For me, one of the most exciting Academy Award categories is Best Original Song. The union of film and music can be a truly magical thing. Few things can take an already great movie and make it even better than adding the right song at just the right moment. If done right, an outstanding original song can be one of the best assets a movie can have.
In many cases, songs written for movies go on to become hits in their own rights. Remember how you couldn’t go anywhere in 1997 without hearing “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic? In a few cases, songs written for movies have transcended “hit” status and gone on to become some of the most popular songs ever written. If it weren’t for The Wizard of Oz and Buck Privates, we wouldn’t have the songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.”
Sometimes a song becomes more fondly remembered than the movie it was written for. Thank God It’s Friday is hardly a celebrated film, but its song “Last Dance” won a Best Original Song Oscar and became a classic disco hit.
But most importantly, the right original song can become a symbol for a movie. After all, what would a James Bond movie be without a great theme song like “Nobody Does it Better” or “Live and Let Die?” In just a few minutes, a song can evoke the mood of a scene, sum up the tone of the movie, or represent a character’s attitude.
Some of the best original movie songs don’t even need a few minutes to accomplish those things — they become so strongly associated with their movies that listeners can make the connection in a matter of seconds. Allow me to demonstrate. I’ve compiled clips from 20 of my favorite Best Original Song winners and nominees, each under twenty seconds long, and they get progressively shorter until the last clip is just one word. But if you’ve seen the movies these songs were written for, even the shortest clips will be enough to bring an image from the movie to mind.
A few bars of “Moon River” is all it takes to conjure up the image of Audrey Hepburn standing in front of Tiffany’s with her black dress and pastry. Seven seconds of “I Will Wait For You” brought me back to Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo’s poignant farewell at a train station in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The entire essence of Pinocchio can be summed up with just the words, “When you wish upon a star.” I didn’t even need Bing Crosby or Judy Garland to finish their lines to be reminded of Holiday Inn or The Wizard of Oz. That is just how potent the right combination of music and film can be.