Oscar Music Eligibility Lists Revealed: ‘Soul’ In, ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Out

Jon Burlingame
·4-min read

Soul” is in, but “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is out: That’s the message the Academy’s music branch is sending to members who began voting today for the shortlists for both song and score.

Disney-Pixar’s “Soul” has been declared eligible for the original-score Oscar, but the song from Netflix’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was missing from the song list, indicating that the music-branch executive committee disqualified it from consideration.

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Voters from the Academy’s approximately 375-member music branch will choose 15 songs and 15 scores for the shortlists (to be announced Feb. 9) that will be the basis for final voting for the five nominees in each category. The Academy qualified 105 songs and 136 scores.

The biggest question was: would “Soul” qualify for original score? It initially appeared doubtful, as Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s dramatic score constituted less than the required 60 percent of total music in the film; and Jon Batiste’s jazz, a critical element in the film, might be considered “source music” and not “dramatic underscoring” as defined under Academy rules.

The branch executive committee, which rules on these matters, clearly decided that Batiste’s music played a key role and should be taken into account as part of the overall musical tapestry. This presents the unusual possibility that three composers will be listed if “Soul” makes the final five when nominees are announced March 15.

The “Ma Rainey” song “Baby Let Me Have It All,” which screen-credited Branford Marsalis as composer and playwright August Wilson (who died in 2005) and Charley Patton (the Delta blues musician who died in 1934) as lyricists, had been entered for Academy consideration.

But Oscar rules demand that a song be “written specifically for the motion picture” and the “songwriters engaged to work directly on the motion picture” which could not have been possible given those credits.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” had not been expected to appear on the score ballot, as composer Marsalis’s original music was minimal by comparison with the period songs he was adapting; it too was ruled ineligible.

Also missing from the song list was Reznor and Ross’s “(If Only You Could) Save Me” from “Mank,” which only lasts a minute in the movie and is barely heard. Although promoted, and nominated today for the Society of Composers and Lyricists Award for best original song, it was declared ineligible by the Academy committee, likely for failing to be “a clearly audible, intelligible, substantive rendition” as demanded by the rules.

The song list includes – with the exceptions cited above – virtually everything that was expected, or has been promoted, in recent weeks. Diane Warren, the veteran who has been widely touted as a likely nominee for her “Io Si (Seen)” from the Sophia Loren film “The Life Ahead,” qualified for that plus two others: “Free” from Disney’s “The One and Only Ivan” and “I’ll Get There (The Other Side”) from the obscure slave drama “Emperor.”

The song list inevitably contains longshots, including five songs from the faith-based film “Canaan Land,” six from the folk-rock musical “Killian & the Comeback Kids,” and six from the inspirational Japanese drama “Twiceborn.”

But all of the widely promoted songs by major singing talent are there: Leslie Odom Jr. (“Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami”), Janelle Monae (“Turntables” from “All In: The Fight for Democracy”), Mary J. Blige (“See What You’ve Done” from “Belly of the Beast”), John Legend (“Never Break” from “Giving Voice”), H.E.R. (“Fight for You” from “Judas and the Black Messiah”), Taylor Swift (“Only the Young” from “Miss Americana”), Brandi Carlile (“Carried Me With You” from “Onward”), Travis Scott (“The Plan” from “Tenet”), Andra Day (“Tigress & Tweed” from “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”), Celeste (“Hear My Voice” from “The Trial of the Chicago 7”), Justin Timberlake (“Just Sing” from “Trolls World Tour”), Angelique Kidjo (“How Can I Tell You?” from “Nasrin”), Christina Aguilera (“Loyal Brave True” from “Mulan”) and Sinead O’Connor (“I’ll Be Singing” from “Wild Mountain Thyme”).

One of Thomas Newman’s two 2020 scores, “Let Them All Talk,” was declared ineligible because his score constituted only 40 percent of all the music in the film. His other film, the newly released “The Little Things,” did qualify, however.

Also missing from the score list are a handful of films that, as it turned out, were not entered because the scores are minimal or were likely to be overshadowed by the songs in the films: Terence Blanchard’s piano work for “One Night in Miami” and the Mark Isham-Craig Harris score for “Judas and the Black Messiah” among them.

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