Breaking down this year’s Oscar best original song and score nominees and why, in their own words, a nod means more to them than ever after a trying 2020.
Of the 12 songwriters who are vying for best original song this year, 11 are first-time Academy Award nominees. The 12th is category perennial Diane Warren, who lands her 12th nod. This is the only Oscar nomination for Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga and The Life Ahead (La Vita Davanti a Se), which delivered two prime candidates, “Husavik” and “Io Sì (Seen),” respectively. The other three films represented here all have multiple nominations.
“Fight For You” — Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner)
Music: H.E.R., Dernst Emile II
Lyric: H.E.R., Tiara Thomas
Less than 12 hours after winning a Grammy Award for song of the year, H.E.R. arose at 6:30 a.m. to a stream of congratulatory texts — but they were for an entirely different nomination. Someone sent a screenshot of the Oscar nominations, which is how she learned she was up for best original song.
What is the group chat with Dernst and Tiara like?
H.E.R.: Oh, man. We are going crazy. There’s a long thread of congratulations and fireworks and GIFs and all that.
Why do you three work so well together?
We weren’t trying to be a voice for anybody but ourselves. Because we are Black people, we represent the people who are suffering and struggling right now. That’s a feeling you can’t understand unless you’re in it and you’re seeing these videos of people who look like your family. So I think God is using us as a vessel, and we’re using our gifts and our responsibility to make songs that reflect how we feel, because it helps other people get to know how they feel.
How have you been safely celebrating your award season so far?
I’ve just been coming down from it. I’ve been tired, but in a good way. Like, “Wow, this is happening. [Now] let’s put in the work.” I feel like I’m on my way to an EGOT one day with everything going on. I need to make space for my new Grammys and hopefully, maybe, an Oscar. And it’s just the beginning, that’s the crazy part.
“Hear My Voice” — The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Lyric: Daniel Pemberton, Celeste Waite
In Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, set during the Vietnam War, Waite’s soulful “Hear My Voice” scores the final scene in the period drama. According to the British singer, the song was “written in the spirit of protest,” mirroring not only the film’s portrayal of the anti-war riots of the 1960s but also the off-screen protests of today.
Given the way 2020 went, why might this nomination carry more weight?
Waite: Recently in England, there were women protesting gender-based violence where they were wrestled to the ground by policemen. It’s horrible. And last year, we had the Black Lives Matter protests running in parallel to the ones in America. It was powerful to see different groups coming together for the Black community during a year when we had all been living in isolation. As this song has reached more people, it gives me and many others the platform to talk about things that are important, especially in this moment in time. This piece of music can grow, and that excites me.
How did you react to hearing you were nominated for an Oscar?
I wrote the song in my bedroom during lockdown, so it was surreal to know that it led to something much more tangible. Though I was born in America, I haven’t been able to go back for fear of being stuck during COVID-19, so I’m glad that my music was able to travel to the states without me being there in person.
And how did your mother react?
Like she had some psychic ability. She just went, “I knew it!”
“Husavik” — Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Netflix)
Music/lyric: Savan Kotecha, Fat Max Gsus, Rickard Göransson
Sweden is to thank for this subtle send-up of Eurovision power ballads — a perfect fit for a film that thoughtfully parodies the annual international song competition. Gsus (pronounced “Jesus”) and Göransson were both born there, while Kotecha (a go-to collaborator of Ariana Grande) lived there for 15 years.
How did you balance parody with meaning on this song?
Kotecha: The trick was this, and it’s something [director] Dave Dobkin talked about a lot: We didn’t want to make fun of Eurovision.
Who came up with the line, “Where the whales can live/’Cause they’re gentle people in my hometown”?
Gsus: That would be me. I wrote it with the meaning that the people of Husavik are so gentle that the whales can live there [without being killed]. But how it is perceived is like the whales are gentle people.
Kotecha: As an American, when I was living in Sweden that was part of the charm of Eurovision. Some of the songs feel like they were translated into English. You know what they mean, but you don’t want to correct it.
Did you listen to past Eurovision songs as research for the film?
Göransson: For those of us who are from Sweden, it has been a part of our lives since we grew up. Every year you watch it. Subconsciously you kind of know the tone.
“Io Sì (Seen)” — The Life Ahead (La Vita Davanti a Se) (Netflix)
Music: Diane Warren
Lyric: Diane Warren, Laura Pausini
Warren is one of only nine songwriters in Oscar history to amass 12 or more nominations in this category. But unlike the other writers on that list, Warren has never won. Meanwhile, Italian star Laura Pausini is looking at her first nomination thanks to The Life Ahead, which tells the story of the unlikely bond between a former prostitute (played by Sofia Loren) and a 12-year-old orphaned Senegalese immigrant.
You’ve said the phrase “you’re seen” came to you when you read the script.
Warren: That simple phrase, “I want you to know that you’re seen,” is really powerful. That message is so compelling, because we’re living in a time when a lot of us don’t feel seen, and with COVID-19, people were alone and literally weren’t seen.
Why was it important to record versions in Italian, Portuguese, French and Spanish?
Pausini: I knew the power of this song and this profound and important message linked to family values and integration. My daughter and I saw the film and discussed its meaning, even though she is only 8 years old. In the video clip of “Io Sì,” [director] Edoardo Ponti left the images of me crying because I was really moved, and this is the reflection of my sincere emotion.
How special is it to represent Italy at the Oscars?
Pausini: That has been my mission since I started my career 28 years ago. Everything I do is for my country.
What do you think of this year’s field of nominees?
Warren: I’ll be honest: I hope to win. I’m like a sports team that has lost the World Series for decades. This is 33 years since my first nomination. The cool thing is April 25 [the Oscars’ rescheduled date] would have been my dad’s 105th birthday. He was the first person to ever believe in me, and I have a feeling he is with me.
“Speak Now” — One Night in Miami… (Amazon)
Music/lyric: Leslie Odom Jr., Sam Ashworth
Odom has already won a Tony and a Grammy for Hamilton, and with an Oscar win would be just an Emmy away from EGOT status. Ashworth, who has collaborated with Odom before, has also been nominated for a Grammy, earning two nods in 2019 for H.E.R.’s I Used To Know Her (album of the year) and “Hard Place” (song of the year).
Four songs vied to close the film. Leslie, were you a co-writer on all of them?
Odom: I was. I came into the soundstage and played all four demos for Regina [King, the film’s director]. “Speak Now” and one other song made it to the next round. We went and developed those songs a little further, and “Speak Now” was chosen.
What was the main challenge in writing this song?
Ashworth: There is so much conversation in the film. The script [by Kemp Powers] is just so rich. The challenge was, how do we narrow down some of these ideas into a three- or four-minute song? What I had in the verses was a lot more poetry. We went through and created more of a story. Each verse came out of a conversation between us about what it’s meant to be.
Why weren’t you attempting to write a song that reflected the period, 1964, or sounded like Sam Cooke?
Odom: We definitely didn’t want it to be something that Sam would record; we wanted it to come from me. In the film I got as close to Sam as I could get. After my final day [of shooting] in New Orleans, I went about the process of letting that go. I was happy we were recording the song three months after filming, because I would have been tempted to try to do a Sam Cooke thing. We wanted the song to hopefully be impactful on a modern audience. We didn’t want to do something that was about yesterday.
Emile Mosseri and Jon Batiste both land their first Academy Award nominations, but all other nominees in this category have been nominated before. This is the seventh nod in the category for James Newton Howard, the second and third for the pair of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the second for frequent Spike Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard. This is the only Oscar nod for the film Blanchard scored, Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. The other four films represented here all had multiple nominations.
Da 5 Bloods — Terence Blanchard (Netflix)
Blanchard planned to take a break after scoring his first Oscar nod in 2019 for BlacKkKlansman, but longtime collaborator Lee had other plans. Sure enough, scoring Da 5 Bloods landed Blanchard another nomination that he never expected. As he says: “If my hair could turn another shade of gray, it would.”
What was it like to watch the film’s final cut for the first time?
The score doesn’t have anything to do if there’s not a great performance on the screen, and when I watched it I felt like I needed to measure up to what was already done. I tell people all the time: We were at the Oscars [in 2019] and [Spike] said, “I’m getting on a plane to shoot the next one,” and I’m like, “Dude, you’re nuts. Why don’t you take a break?” When he showed me this film I was like, “Oh, shit. He did it again.”
How does it feel to be nominated this year, considering current events?
[You look at] what our brother [Chadwick Boseman] was going through when he was shooting this movie and nobody had a clue he was sick. It’s a testament to his character, and to think that somebody could look at him as being less than just because of the color of his skin or because he may look different was an incredible thought to have — and it’s sickening and tiresome that we’re still living in this age. With all of these films being nominated, I’m glad to see there’s a plethora of diversity, because I was worried about that after the Golden Globes. Jon Batiste is like my little brother, and to think me and him are making history because we’re the first two Black people to be nominated in this category [for separate films in the same year]? That’s a crime. We all need to do better.
Mank — Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross (Netflix)
The longtime Nine Inch Nail bandmates and award-winning duo of Reznor and Ross are up for both Mank and Soul this year. The two first won an Oscar for best original score 10 years ago for The Social Network. If they win again this year, they’ll become the fourth two-time winners in the category in the past 20 years, following Howard Shore, Gustavo Santaolalla and Alexandre Desplat.
How does it feel to achieve the rare double nomination?
Reznor: We haven’t had time to fully process what’s happening. When we work on a project, much like when we’re sitting down to write a song for Nine Inch Nails, we aren’t thinking about writing something we hope charts. We’re just trying to make the best song we can. When we’re working on a film, we put a lot of thought into trying to make the right choice as to what we should pursue. We try to find camps that we can learn from and be inspired from. Then you get into the world, you immerse yourself in it and lose track of time.
You’ve developed a shorthand with director David Fincher after multiple projects. What keeps you coming back?
Ross: To my mind, he’s one of the greatest living directors. When I first met David, I was incredibly intimidated by him partly because his vocabulary is so wide-ranging. But every experience has been a journey I will always remember — and I can’t stress enough how rewarding each has been.
Minari — Emile Mosseri (A24)
Mosseri woke up at 4:45 a.m. the day the Oscar nominations were revealed, but decided that he and his wife would put their phones away. “I Googled ‘Oscar nominations’ and kept scrolling down the list,” he recalls. “The score category didn’t say my name, but it said ‘Minari.’ I remember asking my wife: ‘That means me, right?’ ”
This is your first Oscar nomination. What does it mean to now be an Academy Award-nominated composer?
It’s hard to put it into words. There are certain types of acknowledgement that are universally understood. The Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] is one of those things that you don’t have to explain to people. I’ve been playing shows, writing music and putting out records for almost 20 years now, and I always find myself trying to explain to my family why something is important. There’s something nice about this in that regard. I grew up watching the Oscars, as so many people did, so there’s an added level of surrealness to being a part of it that is a total dream.
Minari scored five other nominations, including best picture and best director. Is that extra gratifying?
One hundred percent. The best picture [nod] is a big one, because everybody who worked on it is nominated. It has now been almost two years since I started working on it, so there’s a real family around this film. For this movie to connect in this way and get this kind of recognition, we’re still all beside ourselves.
How did you react the first time you saw the film in full?
I watched the first cut on a couch with [director Lee] Isaac [Chung], and even though I knew what was going to happen in the film, I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was going to hit me emotionally. Especially toward the end of the film, I was just crying and snotting out of my nose. I remember thinking, “Do I try to hide this from him, or should I lean into it?” I felt so unprofessional, but it was a profound experience.
News Of The World — James Newton Howard (Universal)
The nine-time Oscar-nominated composer says starting his day at sunrise with the good news has been a “lovely tradition” that continued this year. He believes scoring a Western is “every composer’s dream” and with News of the World, which stars Tom Hanks, that dream came true.
This was your first film with director Paul Greengrass. What was that like?
I always feel like it’s a first date with a girl. You don’t want to say anything stupid, you don’t want to write something bad — I’m always a little bit nervous. But at [a certain] point, the process is very much the same with everybody: trying to make sure that you’re telling the same story as the director. Paul was very interested in a distinctive, subtle quality to the music. We did a lot of trial and error, and that is necessary.
You’ve scored many different genres — comedies, thrillers, major action-adventure franchises and now a Western. What’s left that you’d like to try?
I never feel like I’ve done one of everything, because you could do four submarine movies and they’re all going to be different tonally. My biggest concern is just to do the next movie, whatever it is, because I still love it so much.
Soul — Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste (Disney/Pixar)
Reznor and Ross were especially humbled by their double Oscar nomination in the best original score category after 2020. “It’s another thing that kind of doesn’t seem real in a year when everything starts to blur together,” says Reznor.
What was it like to work on a Pixar movie with someone like Jon Batiste?
Reznor: As we got a little more confident over the years, the idea was, “What would be interesting to try?” and Pixar was on that list of dream collaborators. We thought if the right thing came along, hell yeah we’d like to see how those guys work. There’s a humanity and a greatness to them that’s several notches above. When we got in the studio [with Jon], it became crystal clear that he’s not just a great player, but he has that thing great musicians have … he understands without words.
What would a win mean to you all?
Reznor: We’ve had a pretty spectacular awards-oriented year: the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Emmys. But all of it feels like a dream. There have been Zoom calls, emails, a couple phone calls, but there weren’t any weird tuxedo pictures.
Ross: To find oneself here is pretty psychedelic, especially after this year. The whole year has felt like an acid trip, some very bad bits and some very good bits, and if we won that would be the peak of the trip, as it were.
Batiste: Over two years of working on this film, we didn’t know how the world would respond, given that it’s essentially about death and the origin of the soul and jazz — and it’s animation. We were just happy with what we created. All of this is beyond our wildest dreams.
Contributors: Leila Cobo, Gab Ginsberg, Josh Glicksman, Paul Grein, Lyndsey Havens, Gil Kaufman, Mia Nazareno