Congratulations to the music branch for continuing their due diligence by sniffing out well-meaning ballads from left-leaning pop superstars appearing in any given year’s least-viewed films. Actually, hold the congratulations, because there are two reasons to doubt the branch’s effort. First, if you believe Justin Timberlake that a tract against body shaming is firmly coded into the DNA of his summer hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling Exclamation Point,” then Oscar voters needed to only check their grandchildren’s latest ringtones to honor the spirit of inclusivity. Jonathan Demme is about the only person capable of making us give JT the benefit of the doubt these days, but we can’t quite dismiss the possibility that America’s preeminent boy-band cutie emeritus could sneak a win for his highly template-dependent Trolls ditty. At the very least, it doesn’t have to fend off a culture-defining juggernaut as Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” did three years ago.
The second reason we’re skeptical of the music branch’s scavenger cred is that the bulk of the dirge-paced liberal lamentations that have helped to ensure an uphill climb for Oscar completists in this category have actually come from the same man: J. Ralph. He’s become something of a cottage industry within the documentary genre, but there’s little denying the eschatological appeal of his playbook, especially when, as with his previous two nominations, his inconvenient truths are delivered by bluebirds of unhappiness like Scarlett Johansson (Chasing Ice’s “Before My Time”) and Anohni (Racing Extinction’s “Manta Ray”). Ralph’s collaboration with Sting, “The Empty Chair,” being not a retort to Clint Eastwood, but rather a tribute to journalist James Foley (who was beheaded by ISIS in 2014), at least makes a better case than Timberlake, though he still resides in the very long shadow of the film’s subject matter: the Syrian Civil War and journalism under fire.
You don’t have to have the TodayTix app installed on your smartphone to recognize that musical theater will take an extra few curtain calls this year, and the irony of La La Land’s song-and-dance momentum getting upstaged in the very category that defines “on trend” this year would be delicious. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go,” from Disney’s Moana, sounds exactly like the sort of generic aspirational “Let It Go” clone someone would come up with immediately after telling himself “Don’t write ’Let It Go.’” But Miranda, who stands to become the youngest EGOT inductee should he win the Oscar (the current titleholder is “Let It Go” songwriter Robert Lopez), is at this point regarded by the American resistance as one of the beacons of the free world, a cultural influencer whose acolytes are doing whatever they can to disrupt Mike Pence’s quiet nights at the theater.
But it remains only a spoiler, even with the likely potential for a vote split between La La Land’s two nominated songs. “City of Stars” won the Golden Globe, but it wasn’t up against the same film’s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” there. The latter is La La Land’s 11 o’clock number, and seems the likeliest to rouse today’s thwarted creatives and tomorrow’s bashful theater queens, especially given Damien Chazelle staging Emma Stone’s performance of it in the now-cliché black-background format that’s become shorthand for “You will now be moved by our leading lady’s sheer talent.” “Audition” may have been the song selected to represent the film in a recent episode of the podcast Song Exploder, but “City of Stars” is still the headliner, the leitmotif that the film just won’t drop. And this year, Oscar’s all about repeating itself.
Will Win: “City of Stars,” La La Land
Could Win: “How Far I’ll Go,” Moana
Should Win: “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” La La Land