2 and despite as big as U2 and Bono are, I think it's probably the underdog in this category. And it's largely because it is the end credit song of that film. So if you're, you know, an Oscar voter and you get this DVD of, you know, scene after scene after scene, and you see that quiet moment in "Her," you see that big moment ion "Frozen," you see that, you know, happy-go-lucky moment in "Despicable Me 2," then you're just going to watch U2 and you're going to watch the credits roll. So I think what's going to stick with you is probably going to be something that was used in the film.
HOBSON: LA Times music writer Todd Martens talking with us about the nominees for best original song. Todd, thanks so much for joining us.
MARTENS: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKYFALL")
ADELE: (Singing) This is the end...
HOBSON: And here, of course, is last year's winner, it is "Skyfall." From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.