Of course, 2020 was a year like no other when it came to screen entertainment. As the coronavirus pandemic shut down productions across the U.S., it allowed Netflix to continue churning out content from its deep arsenal of movies and series.
Last year, Netflix put forth no fewer than eight original song contenders, including contributions from Taylor Swift and John Legend. What are the chances the streamer will dominate, and ultimately win, in the category? Two words: Diane Warren.
The legendary songwriter has been nominated for original song 11 times, but never won. If the Academy feels she’s long overdue, her contribution to Netflix’s “The Life Ahead,” the Sophia Loren starrer whose song is performed in Italian by Laura Pausini, is as deserving as they come. Warren wrote the lyrics in English before it was translated. As she explains of the film’s two main characters, Holocaust survivor Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren) and troubled juvenile Momo (Ibrahima Gueye): “They are not seen for who they are by the outside world, but they learn to truly see each other and, though it’s not easy at first, to truly love each other.”
EGOT John Legend makes a return to the original song race with “Never Break” from the August Wilson documentary “Giving Voice.” “I was inspired by the tenacity and resilience [of young people],” he says of the song’s genesis. “The world is dangerous, there’s nothing we can take, we will never break.” Resilience, a relatable theme in 2020 — both universally with the Black Lives Matter movement, and personally for Legend and wife Chrissy Teigen, who lost a child last year — the lyrics speak of a resolve that we can get through any “tough time we might face.”
Never count out animated movies for song nominations. Nine of the past 10 Oscar ceremonies have included tunes from movies that feature animated or puppet characters. A frontrunner is “Rocket to the Moon” from “Over the Moon,” about a little girl who longs to find out the truth about a legendary lunar goddess. As songwriter Christopher Curtis explains: “It starts off with a girl in grief. She’s heartbroken. Then she has this moment of intuition, she’s inspired, she sings ‘fly away,’ and it soars.” He recalls director Glen Keane telling the songwriters: “I want this song to be us going on her emotional journey, and when she takes off, I want to be on that rocket with her.”
And what of the only original musical in the batch? The centerpiece of “Jingle Jangle,” Netflix’s Christmas fantasy, is misunderstood nerd Journey (Madalen Mills) singing “Square Root of Possible,” in which she finally grasps her own importance. Songwriter Philip Lawrence says it was the first one he and his collaborators wrote for the film. “A song to tell her story, and more importantly, give little black girls, little brown girls or even just girls around the world, a voice, that maybe speaks to them in a way they haven’t been spoken to before,” he says.
The title, Lawrence says, was inspired by a line in director David Talbert’s script that connects Journey with her inventor grandfather, and their shared love for“math and science and formulas.”
Also in the musical realm, “The Prom” concludes with a new number, not part of the original Broadway score, titled “Wear Your Crown.” Co-writer Matthew Sklar says director Ryan Murphy “wanted us to create a celebratory, upbeat anthem for the women of the cast to sing. He wanted it to be a pop song, not in the language of the Broadway show, something new and fresh, but he also wanted it to have a theatrical flair.” Sklar and his Broadway partner Chad Beguelin teamed with Murphy’s music producers Adam Anders and Peer Astrom to write a song “about being proud of who you are with no apologies,” Sklar says. “Celebrate who you are. A lot of people, especially young people, need to hear that.”
On the other end of the sentiment scale,” Hear My Voice,” from “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” is unique for its period protest-song vibe. Filmmaker Aaron Sorkin “wanted an ending that gave you hope,” says composer Daniel Pemberton, “a sense of freedom, what everyone’s fighting for. They want change.”
Written with British singer-songwriter Celeste, based on the opening piece in his score, Pemberton says they “finished that song, originally written for events in 1968, and the world around us changed. Suddenly the lyrics take on a whole different meaning. People being denied their voice? That’s happening right now.”
To that end, don’t discount Taylor Swift, whose “Only the Young ” was featured in the documentary “Miss Americana.” Swift told Variety last year she hoped “it could maybe hopefully stoke some fires politically and maybe engage younger people to form their own views, break away from the pack, and not feel like they need to vote exactly the same way that people in their town are voting.” As it turned out, the song received a resurgence in the fall when candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris used it for a political ad.
The longest shot may be “(If Only You Could) Save Me” from “Mank.” Written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as a classic 1940s big-band tune, it’s only a minute long and the lyrics refer to the film’s lead character, hard-drinking screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz.
Reznor says he intended it to be sung by a man, someone like the Ink Spots’ Bill Kenny, but director David Fincher suggested a change to a Kate Smith-style female voice (Adryon DeLeon).
To date, Netflix has only received two Oscar nominations for original song. Look for that to change in this year’s derby. It might even win.