The Oscars music race 2023 – nominees, predictions and snubs
For a film music lover like me, the two Oscar music categories are always worthy of special attention. And so, it’s my annual look at the Best Original Song and Score nominees, with my predictions about who’s going to take the top prize. I also reflect on snubs and omissions, in a year with a surprising amount of them.
Best Original Song
– ‘Applause’ (Diane Warren, Tell It Like a Woman)
– ‘Hold My Hand’ (Lady Gaga and BloodPop, Top Gun: Maverick)
– ‘Naatu Naatu’ (MM Keeravaani and Chandrabose, RRR)
– ‘Lift Me Up’ (Tems, Ludwig Göransson, Rihanna, and Ryan Coogler, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever)
– ‘This Is a Life’ (Ryan Lott, David Byrne, and Mitski, Everything Everywhere All at Once)
Honestly, I do not know how this category will go – there’s a great mix of songs from a variety of films, and I could imagine any of them winning. I don’t think there’s a favourite, but I’m going to pour water on perennial nominee Diane Warren. It’s her 14th nomination without a win, and given the obscurity of the film and the fact she was barely discussed even as a potential nominee, it feels like another winless night. Similarly, ‘This Is a Life’ was only half-expected to make this list – the love for the film may carry it over the line, but it’s hardly a favourite.
Frankly, for a long time, the conversation has been about a battle between Lady Gaga and Rihanna. These are two big sequels, boasting songs by two big names, and this is where I’d expect the Oscar to land. Lady Gaga’s song is an anthem of sorts, calling to mind the power ballads of the 1980s – it’s full of hope, and a real earworm. The Black Panther song is a ballad in the R&B style, based around Rihanna’s voice, and the lyrics are emotional and full of reflection. It’s two different approaches to a central song, but I’d expect one of them to win.
‘Naatu Naatu’ may be an interesting spanner in the works, though. RRR would be an Indian film’s first-ever Oscar win if it took the prize (there was faith here, as this was the only category in which it was submitted). It took the Golden Globe, so it’s in with a good shout, and it may be the case that an Academy increasingly open to foreign cinema will recognise it.
Snubs: There were a number of pop stars whose work was being discussed in terms of a potential nomination. I know a few people who will be disappointed that Taylor Swift didn’t pick up a nod for her song ‘Carolina’ for Where the Crawdads Sing, and there was also speculation that Selena Gomez might make the cut for ‘My Mind & Me’ from the documentary of the same name. Despite a spirited campaign by Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell (pun definitely intended), the duo failed to make the unlikely happen and pick up a nod for Spirited’s ‘’Good Afternoon’.
As I’ve said, the field feels very open to me, but there is one surprising omission (and which, I’m sorry, probably should have replaced Warren to make the list even stronger) – ‘Ciao Papa’ from Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, with music by Alexandre Desplat and lyrics by Roeban Katz and del Toro. The film really underperformed expectations, and although experts expected that the bittersweet farewell song would be a definite nomination, it seems not.
Best Original Score
– All Quiet on the Western Front (Volker Bertelmann)
– Babylon (Justin Hurwitz)
– The Banshees of Inisherin (Carter Burwell)
– Everything Everywhere All at Once (Son Lux)
– The Fabelmans (John Williams)
I’ve said this in a few recent lists, but we’re reaching the point where every John Williams nomination is essentially a legacy pick – much though I like the score for The Fabelmans (the main theme and ‘Mitzi’s Dance’ are really nice), it’s a very slight one and it’s the definite outside pick. Similarly, I wouldn’t put money on All Quiet on the Western Front, despite its surprise march to a whole mix of nominations – the score is minimalist, often feeling like angry machines, and although it suits the film, it’s a long shot for Oscar recognition.
So, where do I start – with who will win, or who should? The golden statue is almost certainly going to Burwell or Son Lux, and neither would be an unfair result. Burwell provides an unobtrusive folkish score that was deliberately designed not to be too Irish. Sure, he evokes one of the central characters through his fiddle, but you also hear the celesta, Bulgarian singers, and gamelan gongs – it fits beautifully, and there’s complexity and mystery beneath the seeming simplicity.
Son Lux’s score is similarly complex, featuring almost every moment and melding styles and influences to score the multiverse. There’s piano for the Wang family, which transitions into comedic interpretations of action strings, and electronic sounds that are almost ethereal – and it all works and feels cohesive.
To my mind, however, the strongest score in the selection is Hurwitz’s work on Babylon. The film is an orgy of excess, and the music reflects that – it’s big, bold, and jazzy, and although the big band sound didn’t technically exist that way in the 1920s, it works here. Although there are intimate moments, the overarching idea of this score is celebration – you get roaring trumpets, saxophones, and drums, in music that feels both contemporary and of its time (even as it works in synths). This would be my pick – it’s a possible winner, but the mixed reception of Babylon means I’d expect one of the dominant films to take the prize.
Snubs: Again, Pinocchio – two-time Oscar winner Desplat would receive a nomination for his touching work on the film, but voters were looking elsewhere. It must be noted, some of the shortlisted films are unusual entries given the standard of scores this year. Simon Franglen was seen as a possible nominee with his work on Avatar: The Way of Water, as was Göransson for his return to the Black Panther franchise (it always seemed an outside bet to me, but the Academy were desperate to make a statement with the first one, so it had a chance).
If there’s a real noticeable snub, it’s Hildur Guðnadóttir. She won a few years ago for Joker, and she was shortlisted this time around for Women Talking. That’s not necessarily a snub in itself, but she also scored one of this year’s Oscar buzz films, Tár. It’s a film about music, and Guðnadóttir’s score is a key part of its power. However, it was ruled ineligible for the award because it broke two rules – the amount of original music was insufficient, and the score was diluted with pre-existing music. In my opinion, The Fabelmans could be accused of both, but that’s where we are. To my mind, this is the biggest snub in this race this year.