Ahead of the 92nd annual Academy Awards, airing Feb. 9, Billboard talked to nominees up for song and score to hear more about why they’re in the running for the Oscars this year.
Below, read responses from some of music’s top contenders to discover behind-the-scenes stories about their reactions to being nominated.
Will 2020 finally be Diane Warren’s and Thomas Newman’s year? The veterans have earned their 11th and 15th respective Academy Award nominations without a previous win. Warren is vying for best original song for “I’m Standing With You” from Breakthrough (20th Century Fox), while Newman is nominated for best original score for best picture contender 1917 (Universal).
They both face tough competition. Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s rousing “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman (Paramount) is the best song front-runner following its Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Awards wins. If the song is triumphant, John would set a new record as the songwriter with the longest span of best original song Oscar wins: 26 years. (He won the 1994 award for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from the original The Lion King.) The current record for the longest span of winners in this category is held by James Van Heusen, whose wins stretch 20 years: from “Swinging on a Star” from Going My Way (1944) to “Call Me Irresponsible” from Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963).
Two of the other nominees in this category have won with previous songs from the franchises for which they are currently nominated: Randy Newman is up for “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4 (Disney/Pixar), while husband-and-wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez are nominated for “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II (Disney). The Lopezes’ first win was “Let It Go” from Frozen (2013), while Newman won for “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3 (2010). Newman has been nominated in this category with a song from each Toy Story installment — an unprecedented achievement.
The category is rounded out by first-time nominees Joshuah Brian Campbell and Cynthia Erivo for “Stand Up” from Harriet (Focus Features), in which Erivo played Harriet Tubman and is also up for best actress. Should she win either Oscar, she will become the youngest EGOT (Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony) winner, at 33.
Beyoncé was passed over for a nom for “Spirit” from The Lion King, which she co-wrote with Timothy McKenzie (better known as Labrinth) and Ilya Salmanzadeh, as was “Glasgow” from Wild Rose, which tied “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” for best song at the Critics’ Choice Awards on Jan. 12.
Cynthia Erivo and Joshua Brian Campbell
“Stand Up,” Harriet
Cynthia Erivo learned of her first two Oscar nominations somewhere over the Pacific, while flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo.
How did you learn of your nominations mid-flight?
Erivo: I had fallen asleep, and I was like, “You know, whatever happens, it’s fine. I’m not going to have any Wi-Fi on the plane. I’ll just find out when I land.” [Then] I looked at the table in front of me and there [was] a Wi-Fi voucher, [so] I put it on my phone. All of a sudden, a flurry of messages come through and the first one I see is “Congratulations!” Another message: “Congratulations, two nominations!” I sent a bunch of texts to as many people as I possibly could. It was just crazy because I couldn’t call anyone.
Joshuah, what was working with Cynthia like?
Campbell: Cynthia knows her instrument really well. I’m decent at writing for people’s voices, but at the same time, it’s amazing to write with someone who knows what they’re capable of and what makes them shine.
You recorded this after you finished filming for Harriet. How did that affect your approach to this song?
Erivo: Having filmed it, I had an experience with Harriet, so I could speak to what it may have been like to travel that far on foot, to have to put yourself in danger. It just meant more to be able to understand what that might have been like. Now I can truly embody the song with her
“I’m Standing With You,” Breakthrough
Diane Warren received her 11th best original song nomination for writing the inspirational ballad for the faith-based film. Warren has had more nominations without a win than anyone else in this category.
You were right on the bubble between being nominated or not.
I thought it was 50/50, but when people saw the movie and heard the song, they really loved it. We had screenings, and Chrissy [Metz, the film’s star] has been singing it on various shows.
Was the plan always to have Chrissy sing the song?
No, to be honest. I had a lot of people in mind — Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson. I didn’t know how good [Metz] is. [The filmmakers] asked me to try her out. I said, “Yeah, I’m a team player.” They went in for a couple of hours. I left, because I’m a bad liar. But when I heard it, I was like, “Holy shit.” Now I can’t think of anyone else I would rather have do it.
You’ve had more nominations without a win than anyone else in this category.
Would I like to win? Yeah, it would be great. But I always say the nomination is a win. Unlike the Grammys, where there are a lot of song categories, there’s only one song category at the Academy Awards. To be picked by my peers to be in the top five is great. I had all my friends here overnight [waiting for the early-morning announcement]. We stayed up eating pizza and talking. I was really happy when they announced my name. I don’t take any of this for granted.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
The famous pair is celebrating this first Oscar nomination together. For the co-writers (and friends) of over 50 years, the upbeat song is a career highpoint.
Elton, “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” is about your own journey. You don’t usually give Bernie lyrical suggestions, but did you this time given the nature of the song?
John: Bernie and I are like brothers. He has watched me struggle with self-acceptance for so much of my adult life. At the end of Rocketman, I’m coming out of rehab and learning to love myself again as part of my recovery from drugs and alcohol. It’s an optimistic new chapter in my life, and we both wanted a song that captures that uplifting spirit. Bernie knew exactly where to start. His effervescent lyric captured that mood perfectly and became the melodic starting point for me.
Bernie, given that this was for a movie and is the film’s final musical statement, did that change your approach?
Taupin: Oh, I don’t think that ever came to mind. I’m a songwriter. It’s what I do when I’m set to task: weigh up all the options and go to work. I don’t believe that when I was writing it Taron [Egerton, who played John] was going to be involved. Of course, his vocals made it all the more special. The icing on the cake if you will.
Elton, did you always see the melody as so upbeat?
John: Yes. We needed to follow “I’m Still Standing,” which is an extremely joyous song, that has evolved into an anthem over the years. “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” needed to further energize the audience and crescendo to an even greater level of joy. We wanted them to dance their way up the aisles of the cinema, full of optimism and hope. I immediately saw Bernie’s lyrics as a Motown-style song. A celebration! I then checked out the tempo of “Come See About Me” by The Supremes for inspiration and constructed the melody from there.
Incredibly, the Golden Globe win marked the first time you had won an award together. What would it mean for you to share an Oscar?
John: Beyond belief! Who doesn’t want an Oscar? Simply to make it this far is a blessing in itself, and to be nominated alongside my old pal is absolutely joyous.
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” Toy Story 4
Nominated throughout his career for 22 Oscars, 13 for best song, Newman found one of his favorite entries thus far in Toy Story 4’s “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” the tune he wrote for the Tony Hale-voiced spork turned cherished companion Forky in the latest Disney-Pixar playroom saga, which he also scored.
Your music is as much a character in the Toy Story franchise as the toys themselves. How did your roots inform this latest chapter?
This movie has a great deal of emotional content, I think more so than any of the other ones, and so the music is unlike anything I did with Toy Story before. l really like this song. Of all the songs I’ve had nominated, along with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” I like this one best.
The song does go deep, including the lyrics “Don’t you wanna see the sun come up each morning? Don’t you wanna see the sun go down each day?”
I was worried when I wrote it that people would think it was about suicide, which wouldn’t have been really the best thing for the picture. But you know, “I can’t let you throw yourself away.” There you are. I’m still worried about it, but not as much.
You hold the record for the most original song nominations without a collaborator in Oscar history. How does that feel?
I’m very happy about it. I’ve never written songs with people very much, just a couple times. The fact is, they staged a great picture, really, and hopefully the music is up to that level.
Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez
“Into the Unknown,” Frozen II
Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez will try to recapture Oscar magic with this track performed by Idina Menzel featuring Aurora. Their most recent win was for “Remember Me” from 2017’s Coco.
Was it easier writing for Elsa this time?
Lopez: I wouldn’t say it was easier. Writing a musical sequel is deceptively difficult and that’s why you don’t see a lot of them. It all starts with story, and we were talking to the team every day about what there was left to sing about.
Anderson-Lopez: What we did find after years of talking, was Elsa wasn’t really where she belongs and hadn’t quite found her purpose yet — and then we got really excited. How do you write an “I want” song for someone who’s not sure, but [has] a restless calling. We were really excited when we discovered it’s a duet. There’s this voice calling her. Then we knew what that felt like as artists, as people… it’s your destiny, you just don’t know what it’s quite supposed to be yet.
What advice did directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck give you?
Lopez: The idea that we were going to grow this franchise up. We were going to make it about young adults finding their place in the world, which was exciting. It was a different take on these characters that we love, and the freedom to go a little deeper and a little darker was a lot of fun to dig into. It feels like The Empire Strikes Back of Frozen, if you can make a comparison between those franchises.
The Oscars must be getting old hat for you.
Anderson-Lopez: Because we’re from New York and we aren’t usually around so many celebrities, we spend the whole time going “Look at that one!” We’re completely stargazing.
The best original score category pits Thomas Newman (for 1917) against his cousin, Randy (for Netflix’s Marriage Story), who are competing against each other in this category for the first time since 1995.
The Newmans are joined by John Williams, nominated for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Disney), and two-time winner Alexandre Desplat, nominated for Little Women (Sony/Columbia). The four men have accumulated a whopping 81 nominations in this category among them, with over half of them (47) going to Williams. Williams’ overall 52 nominations (including five for best original song) extends his record as the living person with the most nominations. Walt Disney, who died in 1966, holds the record for most nominations overall at 59.
First-time nominee Hildur Guðnadóttir is the front-runner for her score for Joker (Warner Bros.), which has already won the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice trophies, among many other awards. The Icelandic composer is vying to become the third woman composer to win in a scoring category, following Rachel Portman, who won for Emma (1996), and Anne Dudley, who won for The Full Monty (1997).
Among scores that were shortlisted in this category but failed to receive a nomination: Avengers: Endgame (Alan Silvestri), Ford v Ferrari (Marco Beltrami), Jojo Rabbit (Michael Giacchino), The King (Nicholas Britell) and Pain and Glory (Alberto Iglesias). All of these composers are past nominees in this category.
Alexandre Desplat was riding his Vespa around Paris when he got word that his lush, engaging music for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women had received a best original score nod. The nomination is the French composer’s 11th, and he has won two times previously. Gerwig’s advice to him: Think Mozart meets David Bowie.
Greta Gerwig had directed only one picture previously, Lady Bird. What made you say yes?
The script. This idea that she had of telling this story in a [nonlinear] way and then when I saw pictures of how the costumes would be, the aesthetics of the art direction, it was very, very special. She’s an artist, and I want to be as close to artists as I can be. It inspires me and makes me better.
There are so many strong women in the film. Who was your favorite character to write for?
Jo is the leader for sure, and she’s the one that doesn’t want to leave childhood. She doesn’t want to hear about love. She’s obsessed by her fantasy of being a writer, being an artist. She wants to stay in her dreams of being a child. Let me be clear, I want to stay a child, too, and I try hard that my brain stays as fresh and innocent.
What size orchestra did you use?
It was 40, max. I didn’t want the score to have too much color. There’s so much color onscreen already that I didn’t want the score to be full of variations; it would have been tiring. The orchestra is rather intimate because I wanted to give this music intimacy to match [the film’s and the family’s intimacy]. I wanted the score to feel near, almost like you could touch the musicians.
Based on the awards she has won in recent months, including a Golden Globe, Guðnadóttir is the presumptive front-runner to win best original score for Joker. The Icelandic composer is on a roll, having won an Emmy Award and a Grammy nomination for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl.
When Joker director Todd Phillips contacted you, did you know immediately you wanted the job?
When he contacted me originally and said, “I’m doing a film about Joker,” I thought this is probably a superhero film and some kind of action movie. I was very upfront with him and said, “If you’re doing an action movie, I’m not sure that I’m the right person for the job.” He said, “Just read the script.” That was the best advice possible, because the script was so fantastic. I really connected to it. One of the only pieces of direction he gave me at that point was we needed to go into [the character’s] head.
How long did you have to write the score?
I came in about four to five months before they started shooting. So I had over a year. That was such a treat to be able to dive into the story and go really deep and let the music become the character.
Did you have a favorite scene to score?
The bathroom dance. That piece of music was the first scene that I wrote. I felt that the character’s voice had really hit me in the chest. This is his voice. This is what he wants to say. Joaquin [Phoenix] listened to that music and basically improvised his scene to the actual music we hear in the film. That moment transformed everything for everyone on the set. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was a magical moment of true collaboration.
Director Noah Baumbach, with whom Newman previously collaborated on 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories, sometimes hung out in the room while Newman was scoring Marriage Story — a scenario the composer says has “never” happened in his protracted career. This is Newman’s ninth nomination for best score.
The film begins with close to eight minutes of orchestral score. How did you compose specifically for Scarlett Johansson’s and Adam Driver’s characters?
It was brave of [Baumbach] to open the picture that way. I tried to give her an everyday kind of feeling, not like you’re being introduced to a movie star up there. She was playing a real woman. With him, I gave him a touch of the hero. He was a hero in the world he was in.
What guided you as you envisioned the variations of the orchestral theme that unfolds throughout the story?
The film doesn’t take sides, and [yet] music could take sides, really. Someone could really get the gravy, and the other one nothing. But I tried not to do that because it just wasn’t there. Noah thinks of music as another character in the movie that was reactive to what was up there.
What advice did he give you?
He didn’t give me any advice, but he was a participant in the process, much more than usual. His instincts for music got better and better as the picture went on, and by the end he was right much of the time.
Newman learned of his 14th nomination for best original score (and 15th overall) when his agent, Michael Gorfaine, called from Vienna. “I was actually asleep, which is rare,” says the Los Angeles-based composer, whose score soundtracks a story of two young British soldiers during WWI.
You and director Sam Mendes have worked together since 1999. Have you developed a shorthand?
There’s a trust in our shared experiences, but then there’s the work and the work has to be good.
1917 was created in a series of extended, uncut scenes edited to look like a continuous take. How did that affect how you scored the film?
The movie unfolds in present tense and the music has to consider that always. There are rare moments of reflection, but our experience is in real time, so I could never let the music get ahead of the drama or point toward conclusions.
Is it true that you recorded the six-minute climactic cue in one take?
There were many prerecorded layers. Percussion, bass, melodica, processed field cadences, etc., all pulsing above dark drones. The large orchestra was recorded last. But there were, in fact, several takes that we recorded.