Billie Eilish in the video for “No Time to Die.” YouTube
Note: Due to a publishing error too byzantine to explain here, this piece wasn’t posted during the 2022 Oscar season. Now, with the hope that it has aged like a fine wine, it’s available to anyone who wishes to revisit the Encanto-rich glory days of last April.
The 2021 Oscars were full of anomalies, as many 2020 films got postponed, shuffled or shelved altogether in the wake of the pandemic. But few categories were affected as acutely as best original song, a category which often draws from an assortment of blockbusters and Disney animated spectaculars; were it not for the pandemic, for example, we’d have likely already seen Billie Eilish pick up an Oscar for “No Time to Die,” her song from the James Bond film of the same name.
Instead, No Time to Die got pushed into 2021, contributing to the pileup of heavy hitters on display here. In the past, the best original song category has elevated some true obscurities into Oscar contention, but this year Eilish faces off against Beyoncé, Van Morrison, perennial candidate Diane Warren and word-of-mouth juggernaut Encanto for supremacy. It’s one of this year’s toughest Oscar categories to predict, let alone rank, but here goes.
5. “Somehow You Do,” Four Good Days, performed by Reba McEntire (Diane Warren, songwriter)
It’s basically a punchline at this point. The Oscars could have nominated a huge name here (songs by U2 and Ariana Grande both made the category’s shortlist), or they could have showcased a plucky folk-pop sleeper like “Beyond the Shore” from CODA. But instead, for the 13th time, they went with Diane Warren, whose 0-for-12 Oscars streak would seem more unfair if she weren’t in the midst of her fifth consecutive year of cranking out the category’s fourth- or fifth-best song. Warren has deserved to win at least twice before — and as recently as 2015 — but this is getting silly.
This year, she’s a distant fifth out of five, and the word “distant” doesn’t fully cut it. “Somehow You Do,” which rolls listlessly over the closing credits of the serviceable Glenn Close/Mila Kunis addiction drama Four Good Days, is a turgid, generic bore — so much so that even the charisma of country-music lifer Reba McEntire can’t elevate it. The song’s message of defiance and persistence and not-giving-uptitude makes it Oscars catnip on paper, but it’s truly difficult to determine how this one made the cut, even with Warren’s name on it.
4. “Be Alive,” King Richard, performed by Beyoncé (Beyoncé and Dixson, songwriters)
It’s emblematic of this field’s strength that “Be Alive” resides all the way down at No. 4 on this list, because it’s a solid closing-credits banger by an artist who feels overdue for Oscars recognition. (This is Beyoncé’s first nomination, and it’s richly deserved.)
But “Be Alive” isn’t incorporated into King Richard itself, beyond its end credits, and its forcefulness doesn’t really translate to depth of feeling; though its references to “family by my side” and “hustle personified” certainly apply to King Richard‘s story, the song’s sloganeering could just as easily make it the soundtrack to a kick-ass Apple commercial. It’s not bad at all, but it’s not transcendent — and this year, the bar is set at transcendence.
3. “Down to Joy,” Belfast, performed by Van Morrison (Van Morrison, songwriter)
Van Morrison has spent the last couple years on an ill-will tour that could have easily disqualified him in the eyes of Oscar voters. But his songs are crucial to the feel of Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s warmly personal account of a childhood set against The Troubles in 1969. Eight of Morrison’s classics adorn the soundtrack, while the new “Down to Joy” opens the film on a vibrant note.
It’s to Morrison’s credit that “Down to Joy” sits seamlessly alongside his best-known work, and that the song finds Ireland’s crabbiest crank in fine voice. But the track also feels like a composite sketch of every hit Morrison has ever written. If we were to one day learn that he’d written “Down to Joy” in, say, 1971, would anyone really be surprised? It’s timeless, but when the field is this strong, timelessness is a double-edged sword.
2. “No Time to Die,” No Time to Die, Billie Eilish (Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, songwriters)
In virtually any other year, Billie Eilish’s killer James Bond theme “No Time to Die” would be a best original song frontrunner, if not an outright shoo-in. Remember when Sam Smith’s Spectre track “Writing’s on the Wall” won in this category back in 2015, even though the song itself is so boring they could use it to sedate rampaging zoo animals? “No Time to Die” eats that song’s lunch. It’s stylish and awash in Bondian atmosphere, it’s impeccably sung, it perfectly sets the tone for the film 25 minutes in, and it works even if you’re not roughly one-sixth of the way into a very long Bond movie.
What works against “No Time to Die” — and, mind you, it still stands an excellent chance of winning — is that it came out two full excruciatingly long years ago. Because it was released in the run-up to No Time to Die‘s intended April 2020 release, its reign as frontrunner predates last year’s nominees, and it’s exceedingly difficult to maintain momentum for that long. Still, it’s a career highlight for Eilish, which is already saying something.
1. “Dos Oruguitas,” Encanto, Sebastián Yatra (Lin-Manuel Miranda, songwriter)
Even for those of us who’ve been hesitant to hop aboard the Encanto freight train, “Dos Oruguitas” is a wrenching standout: It’s vital for punctuating the flashback in which the family’s abuela loses her husband, setting into motion the mix of magic and tragedy at the story’s core. Many have questioned Disney’s decision to submit this track for nomination over the viral sensation “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” but 1) very few people saw that phenomenon coming at the time songs were submitted for consideration; and 2) “Dos Oruguitas” does an enormous amount of emotional heavy lifting. It doesn’t just play over the closing credits; it sets the stakes for the entire film.
As suggested in the previous entry, “Dos Oruguitas” would seem to be in a tight race with “No Time to Die” for the best original song Oscar. If you’re looking for tiebreakers, though, consider the factors of momentum (“Dos Oruguitas” is only three months old and part of a commercial sensation) and history (if it wins, Lin-Manuel Miranda would become, at 42, the second-youngest person ever to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, to say nothing of his Pulitzer and his MacArthur “Genius Grant”). Gold Derby is still giving Eilish the edge, but Miranda’s milestone may just be too tempting for Oscar voters to pass up.