As part of Deadline x Rolling Stone, a special issue of our AwardsLine print magazine dedicated to music in cinema, Noel Murray runs through the 20 Best Oscar music moments.
For most of the history of the Academy Awards, the musical numbers have been at once glitzy and sappy, featuring fresh-scrubbed young dancers in spangled costumes, spinning and kicking behind a couple of old Hollywood stars. But every now and then, amid all the schmaltz, the producers of the Oscars telecasts have set aside some airtime to showcase some of the best singers and the snappiest songs of their eras.
Beginning in the 1970s especially, the Academy began opening up more to rock ’n’ roll and R&B, around the same time that the producers started asking the Best Original Song nominees’ original artists to perform. Ever since, the show has featured some the music industry’s biggest stars, alongside a few lovable oddballs and critics’ darlings. All of these types are represented on the list below. And, yes, some of these performances were supported by dancers in eye-catching outfits. Just because something is corny doesn’t mean it can’t also be cool.
Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles & Anika Noni Rose—with Keith Robinson
What happens when you put three of this era’s strongest singers together? You’ve got yourself a diva battle, baby. Tackling the three nominated songs from the musical Dreamgirls, Hudson, Knowles and Rose—one a movie and TV star, one the queen of the pop charts, and one a Broadway champ—took turns at center stage, seeming to challenge and inspire each other with their Olympic-level vocal gymnastics. The only thing missing was a rousing chorus of the un-nominated and Oscars-ineligible “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”. (Hudson would sing that at the 2013 ceremony, as part of a special tribute to movie musicals.)
“Flashdance… What a Feeling”—1984
Cara was an Oscar night favorite in the ’80s, debuting with the nominated song “Fame” in 1981, then returning two years later to rev up the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with the title track from the teen musical Flashdance. (She came back again in ’86 to do a comical number about awards show failure: “Here’s to the Losers.”) Accompanied by aspiring hoofers from the National Dance Institute—many festooned with leotards and legwarmers, just like the welder-by-day/dancer-by-night Jennifer Beals in the movie—Cara gave a performance high-energy and super-limber enough to keep any jazzercise class fit and happy.
Diana Ross & Lionel Richie
Johnny Carson introduced these two venerable Motown stars, who then walked down staircases on opposite sides of the stage, while the orchestra swelled. This was an old-fashioned showbiz entrance—and a radical one in its way, giving a proper spotlight to two brilliant Black musicians who likely wouldn’t have had that kind of star treatment on television 20 or 30 years earlier. The pair proceeded to deliver Richie’s gentle love song with grace and class, and with an unusual intimacy. They stood face to face and matched each other’s honeyed notes.
In the movie Nashville, Keith Carradine’s caddish character Tom Frank sings “I’m Easy” at the legendary nightclub the Exit/In, where his gentle folk-rock sound successfully seduces a woman he’s aiming to impress. On the Oscars stage, the actor (who also wrote the song) gave the same kind of low-key, unplugged performance that he did so wonderfully in the film. The big difference? The man sitting on the stool with his acoustic guitar came across as much more sincere than the guy he played in the picture. Carradine didn’t seem to have any ulterior motives; he just wanted to play a lovely tune for his Hollywood pals.
Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes
“Up Where We Belong”—1983
Preceded onstage by the marching and chanting of a crisply uniformed University of Southern California Naval ROTC unit, the scruffy Cocker and the casually dressed Warnes quickly countered all that martial energy with their mellow vibes. The pair barely moved from their perch just above the floor, perhaps because they didn’t want to collide with the ballroom dancers pirouetting below. Nevertheless, their soulful rendering of the climactic An Officer and a Gentleman power-ballad cut right through the pageantry, striking a blow for all those who would rather make love than war.
The ’90s saw a revival of the movie musical in a wave of animated films, many of which were responsible for some of the decade’s best Best Original Song nominees. The R-rated cartoon South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut aimed to be the anti-Disney, with pot-stirring sociopolitical commentary supported by foul-mouthed music. Its one song (barely) clean enough to earn the Academy’s approval was performed by Robin Williams, a man who always knew how to make even the dirtiest jokes seem like good all-American fun. Surrounded by sexy Mounties, he brought gusto to this jaunty ditty about xenophobia.
Kermit the Frog
This one’s for the lovers, the dreamers and the kids. After the show’s host Johnny Carson bantered with “everyone’s favorite porcine performer” Miss Piggy about her lack of a Best Actress nomination, the curtain rose to reveal a simplified recreation of Kermit’s bucolic swamp, where the frog was plucking away at his banjo. The Oscars set builders couldn’t entirely replicate the minute details of a Jim Henson Muppet production, but they did recapture The Muppet Movie’s most enchanting quality: a suspension of disbelief so strong that anyone would believe creatures made of felt had feelings.
Has there ever been a prettier song about a rodent? A veteran performer at age 13, Michael Jackson held the audience rapt at the ’73 Oscars, singing the title song from the weirdo killer vermin thriller Ben. With his bushy hair and his charmingly dorky red sweater, Jackson looked like an ordinary kid who had walked through the wrong door and accidentally ended up on TV. But the tenderness with which he crooned this strangely beautiful ballad—which, again, is directed toward a rat—made this performance something special.
“I’ve Seen It All”—2001
The Icelandic art-rocker Björk would’ve been the talk of the 73rd Academy Awards ceremony just for her dress, which was designed by Marjan Pejoski to look like a dead swan, draped around the singer’s neck and torso. But Björk fully justified her Oscar invitation later that evening, when she took to the stage to belt out the heartbreaking centerpiece of the offbeat musical Dancer in the Dark: a song about a woman bravely accepting that she is losing her sight. Her fashion sense may have baffled the other attendees, but her talent and heart were undeniable.
The Academy Awards telecast has seen its share of muted musical performances, but there has never been one quite as introverted as Elliott Smith’s. With his eyes half-closed, his voice pitched at a whisper, and his hands idly strumming his song’s simple chords, the troubled alt-rocker couldn’t have looked or sounded more out of place—even with an orchestra fleshing out his music with sweet strings. But there has rarely been a more mesmerizingly vulnerable Oscars moment either. This was a few minutes of raw, honest art, offering a refreshing respite from the night’s usual agenda of fashion and fawning.
“My Heart Will Go On”—1998
Titanic’s award-sweeping night at the Oscars was seen by some as the Academy reacting to the previous year’s wave of quirky art films. In that same spirit, the ’98 show’s memorably fragile Elliott Smith performance was effectively counter-programmed by the blockbuster sweep of Celine Dion, looking elegant in her black gown as she bellowed to the back row. As a full orchestra (in matching ice-white suits!) played behind her, the French-Canadian chanteuse knocked out what has become one of the most famous ballads of all time—and in the process proved that big could be beautiful.
“9 to 5”—1981
Parton is such a national treasure that she could have phoned in her performance of “9 to 5” and it still would have been fabulous. But it was great that she went full Dolly at the Oscars, with colorful makeup, a glittery gown, and a blonde wig that looked like four full cans of whipped cream had been lovingly emptied onto her head. What could make all that more perfect? How about a bevy of male dancers in silky “worker” costumes, miming hammering in front of a set that prominently featured the word “UNITE”? It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.
The Oscars went disco at the end of the ’70s, honoring the kitschy musical comedy Thank God It’s Friday by giving an award to its soaring anthem “Last Dance”. The movie’s star Donna Summer brought her vocal dynamism and her sense of drama to a show-stopping performance, which saw her belting out the song while surrounded by shiny rotating panels—like she was singing from the inside of a mirrorball. By the time she pivoted out of her spoken-word interlude for a final flourish, she had turned the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion into Studio 54.
“Theme from Shaft”—1972
Can you dig it? The Academy came roaring into the rock and soul era with Hayes’ performance of that year’s Best Original Song—an unshakably catchy funk number overlaid with a symphony’s worth of strings. Although the vocals and instruments were pre-recorded, there was plenty “live” on the stage that night, from the troupe of sexy interpretative dancers to the shirtless, gold-festooned singer. When Hayes and his mobile keyboard rolled through a tunnel of wriggling, disembodied arms and legs, it was like seeing the traditional Oscar musical extravaganza get stripped down and deconstructed, on live TV.
The Oscars producers didn’t do Adele any favors at the 2013 ceremony, which included a “50 years of James Bond movies” tribute that had the great Shirley Bassey singing the gold standard of 007 themes, “Goldfinger”. Later that night Ms. Adkins took her turn, giving her “Skyfall” an intense and majestic performance, befitting a song that was itself a worthy heir to the best Bond numbers. Initially cloaked in darkness, Adele swayed back and forth in front of a collection of backup musicians, also in the shadows. By the end, the stage had brightened and the backdrop sported splashes of blood red… reflecting the power and the passion of a young superstar.
“Streets of Philadelphia”—1994
The Boss took some chances in the ’90s, exploring new sounds while on hiatus from the E Street Band. Coerced by Philadelphia’s director Jonathan Demme to contribute a song for a movie that would both sum up its AIDS-awareness themes and become a huge hit, Springsteen produced the moody, rhythmic, synth-driven “Streets of Philadelphia”. Before he took home the Oscar, he delivered a fantastic live performance, putting his guitar away and eschewing his usual rock-to-the-rafters style, to sing quietly and powerfully about a sickly man wasting away.
John Legend & Common
One of the rare hip-hop numbers to compete for (and win) Best Original Song, this rousing, gospel-tinged anthem combines the socially conscious rhymes of Common with John Legend’s lilting, uplifting voice. The Oscars performance illuminated the song’s lyrics, which are an emotional reflection on the life and sacrifices of Martin Luther King and the others who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. On the stage, a chorus of backup singers walked through a model of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, creating the impression of a movement toward justice that won’t be denied.
“Sooner or Later”—1991
The ever-mercurial Madonna left her ’80s party girl persona behind to play the retro femme fatale Breathless Mahoney in Warren Beatty’s self-consciously cartoonish Dick Tracy. On Oscar night she essentially reprised the role, dressing like a reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe and cocking her hips back and forth seductively. The performance was a riveting pastiche of old Hollywood glamor and sleazy burlesque, capped by a Desert Storm-era ad-lib about General “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf. It was the perfect presentation of this Stephen Sondheim song: a classic vamp which amps up the va-voom.
Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová
Writer-director John Carney’s low-budget musical Once started its charmed awards season journey at Sundance, where an unassuming story about a couple of flirtatious Dublin musicians came out of nowhere to become a festival favorite. The romantic and musical chemistry of the movie’s stars and songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová was just as impossible to resist at the Oscars. Their performance was like a miniature version of the film, starting out tentatively—with the singers edging their way into the tune, each trying to find their place—before building steadily to harmonies so pure and angelic that the whole theater was aglow.
Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper
The 2018 A Star Is Born remake is an exquisitely crafted blockbuster that deserved to win more than one Oscar—even if its lone prize was for this indomitable smash hit. The Academy voters must have realized their mistake while watching Cooper and Gaga absolutely crush “Shallow” at the ceremony. The movie’s co-stars boldly walked to the stage directly from the audience, then took their places at their respective microphones, gazing at each other with awe and affection while working their way to the song’s ecstatic climax. They may have lost Best Picture (and Best Actor and Best Actress), but they won the night.