1. “Sleeping Bag” - ZZ Top, 1985 (I, Tonya)
Seeing as the Winter Olympics are just behind us, why not start with Craig Gillespie’s sympathetic portrait of the most controversial woman that figure skating ever produced? I, Tonya manages to be at once hilarious (Allison Janney’s award-collecting turn as the mother from hell will likely nab her the best supporting actress Oscar) and harrowing (the verbal and physical abuse Tonya Harding endured at the hands of that mother and the opportunistic, controlling Jeff Gillooly is not sugarcoated). It’s also a star turn for the surprisingly affecting Margot Robbie as Harding, a blue-collar skater who excelled in the most precious of sports. But I, Tonya wouldn’t be nearly the blast that it is without its rockin-to-the-oldies music.
To be sure, anachronistic liberties are taken with the song selection: while Harding’s career took off in the mid-'80s and continued until her much-publicized flameout in 1994, many of the standouts on the soundtrack are from a decade earlier—Heart’s “Barracuda” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” from 1977, Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” from 1979, and Dire Straits’ 1980 “Romeo and Juliet,” chosen as a nod to Harding and Gillooly’s fraught relationship. Music supervisor Susan Jacobs told Entertainment Weekly in December that she and Gillespie drew more on '70s music because they were looking for a “warmth” they found lacking in '80s and '90s tunes. At least one song, though, comes from Harding’s actual past: ZZ Top’s riff-tastic “Sleeping Bag.” In the movie, Robbie performs to it in the 1986 Skate America competition. IRL, Harding included the song in her program at the 1992 U.S. Nationals—proof that in a sport which only this year allowed music with vocals at the Olympic level, Tonya was indeed a badass.
2. “Crash Into Me” - Dave Matthews Band, 1996 (Lady Bird)
No film to get Oscar love this year more expertly and affectionately mines from pop’s past than Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the achingly real story of a teen who just wants some way, any way to get out of Sacramento, all while maneuvering through busted friendships, problematic boys and a neurotic mom. And while Gerwig’s tale of personally writing Justin Timberlake to get permission to use his quintessential kiss-off “Cry Me a River” in a party scene in the film got the most press attention, it’s another bro’s tune—one whose 1996 release pre-dates the 2002 setting of Lady Bird by six years—that’s most pivotal to the movie.
The Dave Matthews Band’s overheated “Crash Into Me” has many adherents—Gerwig among them, who called it “the most romantic song ever” in a letter to Matthews—but also more than a couple detractors, particularly among journalists. The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich called it “schlocky and largely irredeemable,” noting that Matthews himself once revealed the songs creeper roots in an episode of VH1 Storytellers. The AV Club’s Clayton Purdon described the “song about jacking off” as “at once generically romantic and creepily specific in its sexual yearnings.”
And yet both Purdon and Petrusich acknowledged that Gerwig managed to make the horndoggy “Crash Into You,” in fact, redeemable, by featuring it in two key scenes involving Saoirse Ronan’s character Lady Bird and those aforementioned boys. First we hear it when she’s crushed to come across her boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges) making out with another guy [note to dudes hooking up on the DL in the men’s room: lock the stall door], and contemplates her heartbreak under the stars. “Crash Into You” resurfaces later, a marker that it’s time for Lady Bird to move on from the sexy-but-shitty Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). “I fucking hate this song,” says the proto-hipster when it comes on the car radio after he decides to ditch prom en route to the dance with Lady Bird. “I love it,” she replies, in a moment of epiphany. “I actually want to go to prom.” And so begins the rest of Lady Bird’s life. What a sweet, pitch-perfect film.
And here, whether Kyle or us writerly haters like it or not, is the song that meant so much to Greta Gerwig and her heroine, Lady Bird, in full. Mr. Matthews, it’s all yours:
3. “Walk Away Renee” - The Four Tops, 1967 (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Another tough mother. What serendipity, that in the era of #TimesUp there is such a wealth of strong women among this year’s Academy Award hopefuls—none more relentless than Mildred Hayes, the grieving, angry mother on a mission of justice, played with typical brilliance by Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And while music isn’t exactly front and center in Three Billboards—to be honest, there’s so much going on in this overstuffed film (rape, murder, arson, racism, cancer, suicide, little persons and age-disparate relationships among them) that it’s hard to imagine any music being that prominent. But it is there, and it’s effective.
The soundtrack is mostly a collection of folk and Americana, including “His Master’s Voice” from Monsters of Folk, Townes Van Zandt’s “Buckskin Stallion,” and maybe most à propos, Joan Baez’s 1971 cover of The Band’s steely “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (Mildred could well be a descendent of the song’s Virgil Caine). But there’s also a handful of unlikely oldies creeping into the mix, selections as eclectic as this movie’s ever-shifting moods: Sam Rockwell’s cop listens to ABBA’s saccharine “Chiquitita” when he gets some world-shattering news, and the Irish traditional “The Last Rose of Summer,” sung by Renée Fleming, accompanies a raging fire.
And then there’s “Walk Away Renee”—not the 1965 original by The Left Banke, but the cover, released a year later by Motown greats The Four Tops. It’s playing in a bar as Rockwell’s suddenly chastened cop (the single most untenable turn in the film, for many) contemplates making amends and overhears a dark conversation. The music swells, and from there Three Billboards takes a few more unlikely turns before finally reaching its curious end. But it’s worth considering the classic tune’s lyrics that no doubt played a role in it ending up in a movie about love, pain, vengeance, and letting go:
And when I see the sign that points one way
The lot we used to pass by every day
Just walk away Renee
You won't see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You're not to blame
4. "Redbone" - Childish Gambino, 2016 (Get Out)
It only makes sense that this year’s most modern Oscar contender would feature a more recent song—in this case, "Redbone," the second single and standout track from Childish Gambino’s 2016 project Awaken My Love!. But of course, that album, in its own funk-revivalist way, looks decades back, as Get Out does, in a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner-meets-The Stepford Wives sort of way. Co-written by Donald Glover and Ludwig Göransson (the Swedish composer also responsible for the Black Panther score), “Redbone” became Childish Gambino’s first top 20 single on the Hot 100, and won a Grammy in 2018 for best traditional R&B performance. But it was its haunting, deceptively chill vibe and double-edged lyrics that appealed to director Jordan Peele when it came to his inspired horror story.
“First of all, I love the 'stay woke' [lyric]," Peele told HipHopDX a year ago. “That’s what this movie’s about. I wanted to make sure that this movie satisfied the black horror movie audience need for characters to be smart and do things that intelligent, observant people would do. I’m a huge Childish Gambino fan, a huge fan of Donald. So it’s a perfect match.”
If you’ve seen Get Out—and if you haven’t by now, what is wrong with you?—you know that “Redbone” appears early in the film, as protagonist photographer Chris and his girlfriend Rose are preparing to leave for an ill-fated weekend at her parents’ place in the country. The “stay woke” line resounds long before we even know how much it will mean as time goes on.
More than an hour and a half later—after Chris has been to the sunken place and back—we hear it again over closing credits, even as we’re still wondering, “Shouldn’t he have made sure she was dead?” Peele’s left open the possibility of a sequel, though he recently told Collider, “I would never do a sequel if I didn’t think it was going to beat the original”—a tall order, considering the triumph that is Get Out.
5. “You’ll Never Know” - Alice Faye, 1943 (The Shape Of Water) (new version by London Symphony Orchestra with Renee Fleming)
Until recently this song of longing—first introduced by actress Alice Faye in the 1943 musical Hello, Frisco, Hello—would scarcely be known to anyone under 85 who wasn’t an old movie buff. But what a difference a few months -- and a fantastical movie about a mute cleaning woman in love with an amphibian on the run from Cold War G-men -- can make.
The Shape Of Water is one of the more unlikely films to ever to be considered front-runner for best picture, but in case you haven’t noticed, we are in unlikely times. Much of the credit goes to Sally Hawkins’ sensitive leading performance, director Guillermo Del Toro’s magical touch, and costume and effects departments that turned Doug Jones into a creature just humanoid enough—those abs, after all—that may have had you questioning where you’d draw the line on inter-species hookups. Oh, admit it.
But Shape has crucial supporting performances too: Octavia Spencer as Hawkins’ spunky fellow janitor, and Richard Jenkins as a melancholy, past-his-prime neighbor who takes refuge in cats and a love of relics from Hollywood’s Golden Age. He lovingly breaks down Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap dancing on the stairs, and the film’s soundtrack includes snippets of Glenn Miler, Andy Williams, Carmen Miranda, and Alice Faye’s “You’ll Never Know.”
Late in the film, when Hawkins’ Elisa has resolved to save her aquaman, the song truly gets its shine, as a film lush with color [not green, but teal, we’re reminded more than once] snaps into a black-and-white musical number straight out of Busby Berkley. As the two outsider lovers dance, Elisa literally finds her voice, or at least Renee Fleming’s, who re-recorded “You’ll Never Know” with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Here's Alice Faye’s original “You’ll Never Know”:
And Renee Fleming, in a jazzier version, from the soundtrack:
6. “Love My Way” - The Psychedelic Furs, 1982 (Call Me By Your Name)
Finally, dry eyes will be in short supply when Sufjan Stevens takes the Oscar stage and launches into “Mystery Of Love” from the gorgeous Call Me By Your Name, one of two original songs the indie icon contributed to the film, along with “Visions Of Gideon,” which closes the film as Timothée Chalamet rips your heart out in a single, wordless shot. Whether he wins the Oscar for best actor or, as expected, comes up short to Gary Oldman, Chalamet more than earns the award in those few minutes alone.
The rest of Call Me By Your Name’s soundtrack is as idyllic as director Luca Guadagnino’s Italian village where grad student Oliver spends a summer with the family of Elio Perlman, a 17-year-old prodigy who speaks at least three languages, plays classical piano, and flaunts his book smarts, yet has his world utterly rocked by first love. Aptly, there are classical tracks—John Adams, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Erik Satie among them—offerings from Guadagnino’s fellow Italians Giorgio Moroder and Franco Battiato, and one '80s new wave favorite breathing inspired new life.
It couldn’t be more time-appropriate. In July of 1982, the summer before Call Me By Your Name is set, The Psychedelic Furs released their third album, Forever Now, and on it, “Love My Way,” a song about which frontman Richard Butler once told Creem, "It's basically addressed to people who are fucked up about their sexuality, and says 'Don't worry about it.' It was originally written for gay people."
There's an army on the dance floor
It's a fashion with a gun, my love
In a room without a door
A kiss is not enough in
Love my way, it's a new road
I follow where my mind goes
We first hear the song in something of a dance-off. The locals are transfixed on the handsome new arrival from America, Oliver, who shows off his dance floor skills at an outdoor party. Not to be outdone, Elio busts some cocky moves of his own—all part of their own dance of alpha-ness that can only last so long.
Much later, “Love My Way” surfaces again, when Oliver and Elio, now in the throes of it, take a short trip to Bergamo (encouraged by Elio’s parents, no less) and drunkenly cavort with some strangers in the streets. Oliver again dances to the song. “I saw them last year,” he says to a woman in broken Italian, “Richard Butler—fantastico!” Soon enough, Elio and Oliver must part, and the teen is left gutted but with memories of a life-changing summer. We are left with an unforgettable film.
So swallow all your tears, my love
And put on your new face
You can never win or lose, if you don't run the race
Love my way, it’s a new road