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Original Song Nominees Bring Well-Known Newcomers Into the Oscar Fold

Variety logo Variety 2/9/2017 Jon Burlingame
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Academy music-branch members seem to agree that 2016 was an above-average year for songs and that this is an especially strong lineup.

As with the score category, four of the five nominated songs are by Oscar first-timers (although the nominees themselves are well-known). Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing “Moana” songs while he was in the middle of his “Hamilton” run – and if he wins, he will be an EGOT (he’s already got Emmy, Grammy and Tony Awards).

Justin Timberlake had the year’s biggest-selling record with the infectious “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which was released six months before the opening of “Trolls,” the movie for which it was written.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, lyricists for two nominated songs from “La La Land,” are the songwriters for the current Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen.”

The veterans in this crowd are documentary-score composer J. Ralph and Sting, the singer-songwriter who was so moved by “Jim: The James Foley Story” that he penned a lyric and sang an elegy to the murdered journalist.

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from “La La Land”

Music by Justin Hurwitz, lyric by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Oscar pedigree: First nomination for each (Hurwitz also nom’d for score)

Performed by Emma Stone

Placement in film: Mia (Stone) auditions for the role that will make her a star

Artist’s POV: (Hurwitz) “We had been practicing in the studio, but what happened on set was really a new experience for all of us. The way Emma got so emotional with it towards the end, that’s something we didn’t see until she got in front of the camera. It was kind of breathtaking to watch.”

“Can’t Stop the Feeling” from “Trolls”

Music and lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin, Karl Johan Schuster

Oscar pedigree: First nomination for each

Performed by Anna Kendrick, Timberlake, other cast members

Placement in film: Trolls teach the Bergen how to be happy through dance

Artist’s POV: (Timberlake) “This movie reminded me of disco. I felt like we could make a modern disco record. Playing a character in the movie really helped. This needed to be uptempo, upbeat, and uplifting, and the more we worked on it, the more unabashed it felt. It feels good, it makes people feel good, and the world could use some of that right now.”

“City of Stars” from “La La Land”

Music by Justin Hurwitz, lyric by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Oscar pedigree: Second nomination this year for Pasek, Paul; third for Hurwitz

Performed by Ryan Gosling (later, Gosling and Stone)

Placement in film: Sebastian sings to himself on boardwalk; later duet in his apartment

Artist’s POV: (Pasek) “We had a song we called ‘La La Land,’ a very optimistic view of what the city could be (it went unused). ‘City of Stars,’ which was turned into a duet for both of them, has more of a dreamlike quality and is a little bit more aching than the kind of straight-ahead romantic fun song we had worked on with Justin called ‘La La Land.'”

“The Empty Chair” from “Jim: The James Foley Story”

Music and lyric by J. Ralph and Sting

Oscar pedigree: Third nomination for Ralph, fourth for Sting

Performed by Sting

Placement in film: under end titles

Artist’s POV: (Sting) “I started to imagine what it would be like for my children in some foreign place, tortured or in captivity. What would I do? I thought I’d probably leave a place at the table and say some sort of silent prayer that they would return one day. I compiled the words from what Jim had said in his letter and what people in the film had said about him.”

“How Far I’ll Go” from “Moana”

Music and lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Oscar pedigree: First nomination

Performed by Auli’l Cravalho

Placement in film: Moana struggles to understand her attraction to the sea

Artist’s POV: (Miranda) “I thought the journey of Moana was incredible, but also the chance to get to write in this vein, and to work with masters from that part of the world, was irresistable. (About Auli’l) We knew her disposition and her voice were perfect for Moana, but we didn’t know she would be able to sing so well. We were thrilled when we heard her sing.”

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