Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Is This Year’s Oscar For Best Original Song Made For “Barbie?”

For a film about dolls and life in plastic, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” is a stunning reminder of what it is to be human. As the titular role of stereotypical Barbie, Margot Robbie charts a moving journey of discovering the real world. The character’s intrusive thoughts — “Do you guys ever think about dying?” — lead her off the rosy Barbieland path and towards the messiness of her true self. Who does Barbie represent, and what was she made for? A pivotal existential sequence from the film, when Barbie meets her maker, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), encompasses the creator’s hopes and dreams for a doll created out of imagining who girls could become. Instead of just being an idea, Barbie’s desire for a human experience takes Ruth by delightful surprise. While humans only have one ending, the journey itself is where the magic happens, even if it feels scary and uncertain. The lyrics of Billie Eilish’s melodic ballad, “What Was I Made For?” articulate this during Barbie and Ruth’s sequence: “I don’t know how to feel, but I want to try.” The song plays at the most opportune time, driving home the heart of why “Barbie” was made and how the film has struck a chord, especially as an ode to girlhood and womanhood. 

Approaching the heat of awards season, the cultural phenomenon of “Barbie” can be felt everywhere, from this past Gotham Awards (where Robbie and Gerwig accepted the Global Icon & Creator Tribute) to Robbie’s vintage Barbie-inspired outfits at various industry events to the 2024 Grammy nominations announced earlier this month. The film is skyrocketing towards recognition on multiple fronts leading up to the 96th Academy Awards, and there is one Oscar category that feels especially made for “Barbie“: Best Original Song. 

From the cheerful “Pink” opening number and glittering disco “Dance the Night” to the technicolor metal “I’m Just Ken” extravaganza, the film is full of buzzy contenders. “Barbie The Album” has already earned 11 Grammy nominations, filling up four spots for Best Visual Media Song. The song “What Was I Made For?” alone has five Grammy nominations, including Best Song of the Year. Plus, it won Best Original Song in a Feature Film at the 14th Hollywood Music in Media Awards. Will the early accolades give more shape to the song’s potential as an Oscar frontrunner? The Academy going for “What Was I Made For?” would make Billie Eilish the youngest person to ever win two Oscars, surpassing the record set by Luise Rainer (who won Best Actress back-to-back for “The Great Ziegfeld” and “The Good Earth”). Eilish, shared with her brother Finneas O’Connell, previously won Best Original Song for the James Bond tune “No Time to Die” from 2021’s “No Time to Die.”

Given the competition “Barbie” faces in categories across the board, Best Original Song might be the film’s safest bet at an Oscar win. The Academy’s ruling that only two songs from a film can be nominated bodes well for “Barbie,” following in the footsteps of 2016’s “La La Land,” which won the category for “City of Stars” (composed by Justin Hurwitz) and received an additional nomination for “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (also composed by Hurwitz). While “Barbie” has multiple song options to choose from, a few stand out as most likely to charm voters. 

Musical duo Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt (who won an Oscar for co-writing the Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper ballad “Shallow” from 2018’s “A Star Is Born“) are behind the lyrics for “I’m Just Ken,” a delightful romp performed to perfection by Ryan Gosling. This technicolor “Singin’ in the Rain”-inspired number speaks to how well “Barbie” works musically and just how essential songs are in communicating Greta Gerwig’s vision. Lyricists Ronson and Wyatt are also partly behind “Dance the Night,” co-written by Grammy nominee Caroline Ailin and multi-Grammy winner Dua Lipa. The catchy disco sensation, performed with fantastically fun energy by Lipa, was one of the biggest songs of the summer. It also plays a vital role in the film, marking a narrative turn from sparkling pink thoughts to sudden existential dread.

The international superstardom of artists like Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa, combined with how astoundingly “Barbie” has tapped into the pop culture zeitgeist, might be too starry for the Academy to ignore. Not only does the music resonate and find purpose in the film itself, but in some ways, “Barbie The Album” has transcended its narrative context and found a place in public consciousness, especially the standouts; “What Was I Made For?” and “Dance the Night” peaked high on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart (No. 14 and No. 6 respectively), and Ryan Gosling made his chart debut at No. 87 with “I’m Just Ken.” When it comes to recognizing Best Original Song at the Oscars, the Academy has shown a tendency to award songs that reverberate on a higher level beyond how they are used in the film — going back to the 1990s with picks such as “My Heart Will Go On” (“Titanic“) and “Streets of Philadelphia” (“Philadelphia”), and in more recent years, “Let It Go” (“Frozen“), “Shallow” (“A Star Is Born“), and last year’s “Naatu Naatu” (“RRR“). “Barbie” falls in line with the balance of incredibly memorable songs that soar as part of the story and resonate outside of the film.

While it’s hard to imagine “Barbie” not dominating the category, is it too early to deem the film unbeatable in Best Original Song? Can another contender sweep in with a more compelling narrative? This year has plenty of Oscar-qualifying songs, from big holiday releases (“The Color Purple” and “Wonka“) to familiar Disney melodies (“Elemental,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Wish“) to low-key gems (“Past Lives“; “Flora and Son“), and latecomers to the race (“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes“). Plus, two of the most prominent figures in the music industry might be receiving their 15th Oscar nominations: Eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken and honorary Oscar winner Diane Warren. Beyond Barbieland, let’s take a look at more musical notes in contention and where they stand in the category. 

“Keep It Movin” (“The Color Purple“)One of the most anticipated films left this year is Blitz Bazawule’s “The Color Purple,” a musical reimagining of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same name. Following the original 1985 film directed by Steven Spielberg, the new iteration is garnering enthusiastic early reactions and is widely predicted in multiple Oscar categories, including Best Song. One of the biggest contending tracks is “Keep It Movin’,” written by Halle Bailey, Denisia Andrews, Brittany Coney, and Morten Ristorp. Performed by Bailey and Phylicia Pearl Mpasi in the film, this song has found a consensus among early predictions. Following the 1985 film’s 11 Oscar nominations, including one for the song “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” by Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton, and Lionel Richie, the 2023 adaptation is expected to have a strong presence during award season – and the music is a prominent feature of the story’s impact. Additionally, “Keep It Movin” has a promising start with a Hollywood Music in Media Award nomination for Best Original Song in a Feature Film.

“Quiet Eyes” (“Past Lives“)Past LivesThe strength of “Past Lives” and its awards prospects are growing by the day. Fresh off a Best Feature win at the Gotham Awards, the film is expected to shine with smaller voting bodies leading up to the prominent precursors. Celine Song’s exquisite feature debut is poised to be the critics’ darling of the year, and that love can extend to more categories than anticipated at the Oscars. If the film overperforms, look for it to sneak into categories such as Best Original Song, where Sharon Van Etten and Zachary Dawes are contending for “Quiet Eyes.” Much like the film, this poetic song has a hypnotic endurance. The lyrics unlock deep emotions within and give voice to similar territory that the film reaches, from “Recalling memories of loss” to the question, “Will we meet again in the light?” The song is beautifully reminiscent of the characters in the film, plus it has an early accolade boost with a Hollywood Music in Media Award nomination for Best Original Song in an Independent Film.

“Steal The Show” (“Elemental“)Disney and Pixar films have frequently been represented in Best Original Song. This is likely to continue this year with the textured sounds of Pixar’s “Elemental,” a charming love story in which fire, water, earth, and air elements live together. Whereas other Disney films in contention (“The Little Mermaid” and “Wish“) have multiple songs for voters to choose from, “Elemental” is contending for one: “Steal the Show.” Performed by Lauv, with music by Ari Leff and the film’s composer, fifteen-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman, the song plays in one of the most endearing sequences of “Elemental” that expresses a budding romance between the two central characters. As is the case with the animation and voice work, “Steal the Show” brims with emotion. Helping to boost the song’s chances and presence among voters, “Elemental” is also in strong contention for Best Original Score (Newman) and Best Animated Feature.

“Gonna Be You” (“80 For Brady“) / “The Fire Inside” (“Flamin’ Hot“)80 For BradyDiane Warren’s name alone warrants Oscar attention, and often for films that otherwise aren’t on the Academy’s radar in any other category. “80 For Brady,” the sports comedy starring an iconic Hollywood quartet (Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Rita Moreno, and Lily Tomlin), fits the bill. The song “Gonna Be You,” written for the film by Warren, has no shortage of Hollywood royalty either. The composer rounded up Dolly Parton, Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Gloria Estefan, and Belinda Carlisle to perform the song. Considering Warren’s consistency of Oscar recognition and the fact that she is often the sole nominee representing the films she writes music for, her missing out on a 15th nomination would be more surprising than not. Plus, she is contending for her song “The Fire Inside” (performed by Becky G) from the biographical film “Flamin’ Hot,” a drama based on the Cheetos snack. With double the chances at a nomination, Warren is not to be underestimated this season.

“For The First Time” (“The Little Mermaid“)The Little MermaidSpeaking of contenders not to underestimate, eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken and two-time Oscar nominee Lin-Manuel Miranda have a new Disney song out. For the studio’s live-action reimagining of the 1989 animated film, “The Little Mermaid,” Menken and Miranda teamed up to write new songs that would expand on the characters and world-building. One such song is “For the First Time,” a melody performed by Grammy-nominated artist Halle Bailey as Ariel. The track record of Disney animated films being nominated in the Best Original Song category has been steady since the 1990s. Menken, in particular, won three Oscars that decade alone for his work on “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Pocahontas.” Live-action Disney films can be hit or miss with the Academy, but given the awards-friendly names behind “The Little Mermaid,” don’t be surprised if “For the First Time” sneaks in.

“A World Of Your Own” (“Wonka“)WonkaThe past two Willy Wonka film iterations have made it to the Oscars, from 1971’s “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” earning a sole nomination for Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score, to 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” finding its way into Best Costume Design. Will the latest Roald Dahl adaptation, directed by Paul King and starring Timothée Chalamet as the titular character of Wonka, follow a similar fate? “Wonka” will contend for “A World of Your Own,” an original song performed by Oscar nominee Chalamet and written by King, Neil Hannon, and Simon Farnaby. While the critical and commercial success of “Wonka” remains to be seen, early reactions suggest we could potentially be underestimating the film’s presence at the Oscars. Facing strong competition in categories from Best Production Design to Best Visual Effects, the film’s most likely chances may land in Best Original Song, a category more open to throwing curveballs.

Other contenders:
“Am I Dreaming”
 (“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse“)
“Better Place” (“Trolls Band Together“)
“Can’t Catch Me Now” (“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes“)
“Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven)” (“Asteroid City“)
“High Life” (“Flora and Son“)
“I Am” (“Origin“)
“Peaches” (“The Super Mario Bros. Movie“)
“Road To Freedom” (“Rustin“)
“This Wish” (“Wish“)

What do you think will be nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars? Do you think anything has a chance of beating “Barbie?” Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.

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Nadia Dalimonte
Nadia Dalimonte
Editor In Chief for Earth to Films. Film Independent, IFS Critics, NA Film Critic & Cherry Pick member.

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