Five songs are up for an Academy Award in the best original song category-three of which were written by the composers of the film scores, one of which was a top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit and another that was a brand-new edition to a 27-year-old musical.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences adjusted its rules this year to ensure that five songs would be competing for the Oscar, yet retained the prior procedure whereby voters saw only the placement of songs as they appear in the films. “Skyfall,” “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” and “Pi’s Lullaby” open their respective films; “Suddenly” is sung toward the end of “Les MisÃ©rables”; and “Before My Time” is performed during the end credits of “Chasing Ice.”
The range in films is particularly dramatic. “Skyfall,” the 50th anniversary of James Bond, is a blockbuster, while “Chasing Ice,” a documentary about a photographer’s visual chronicle of climate change, has barely earned $1 million at the box office. The styles run the gamut as well-pop, big band, theatrical and epic balladry.
Last year saw only two nominees in the category, and both were from animated features. This year none are, which is only the second time since 1994 that songs from animated films have been absent. Here, three composers, a studio executive and a music publisher provide insights on the songs’ creation. (Music sales according to Nielsen SoundScan. Box-office figures according to Box Office Mojo.)
Songwriters/Composers: Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
Lia Vollack, Sony Pictures president of worldwide music: “It was an 18-month process, working on both the creative and the marketing, getting it out and how it’s used to promote the film. Through every step, we make sure the artist is happy and feels protected.
“The first step was to make sure the song was true to the idea of the film and everything is coordinated between XL, Columbia Records and Sony Pictures. Creatively, the team works with the filmmakers to get the song right. The great thing was that Adele and Paul were really clear about what they wanted to do. She didn’t want to do something she was not proud of.
“Adele was a perfect choice for Bond when you look at the tradition of the films’ music. The Bond people wanted someone special for the 50th anniversary, and Adele fit that perfectly. Conversations with her began before [21 became a global smash] and we had to wait for her to recover from surgery and then her tours. By that point she was so much more famous, and I think she felt more pressure to get the song right.”
Song Sales: 1.4 million
Soundtrack Sales: 19,000
U.S. Box Office: $301.3 million
“Everybody Needs a Best Friend”
Songwriters/Composers: Seth MacFarlane (lyrics), Walter Murphy (music)
Performer: Norah Jones
Walter Murphy: “Seth sent me the script and said, first of all, he wanted an old-fashioned score that would have themes for the individual characters. That idea intrigued me because in most summer films the score goes in and out of pop songs and isn’t usually constructed that way. He also wanted a main title song that I could quote throughout the film.
“He sent me a set of lyrics, a different set of lyrics than the ones we used in ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend,’ and I wrote the theme. As he started filming he thought it would be funnier if the song were sung from the standpoint of Ted so he rewrote [the lyrics]. He thought it would be even funnier if it were a woman singing them.
“I did a Nelson Riddle-type arrangement–I spent a bit of time on it–and when we started recording he got the idea of taking it to his friend Norah Jones. He flew to New York with the Pro Tools files of the work we did on the scoring stage at Fox with a big band and string orchestra; 60 pieces. It’s not only well sung, Norah’s attitude just fit the main title section perfectly.”
Song Sales: N/A
Soundtrack Sales: 5,000
U.S. Box Office: $218.8 million
Film: “Life of Pi”
Songwriters/Composers: Mychael Danna (music), Bombay Jayashri (lyrics)
Performer: Bombay Jayashri
Mychael Danna: “The first thing we wrote, and it ended up to be one of the themes, was the song. I went to India in December  and wrote the song there with Bombay. That was the very first [music] committed to tape and it took a year to do this score. She wrote the words. She’s a South Indian well known for her film music. I was familiar with her work and she was someone we knew would capture the innocence of Pi’s youth.
“As soon as [director Ang Lee] starting talking about what he wanted to convey, she struck me as the ideal of what you would want your mother’s voice to sound like if you were a little Indian boy.
“We recorded the main orchestra on the Fox lot, but we went all over the world and did a lot of recording in India. Whenever possible, I travel and record in a lot of different, strange places. We have Balinese gamelan, Persian instruments, English choir boys, Tibetan vocals. It helps, not just physically, but musically, to go to them when I’m working with non-Western musicians. It’s like casting a movie: You have to be aware of what each character is, where it springs from and how it can help you tell a story.”
Song Sales: 3,000
Soundtrack Sales: 4,000
U.S. Box Office: $103.5 million
“Before My Time”
Film: “Chasing Ice”
Songwriter/Composer: J Ralph
Performers: Scarlett Johansson and Joshua Bell
J Ralph: “I felt the best way to link up what I am trying to do [with film] is to not try to create performances in the music. Of all the songs I have done, whether it be Willie Nelson or Norah Jones or Antony & the Johnsons, the first time they heard [the song] was in the studio. I want to capture a moment of fragility and soul. After someone learns the song, it’s a performance and not a discovery. Documentaries are discoveries.
“Scarlett is a dear friend of mine. I said, ‘You’re the only person I want to sing this song.’ She came over to my theater [on New York’s Lower East Side]. I played it for her, showed her the melody and gave her the lyrics, and we spent half an hour messing around with different keys. I wanted something that reflected this personal dialogue between the will of mankind and the unrelenting force of nature and I wanted to find the key that was best for Scarlett and her low, raspy voice. I wanted to juxtapose the beauty of Joshua’s violin on top of that to create that dichotomy. That track is pretty much just reverb. It’s just well-placed, well-chosen microphones and world-class musicians.
“I did the score and then at the end I realized this is a very heavy film, a daunting film, and I wanted to write a song that distilled the themes of the movie and allowed the audience to reflect on what they just saw. [The song] was intentionally kept spare. It’s a hyper-intimate recording and arrangement so that it becomes very personal, allowing you to be absorbed into the imagery.”
Song Sales 1,000
Soundtrack Sales: N/A
U.S. Box Office $1.3 million
Film: “Les Miserables”
Songwriters/Composers: Claude-Michel Schonberg (music), Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil (lyrics)
Performer: Hugh Jackman
Mike Knobloch, Universal Pictures president of film music and publishing: “[Director] Tom Hooper came onboard with a particular vision for the film: Singing the vocals live would enable the actors to provide intimate access to the material that the theater does not allow. People would hear the lyrics differently and understand the story in an intimate way they don’t necessarily get from the theatrical version. Tom was active in developing the script and he really looked a lot at [Victor Hugo’s] book and the libretto.
“One of the things he got from the novel that he wasn’t getting from the play is that Jean Valjean [played by Jackman] has this hugely impactful moment where he makes a promise to Fantine to rescue her daughter. He felt there was a beat missing as it was conceived for the show: They never punctuate this incredible moment where he meets this young girl, adopts her and realizes the ultimate purpose in his life.
“He went to Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain and Herbert and said, ‘If we were going to do a new song, what if it were there? What if Jean Valjean sang a song that helped the audience understand that this is a big moment for him?’ Herbert was the first to suggest the title ‘Suddenly,’ as in he suddenly realizes his value and purpose. He went to Alain and they brought it to life quickly. There’s something magical about it, both in the song and the way Hugh sings it.”
Song Sales: 7,000
Soundtrack Sales: 361,000
U.S. Box Office: $137.2 million