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...About Those Oscar Musical Numbers.

Dancin' Dan here to talk about what used to be my favorite part of the Oscar ceremony.

Remember those giganticoften-confounding production numbers set to the nominees for Best Original Song? They were crazy, ambitious, and compulsively watchable, bring levity to the alternately serious and teary acceptance speeches that usually dominate Oscar ceremonies. Even the times they just had a person stand there and sing, those moments seemed chosen because the songs were sung by a superstar who could easily fill the whole room with just their presence and incredible voice*. Unfortunately, those kinds of performances seem to have fallen out of vogue. Barring the odd actressexual dance party and Lego-fest, the days of crazy musical extravaganzas on the Oscars are long-gone. And I would argue the show as a whole is a less joyous, celebratory affair without them. For proof, look at this year's performances.

Set aside for now the fact that two of the best nominees didn't even get a performance slot, and let's take this year's performances on their merits. They were, for the most part, DULL.  Herewith, a few thoughts on each...

Sam Smith, "The Writing's on the Wall" (from Spectre)
Look, Sam Smith seems like a perfectly nice guy, and he's won a good handful of Grammys. So why was he so visibly and audibly nervous during his performance? Is it because he knew, like all the rest of us, that his song was the weakest of the bunch? At any rate, it's clear that the staging was borrowed from Adele's "Skyfall" performance, but Sam Smith is NOT Adele. Not by a longshot. Sure, it doesn't help that the song is a wannabe-dramatic dirge that meanders its way from half-formed phrase to half-formed phrase like a drunk in search of his next bar, but Smith's wobbly off-key performance only exacerbated the song's weaknesses. That this song ended up winning was made yet more confounding by his earlier performance. 

Best Part: Cruel as this may be to say.... when it was over.


The Weeknd, "Earned It" (from Fifty Shades of Grey)
This was more like it. Aerial contortionist straight outta Cirque du Soleil? Check. Onstage violinists? Check. Dancers in boudoir attire to match the song's sexytimes vibe? Check. A charismatic performer with weird hair singing the heck out of their song, confident in their artistry? CHECK. This was so easily the best-produced number it's almost unfair. Of course, it's also the best song (that was allowed to perform live), so that helped. This is how I like my Oscars musical performances: Big and bold and interesting to watch, yet with an appropriately intimate feeling.

Best Part: The dancers stalking the singer in a circle, while we view from above. Busby Berkeley would approve.


Lady Gaga, "Til It Happens to You" (from The Hunting Ground)
I imagine I'll get some flack for this, but here goes: I didn't like this. At all. It started out fine: Gaga, dressed in white sitting at a white piano singing in her rich lower register. But then she starts straddling the piano bench like she's Tori freaking Amos, which is just the wrong tack for a song about surviving rape. Unless you want us to miss Tori Amos. Barely thirty seconds into the performance, she flips her "On" switch and things goes from zero to ninety in nought point two seconds, zooming right past "performing to the back row" to land on "performing to the opposite coast". The editing and camera movements foolishly tried to match her intensity, rapidly swirling about, cutting the performance to bits and pieces before we're even near the climax. At which point, the staging from last year's winner "Glory" gets a slight tweak and real rape survivors walk from the back of the stage to the front, and hold out their arms, which have phrases like "It happened to me" and "Survivor" written on them. The performance didn't NOT deserve the standing ovation it received -- this is an important moment that comes with inherent Relevancy and Impact. If Gaga had just sat at the piano and sung the song straight, as opposed to climbing on top of it and shouting it at us, imagine the impact.

Best Part: No shade to Gaga, who truly was in good voice, but Brie Larson, giving each of the civilian extras a hug as they filed off the stage: 

Did you enjoy the three songs or did you just miss the ones that weren't there?  

* The Academy has none of the Original Song performances mentioned at the beginning of this post on its official YouTube channel, and the only ones available are those super-low quality recordings linked, which is kind of shameful, don't you think? AMPAS does have a very strange relationship with its own history, but you'd think they would at least have official versions of performances from recent years. But, no, they have NOTHING. (God bless the lovely souls who taped these Oscar ceremonies and uploaded these important pieces of Oscar history for our enjoyment.)

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Reader Comments (24)

I agree about Gaga's performance. It was too much and the editing din't work. I wish they would have focused more on the survivors and the messages on their arms. I had to struggle to read them.

I also watch Sam Smith perform this song in a different venue and he does the same stand up and do the sway/fidgety actor foot movement. I think the song is just more than him and he has to struggle to get it right. I did think he did a good job though. That song has been in my head all day.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Ever since I heard Radiohead's submission for the Spectre theme I can't understand how Writing on the Wall got chosen to even be in that movie and now it won the Oscar. Say what you want about how old and out of touch award voters are with movies, it's so much worse for music.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMike Troutman

I don't generally mind Gaga but that performance was incredibly misjudged. And I had the same thoughts re. Tori Amos

Then again I spend most of every day thinking about Tori Amos

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Gaga's intensity is quite laughable, if you ask me. I'm so glad she didn't won. That song is so obvious.

Variety just posted a red carpet interview with Sumi Jo -the opera singer in Youth- and she was truly upset. She really wanted to perform.

I honestly don't understand why everyone hates Writing's on the Wall that much.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Sam Smith song actually sounds better out of the movie- it's the usual James Bond theme but it's not a bad song.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

Denny- I totally agree with all of this.

And I also LOVE Tori Amos

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterjamie

Are Bond movie themes the new JLaw of Oscars?

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBD

Those days of yore when we had those dance numbers - yeah I miss seeing those big, slightly over the top production numbers. Which is my way of saying - boy do I agree with you!!
Lady Gaga who is a good singer didn't have to hit 11 right away (please see Bruce Springsteen's performance of "Streets of Philadelphia" for the template).
I was disappointed they tried to reproduce "Glory" in terms of the staging.

Sam Smith didn't sing well, and it is (as a Bond lover) a second rate Bond song. But the boy could have used some dancers to distract us. Giving him the Adele treatment simply underlines that he isn't Adele and his song is no "Skyfall". Stupid to give him the same production treatment.

Oddly the 50 shades of grey song and the guy with that weird hair were the best of the night.
I'm older and have no idea who "The Weekend" is, except now I know he can really sing.
Cirque de Soleil really can do anything - maybe they said hello to George Miller after.

Hire someone from Broadway and give us production numbers at least as creative as "Pitch Perfect" - the talent is out there just waiting to be used. (sorry this turned into an essay but I really miss that aspect of the show).

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

The ongoing disaster of the best song category continues. Two nominees are dissed. The weakest song (and performance) wins. The best song, "Earned It," is staged with an army of women decoratively performing for the favors of a man, which is then followed by an army of rape victims standing tall while Lady Gaga Broadway-belts that we can't understand what they're going through until "it" happens to us?

At least we had the subdued Dave Grohl performance to balance all this ill-conceived "entertainment."

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHustler

Gaga was the best performance of the night. Have several seats.

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGuy

Dear movie gods,

Please tell me this post inspires another about Tori at the movies. Toys, Mona Lisa Smile, Great Expectations ... hmmm (even though I LOVE her), maybe not?

February 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJames

OMG can Brie Larson be *more* awesome?

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

I LOVE Gaga's performance. Feels appropriate if she feels very emotional at that moment. It's also great that it brings so much more attention to this very crucial issue.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Sam Smith's tune wasn't a great song but at least, unlike Lady Gaga's tune, it was a song.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteph Bello

I'm glad everyone is upset about Sam Smith winning, it makes my being upset feel at least slightly easier. Teamwork.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Gaga's performance was terrible. It would have been much nicer, more emotional, and even respectful to just have Diane Warren on the piano, Gaga beside her singing. Perhaps have images of rape survivors on the screen with quotes like those they had written on their arms. The awful staging didn't help, but when Gaga started flailing about and screeching in a high pitch it just... ugh. Yikes. All of the "YASSS QUEEN!!" and "GAGA SLAY" bollocks that was being said on Twitter was nonsense. It was better than her Bowie performance though. Nowhere near as good as her national anthem at the Super Bowl. I often find her lower register to sound like a joke, though. Like someone putting on their serious voice. She overdid it (she doesn't sound that way in the studio version) much like Sam Smith did with the falsetto. My friend, who hasn't seen Spectre, thought the song was a parody of a Bond song. Which is funny since they could've nominated the track from SPY and had a better choice.

The Weeknd, however, was a great performance (in tune! right pitch!) and the staging was quite interesting to watch. I know some have tsk tsked the racy costumes, but, um, it's from Fifty Shades of Grey.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Glenn - Co-sign. Gaga often seems far too affected when she's performing, like she's impersonating a "great singer" instead of just singing well (which it's obvious she can do). I was cackling with laughter at her Julie Andrews impression the other year on the Oscars, for example. It makes the emotion she pours into the song feel like a put on, and that's not what you want the audience to feel when you're singing about something so Important. I also re-watched Spy recently (and loved Rose Byrne EVEN MORE), and seriously wondered why that song didn't get nominated. It's a great spoof, but also a better song than Writing's on the Wall. Or Til It Happens to You, for that matter.

Tom - I agree they should have focused on the survivors' arm messages more. At first I wasn't sure if they all had something there, or if they all said the same thing, or what.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Nope, Gaga was outstanding. And I totally do not miss the days of Celine Dion and her wannabes.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Completely agree with everything, especially Gaga. When it was over, I said to my son (an 11-year-old Gaga lover, BTW), "if only the song were actually good". She sang it like it was the greatest anthem of all time, but, in my opinion, the song itself is terrible. She tried way too hard to sell the emotion, and, for me, the song just didn't warrant it. It's a shame, because the subject matter is obviously deserving of an emotional moment. I just didn't think the song was worthy of the performance she tried to give it.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered Commentergwynn1984

Wrong. Gaga was incredible and should be an Oscar winner right now.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterIan

I think it's a reflection on how bad music sucks right now. Also, Alan Menken and his fantastic Disney creations are terribly missed. And Randy Newman. And yes even Celine. Poor Diane Warren has lost 8 times now, but this was definitely her worst nomination. Gaga needs to tone everything way down.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAm

For me Gaga's performance was the evening's wow moment. I agree the song is not that great, but it really wasn't about that. It was about Gaga's extraordinary, chilling vocals. What she did is almost indescribable. I didn't think she could top herself from last year's Oscars. She did.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

From what I know about "50 shades" it's the man who does all the dominating. So why did we have a bunch of girls dressed up that way. Why not blokes putting on the sexy gear and moves. Wouldn't that have been more fitting with the theme of the movie?

The Spectre song is really just run of the mill Bond. The Academy voters must have thought Sam Smith was Adele and Spectre was Skyfall. A lot of members must have been surprised when they saw the show.

I didn't mind Gaga's intensity. She really feels this issue. I respect her artistic choices when it comes to how she expresses her pain.

March 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne

I imagine the academy not having any of the performances of the songs on their channel is a copyright issue right? The same way they don't have clips of the movies on the videos.

March 2, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.

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