Best Original Song Runners-Up: A Ranking
Originally published August 6, 2020.
Enchanted, 2007’s delightful Amy Adams star vehicle and one of the few self-aware Disney films, holds the dubious distinction of being one of only two films in the history of the Academy Awards to be triple-nominated in the Best Original Song category and walk away empty-handed. But despite how ugly it looks on the stat sheet, songwriting legends Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz can hold their heads high; the tunes composed for Enchanted are wonderful — sly pastiches of Menken's heralded Disney work that parody the style while simultaneously delighting in their own right — but simply stood no chance against eventual winner “Falling Slowly,” the masterpiece from Once that’s in the running for the greatest movie song of all time. This turn of events — one great song being toppled by another — got me thinking: what are the Best Original Song nominees that weren’t robbed? That is, which film songs lose out on a place in Oscar history not because they weren’t worthy, but because they had the misfortune of sharing the category with another undeniable great?
So Enchanted would be on that list (with unassailable bop “That’s How You Know” the prime contender) due to the quality of “Falling Slowly”, but poor Dreamgirls — the other triple loser — would not, because despite how good those songs are, they fell to “I Need to Wake Up,” Melissa Ethridge’s forgettable number for An Inconvenient Truth. That dig aside (sorry Melissa), this is going to be a list of positivity — no snubs, no snide remarks about the winners, just a celebration of the years in which you couldn’t go wrong picking either Door #1 or Door #2. A few quick notes:
Given the space devoted to it above, this will be the Enchanted Memorial List, despite the likelihood it would make the top 10 otherwise.
My cut-off point was 1980, the year of Fame and the first time a movie received two nominations for Best Original Song, which makes it feel like a reasonable start of the modern era for the category.
As always, I’ll date the awards by the film year, not the ceremony year.
With that, here are your Top 10 Best Original Song Non-Snubs:
10. “Somewhere Out There,” An American Tail (1986)
James Horner & Barry Mann (music); Cynthia Weil (lyrics)
Winner: “Take My Breath Away,” Top Gun
“Take My Breath Away” obviously rocks, but it’s a travesty that “Danger Zone” didn’t even get nominated — pour one out for Kenny Loggins, who barely missed this list as well (“Footloose” lost to Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” at the 1984 Oscars). Regardless, the Top Gun love meant that Horner, Mann, and Weil’s lovely theme from An American Tail got the shaft — although a Grammy for Song of the Year (!) is a nice consolation prize.
9. “This Is Me,” The Greatest Showman (2017)
Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (music & lyrics)
Winner: “Remember Me,” Coco
Listen, “This Is Me” probably doesn’t even crack the top three best songs from The Greatest Showman (“Never Enough,” “The Other Side,” and “Rewrite the Stars” take those slots), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a banger and an indisputable earworm. But Pasek and Paul’s La La Land contributions won them Oscars the year before (another instance of rewarding a musical’s fifth-best song), and if you can’t get on board with a win for top-tier tearjerker “Remember Me” you might be a literal monster.
8. “Earned It,” Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
Belly, DeHeala, Stephan Moccio & The Weeknd (music & lyrics)
Winner: “Writing’s on the Wall,” Spectre
Confession time: I have not seen Fifty Shades of Grey and I doubt I ever will (though you should never say never). But it was impossible to escape The Weeknd’s contribution to the soundtrack, a wonderfully moody piece of pop music, which netted itself a well-deserved nomination. I realize that this entry may be controversial because of the winner (and there’s an argument that the gold should have actually gone to Lady Gaga and Diane Warren for their haunting “Til It Happens to You,” the performance of which at the ceremony was immensely powerful), but in my opinion “Writing’s on the Wall” is a top-tier Bond theme and a perfectly worthy winner — though in the interest of transparency, I also go to the mat for “Another Way to Die,” so take that as you will.
7. “All the Stars,” Black Panther (2018)
Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave & Anthony Tiffith (music); Lamar, SZA & Tiffith (lyrics)
Winner: “Shallow,” A Star is Born
While the Black Panther album may not match the highs of Kendrick Lamar’s previous work, it’s a small miracle that it exists at all, given the corporatization and frequent micromanagement of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like Ryan Coogler’s film itself — which was nominated for seven Oscars, winning three — the soundtrack was an example of what the MCU could be if talented artists were given a greater degree of creative control. But while Ludwig Göransson’s score took home the gold, “All the Stars” never stood a chance against the absolute buzzsaw of Lady Gaga’s “Shallow,” which is, of course, a masterpiece.
6. “Maniac,” Flashdance (1983)
Dennis Matkosky & Michael Sembello (music & lyrics)
Winner: “Flashdance...What a Feeling,” Flashdance
You can’t go wrong with either of the Flashdance noms, but there are two things about “Maniac” that are worth mentioning. One, it was wildly popular, peaking at number one on the Billboard Top 100. Two — and here’s where it gets good — the song was originally written about a serial killer! Per Rolling Stone: “the tune was originally about a cat-killing psychotic, but producer Phil Ramone convinced the writers to change the lyrics to describe a crazy-mad dancer with killer moves.” Who knows, maybe that version would have been able to get over the Oscar hump...
5. “The Prayer,” Quest for Camelot (1998)
David Foster & Carole Bayer Sager (music); Foster, Tony Renis, Sager & Alberto Testa (lyrics)
Winner: “When You Believe,” The Prince of Egypt
I know, I know, the obvious pick here is Armageddon’s prom classic “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” but “The Prayer” is the one that really gets the tears flowing. Quest for Camelot — a fairly bog-standard sub-Disney animation project — was not well-received (and is likely not well-remembered), but “The Prayer” remains a staple of both Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli’s live shows long after they each recorded a solo version (Dion in English, Bocelli in Italian) and collaborated on the duet. But it was an uphill battle against “When You Believe” (sung by power duo Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston over the end credits) and The Prince of Egypt, another non-Disney animated feature, but of much higher quality and better pedigree. Don’t believe me? Here’s a rundown of the voice cast: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, and Martin Short — that’s an A-lister for each plague (sorry)!
4. “When She Loved Me,” Toy Story 2 (1999)
Randy Newman (music & lyrics)
Winner: “You’ll Be in My Heart,” Tarzan
Hit me with your Up and Inside Out takes all you want, but for my money Toy Story 2 still holds the title of Most Devastating Sequence in a Pixar Movie — Jessie’s reminiscence of her abandonment by her owner Emily is heartbreaking, primarily due to Sarah McLachlan’s performance of one of Randy Newman’s best pieces of film composition. You know who else is pretty good at making music though? Phil Collins. If you haven’t listened to the Tarzan soundtrack since 1999, give it a whirl — you won’t be disappointed.
3. “Friend Like Me,” Aladdin (1992)
Alan Menken (music); Howard Ashman (p.n.) (lyrics)
Winner: “A Whole New World,” Aladdin
“A Whole New World” is timeless, but “Friend Like Me” is the number that pretty much sums up Aladdin’s whole vibe. Yes, it’s hard to separate the song from Robin Williams’ iconic performance, but the melody is catchy as hell and the lyrics are some of the cleverest in the Disney canon (plus, this is my list, so having that Williams energy sure doesn’t hurt — in another world “Blame Canada” ekes past “When She Loved Me” on the back of that Oscars performance alone).
2. “Eye of the Tiger,” Rocky III (1982)
Jim Peterik & Frankie Sullivan (music & lyrics)
Winner: “Up Where We Belong,” An Officer and a Gentleman
Love may lift us up, but no song pumps us up like “Eye of the Tiger,” the Survivor jam that has come to symbolize the entire Rocky franchise and also maybe the entire 1980s. Apparently Sylvester Stallone had originally wanted “Another One Bites the Dust” to be the theme for Rocky III, but thank god that fell through — I don’t want to live in a world where Rocky Balboa doesn’t fight his way to the top by hanging tough and staying hungry. Plus, the band keeps suing Republicans for using the song without permission, which is just a nice little bonus to brighten your day.
1. “Go the Distance,” Hercules (1997)
Alan Menken (music); David Zippel (lyrics)
Winner: “My Heart Will Go On,” Titanic
Obviously Titanic — a box office and awards juggernaut the likes of which we’ve rarely seen — was never going to lose this category at the Oscars, not least because the song is pretty close to perfect. Not only that, but the contextual range of “My Heart Will Go On” is unparalleled — I’m writing this through tears because I just sobbed my way through ten minutes of buzzer beaters and game winning touchdowns set to the song’s crescendo. But while your Beauty and the Beasts and Little Mermaids get much of the acclaim, Hercules’ soundtrack can hang with any of the major players of the Disney renaissance — “I Won’t Say (I’m In Love)” and “Go the Distance” rank among the best tracks of the era, full-stop. In an ideal world, would this great Alan Menken ballad have an Oscar? Sure. But, as has become abundantly clear, there’s simply no denying the power of a good penny whistle.