Best Original Song Contest Pits Diane Warren’s Return Against a ‘Eurovision’ Ballad and Three Social Justice Anthems

Jon Burlingame
·4-min read

Everyone in the music business is wondering the same thing: Could veteran songwriter Diane Warren, denied the Oscar 11 times over the past 33 years, finally win on her 12th try?

Warren, whose movie songs range from Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” this year penned “Io Sì (Seen)” for Netflix’s “The Life Ahead.” Sung in Italian by co-lyricist Laura Pausini, it could become only the fourth foreign-language song to win.

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But it’s far from a sure thing. Only one song (“Husavik” from “Eurovision Song Contest”) is actually performed during the film itself, and that can be a potent factor for voters; and the other three relate to the social-justice issues of the 1960s that continue to be relevant today. All but Warren are first-time nominees.

“Fight for You” from “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Invoking a ’70s soul sound for the finale of the Fred Hampton story, recent Grammy winner H.E.R. (who co-wrote with Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas) sings “their guns don’t play fair, all we got is a prayer, it was all in their plans, wash the blood from your hands” – echoing the tragic death of the Black Panther leader, yet still managing to be an uptempo song with a groove.

H.E.R. told Variety: “There’s not much that separates that time and that story from what’s going on right now in the Black Lives Matter movement. Creatively, I wanted to create a universal message, representing that fight that is still happening today, that connects with two generations, how we’re passing the torch and continuing Fred Hampton’s work.”

“Hear My Voice” from “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Director Aaron Sorkin wanted an end-title song that “suggested there’s a light at the end of the tunnel” despite the film’s downbeat, guilty-verdict finale, composer Daniel Pemberton says. He contacted Celeste, the emerging English soul singer, late in the scoring process, and the two collaborated on the lyrics.

“What was amazing about it,” Pemberton says, “is we finished that song and the world around us changed. It’s been such a crazy year. This song, that was originally written for events in 1968, suddenly the lyrics take on a whole different meaning. They have just as much impact for what’s happening right now: people being denied their voice.”

“Husavik” from “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”

“Husavik” is the sole comedic song and the only one actually sung on-screen (and partly in Icelandic). Will Ferrell mimes at the piano and Rachel McAdams lip-syncs to Swedish pop singer Molly Sandén’s vocal. The tune soars, but the lyric (“where the whales can live ’cause they’re gentle people”) is the giveaway that this is a sendup.

Says Savan Kotecha (co-writer with Fat Max Gsus and Rickard Göransson): “When I watched Eurovision, it always felt like the lyrics were sort of Google-translated into English. But we wanted to make the melodies really, really strong. [We thought] then we can get away with lyrics being ridiculous, and no one’s gonna really notice unless they look into it.”

“Io Sì (Seen)” from “The Life Ahead”

Screen veteran Warren, who has written dozens of songs for movies since the 1980s, wrote this touching, gentle ballad for the finale of actress Sophia Loren’s screen comeback. Warren’s original English lyrics were translated into Italian and slightly modified by singer Laura Pausini.

“It’s the first time I’ve written a song for a foreign movie,” says Warren. “What struck me was I saw the word ‘seen’ and I thought of the characters. The boy is this criminal kid and she’s a former prostitute and they’re living on the outside. No one really sees them, and through their relationship, they truly see each other and love one another.”

“Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami”

Accompanied by a ’60s-appropriate acoustic guitar and Hammond B3 organ, Leslie Odom Jr. (who co-wrote with Sam Ashworth) sings of “the message of hope and the whispers of ghosts” – not in Sam Cooke’s voice, but rather his own, reminding audiences that the debate of the film (between Cooke, Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Malcolm X) remains unfinished.

Odom was concerned that the end-title song would come soon after Cooke sings “A Change Is Gonna Come” in the film. Says the actor-songwriter: “The first question we asked ourselves was: Has that change come, and if it has, for whom? In taking an honest look at where we are… I think it’s undeniable that some of that change has come. But I think that [Cooke] would also say, ‘It’s not finished. So, what are you doing about that? The change hasn’t come? Okay, well, get to work.'”

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