In the movies, songs often signify absence, or distance, a gap difficult to fill through plotting or dialogue. Entering the space between desire and communion, bondage and freedom, or grief and comfort, songs reinforce the reassuring magic of cinema. They resolve fundamental conflicts; in Monday night’s best picture winner The Shape of Water, a song is what, controversially to some, allows the mute heroine Eliza to not only express but to realize her lust for her forbidden amphibian lover.
They also prime the stage for more believable, yet still idealized, awakenings, as when the titular heroine of Sunday’s snubbed critical favorite, Lady Bird, first processes and then rises above heartache via the resonantly tacky Dave Matthews ballad “Crash Into You.”
This use of songs comes from musical theater, in which forward motion mostly occurs when propelled by rhythm and melody. Just one well-placed song in an otherwise non-musical film can become a kind of pseudo-realistic special effect. From the classic (Ingrid Bergman conjuring Humphrey Bogart with “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca) to the comical (Lili Taylor talking back to her lousy, lying ex in Say Anything with “Joe Lies”) to the inspirational (Ledisi, as Mahalia Jackson, soothing David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, Jr. over the phone with “Precious Lord” in Selma), songs accomplish the seemingly impossible.
This year’s nominees for best song, and the performances that brought them to life at Sunday’s awards ceremony, communicated the form’s purpose in film better than usual. Three were inspirational, and their staging spoke beyond the frames of the films where they originated to address the current political mood.
Common and Andra Day performed the hip-hop anthem “Stand Up for Something,” from Marshall, with ten well-known political activists occupying spotlights behind them. Keala Settle embodied proud unconventional beauty, singing her bearded-lady aria “This Is Me,” from The Greatest Showman, as a pointedly multicultural dance troupe struck defiant poses behind her.
And Mary J. Blige, the mother of hip-hop self-empowerment, sang her and Raphael Saadiq’s touching country-soul hymn “Mighty River” in front of projected images from her own nominated performance in Mudbound, paying tribute to her own role in diversifying Hollywood.
Uplift is the stuff of awards shows, and though these performances all delivered in ways that aptly reflected the Academy’s progressive veneer, they provided little insight into what song really does in great films. That was left to the night’s two ballads — the ultimate winner and, in the minds of many music critics, its chief rival.
Coco‘s “Remember Me,” which took the prize, is not only a constant presence in Pixar’s tribute to Mexican family rituals, it’s the pivotal element in the movie’s story of personal and cultural reclamation. Written by the wandering patriarch Hector — Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez in real life — for the toddler daughter he left to pursue his music, “Remember Me” weaves throughout the movie like a winding echo of love grown at home, only to be thwarted by outside forces.
The song works in the most private way, as a lullaby, and in the most public, as a hit single that both brings Mexican flavor to the world and distorts its music’s origins in community. Sung by nearly every main character in a complicated expression of cultural heritage, “Remember Me” is the story of Mexican culture itself as it is interpreted and misinterpreted in the mainstream. (Interestingly, as in The Shape of Water, it’s also the thing that helps a long-mute woman – that daughter, Coco, now a grandmother – regain her voice). More than just another sappy Disney singalong, “Remember Me” absolutely deserved its win for honoring the bolero-ranchero tradition as it’s grounded in both family ties and Mexican pride.
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