From Elliott Smith To Adele: The Oscars Up Their Live Game

Elliot Smith And Adele
– Elliott Smith And Adele
GLAMOUR, GLITZ & ROCK N’ ROLL: Elliott Smith performing “Miss Misery” at the 1998 Oscars: Adele taking it to another level with “Skyfall” at the 2013 ceremony.

The decades-long awkward relationship the Academy Awards had with pop music took a sharp turn at the 2013 ceremony. Like many landmark moments of the last five years, it involved Adele.

It was the year of “Skyfall,” Adele’s James Bond theme, a prohibitive favorite for the best original song Oscar. A pop culture beacon since its release in October 2012, it sold millions, raced up sales charts around the globe and dominated U.S. radio. When the awards show aired in March 2013, Adele was giving the song’s first-ever live performance, the sort of easy-to-market proposition that rarely befell the Oscars.

Hollywood’s gala celebration had not been handed a hit record like that since 1997’s “Titanic,” the film that made an international star out of Celine Dion through “My Heart Will Go On.”

And yet, at that 2013 ceremony – the year after their constantly changing rules fouled up the category to the point that there were only two nominees – the producers chose to only allow performances of three of the five nominated songs, one of which was written by Oscar host Seth MacFarlane.

“It’s always up to the executive producer’s discretion to decide how many songs are performed and which ones end up on the show,” says Raj Kapoor, an Oscars co-producer who oversees screen content and performances.

Producers have smartly come to the realization that live music performances that celebrate the previous year are greater crowd-pleasers than historical clip collections. Thanks to recent strong performances from Pharrell Williams, Common and John Legend, Sam Smith, and Justin Timberlake, look for music to have formidable presence at this year’s ceremony as well.

This year’s 90th annual ceremony, taking place March 4 at Hollywood’s Dolby Theater, will feature performances of all five nominated songs by the artists who performed them in the films: Keala Settle singing the Golden Globe winner “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” Sufjan Stevens doing “Mystery of Love” from “Call Me By Your Name,” Mary J. Blige performing  “Mighty River” from “Mudbound,”  Miguel and Natalia Lafourcade dueting on “Remember Me” from “Coco,” and Common and Andra Day performing “Stand for Something” from “Marshall.”

The nominees, though, are the songwriters – Justin Paul & Benj Pasek, Stevens, Blige, Raphael Saadiq & Taura Stinson, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and Common and Diane Warren, respectively.

In many ways, the year resembles the class of 2013 when the Lopezes took home the prize for “Frozen’s” “Let It Go” over Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”

Again we have Broadway-inspired songwriters, the pop side of hip-hop, and the softer side of alternative rock. The difference, however, is the messages these songs

“This year does not feel like the year before,” says Kapoor who in the past worked on seven Grammy Awards ceremonies and, according to his bio, “international tours for Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Soul 2 Soul, One Republic, American Idol, Jason Aldean, Shania Twain, Juanes, Jewel, Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato and Rascal Flatts.”

“I think we have some songs that have some amazing messages that happen to be associated with movies and seem very relevant to our time,” he says. “All five songs have their own unique flavor; each one will give us something special.”

Topicality, by and large, in the category has been limited to songs in documentaries, though Common did win for 2014’s “Glory” from “Selma,” the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s mid-60s marches. Issue-oriented material from scripted films has won before, but the last one was 24 years ago: Bruce Springsteen’s win for 1993’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”

Springsteen and Neil Young performed their solemn ballads from the AIDS-themed “Philadelphia” at the 1994 ceremony, a bit of a rarity at the time.  The Academy and producers were known to question whether music stars had enough clout to keep the broad TV audience engaged and slow songs, regardless of who sang them, were almost always the first ones to get tossed from the ceremony.

Remember, AMPAS is the organization that felt Phil Collins, in 1985, wasn’t a big enough star to warrant inclusion on the broadcast despite his monstrous hit “Against All Odds” then owning the pop charts.  As late as 2004, ABC and the producers feared audiences would turn off the program if an unknown artist was singing an obscure song. They opted to book Antonio Banderas to sing “El Otro Lado del Rio” at the 2005 ceremony, and in 1989, the only music performed was from films of the ‘30s. In 2010, rather than allow Ryan Bingham or Randy Newman onstage, they presented dance interpretations of the nominees.

It’s easy to see why the late Elliott Smith’s performance of “Miss Misery” at the 1998 ceremony where “Titanic” was king of the world continues to stand out as an Oscar anomaly, 20 years on. With an ill-fitting suit and over-wrought strings, Smith was the awkward indie balladeer who had difficulty making camera eye contact before an odd bow with far more mainstream nominees Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion after which no less a figure than Madonna announced “My Heart Will Go On”’s inevitable victory.

“It’s always up to the people who are in charge of the creative aspects, like the artist, to decide how their songs will be presented in the show,” Kapoor explains. 

Sufjan Stevens
– Sufjan Stevens
CALL HIM BY HIS NAME: Sufjan Stevens, who will perform his Oscar nominated best original song “Mystery of Love,” pictured at 2016 Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco.

Regardless of off-kilter performances, The Academy Awards are consistently the most-watched entertainment program of any given year. Last year was a down year, but it still had a viewing audience of 32.9 million.  The year of U2, Pharrell and “Frozen” had a viewing audience of 43.74 million; the least-watched telecast was the 80th annual event, which saw fewer than 32 million people tune in.

Still, that 2008 show put Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in front of an audience that may well have never seen “Once” or heard of their band, The Swell Season. The win, though, almost immediately propelled Hansard’s career as a recording and touring artist. Similarly, Ryan Bingham saw a career boost as a touring artist off his win for “The Weary Kind.”

In 2009, the Indian composer A.R. Rahman won the song and score Oscars for his “Slumdog Millionaire” work and in 2010, he became the rare film composer able to head out on a world tour. There are other payoffs for Original Song winners: After receiving the Oscar for his “Selma” song in 2015, Common struck a deal with HBO for a film production company.

While she was not nominated for any awards at that ceremony, Lady Gaga took a bold step toward career reinvention with a widely praised performance of a song medley from “The Sound of Music.” Within the next year, she had co-written a song for a documentary on sexual assault, performed at the Super Bowl, paid tribute to David Bowie at the Grammys and embarked on a concert tour with Tony Bennett. In terms of using the Oscars as a game changer, no one has done it better.

“The Oscars are so prestigious and are so known around the world for beauty and glamour,” says Kapoor. “We want people to feel that it is very special for them to be on the show and we want to treat their work and their artistry to the best of our ability and really create magic and beautiful moments for them that they will be proud of. We want people to remember these performances for years.”