By Paul de Revere
The movies that win an Academy Award for Best Original Song usually run in a different circle than the rest of the nominees on Oscar Night. Yet most Oscar telecasts greet the nominated performers with as much fanfare as it does Best Picture. The Best Original Song category is often calculated as a more-populist breath of fresh air into otherwise stuffy proceedings of the Hollywood elite. How else do you think Pharrell gets to perform the number-one song in America at the Oscars?
Case in point: Sunday night’s Best Original Song winner “Let It Go” is a counterpoint of sorts to “Happy.” It may not sit atop the Hot 100, but it’s vying for the most ubiquitous song in the world right now: Not only has it been translated into 42 languages/dialects worldwide, its pre-fab Broadway energy has inspired sanctioned sing-a-longs in movie theaters. A song like “Let It Go” hasn’t swept the world like this since, well, the last big Disney song.
It was Frozen’s high-profile win this past Sunday night. At this point, listeners would expect nothing less than a show-stealing performance from Idina Menzel courtesy of the juggernaut of film music that is the Walt Disney Corporation. The music of Disney movies has provided a sentimental soundtrack spanning generations of children and adults plus a cultural force that binds the world and “Let It Go” is only the latest entry in this legacy.
In total, Disney has won 12 Academy Awards for Best Original Song. Here are the most essential Oscar-winning Disney ditties:
“When You Wish Upon a Star” from 1940’s Pinocchio
Music by Leigh Harline, lyrics by Ned Washington
This is the Disney song set the gold standard for all others to follow. It’s the stock background instrumental for Disney World and Disneyland ads. It’s even been adapted outside the Disney canon as a “traditional” Christmas song. That’s when you know you’ve made it. The original was sung by velvet-voiced Cliff Edwards in the character of Jiminy Cricket and bookends Pinocchio’s opening and closing credits. The American Film Institute ranked “When You Wish Upon a Star” seventh in its 100 Greatest Songs in Film History, the highest-ranked Disney animated film song.
“Beauty and the Beast” from 1991’s Beauty and the Beast
Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman
“Beauty and the Beast” marks the bittersweet peak of the dazzling Alan Menken era of the ’90s, leading Disney music to a new peak in Oscar nominations and wins. Menken’s writing partner Howard Ashman died due to complications from AIDS before seeing a win for “Beauty and the Beast,” which The American Film Institute put at number 62 on its 100 Greatest Songs in Film History list.
Three songs from Beauty and the Beast were nominated at the 64th Academy Awards, dominating the Best Original Song category (“Be Our Guest,” “Belle”). Menken/Ashman came to prominence with 1989’s The Little Mermaid (“Under the Sea” won an Oscar at the 62nd Academy Awards). Menken continued his Oscar reign with lyricist Tim Rice, winning an Oscar for “A Whole New World” from 1992’s Aladdin and “Colors of the Wind” from 1995’s Pocahontas with lyricist Stephen Schwartz. All told, Menken is the second-most prolific winner in Oscar music history, with eight awards to his name.
“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from 1994’s The Lion King
Music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice
Perhaps the only omnipresent Disney song in the ’90s that wasn’t composed by Alan Menken was composed by Elton John (lyrics by Tim Rice). The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was nominated with “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata,” with Disney again dominating the Best Original Song category. The song accomplished a rare award-season trifecta, winning Golden Globe for Best Original Song and Elton a GRAMMY for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
“If I Didn’t Have You” from 2001’s Monsters, Inc.
Music and lyrics by Randy Newman
The ’00s saw more unorthodox entries into Disney film music, led by Randy Newman’s famously idiosyncratic vocals and songwriting. “If I Didn’t Have You” was Newman’s first Oscar, despite having been nominated fifteen times altogether. Newman continued with that trend, scoring a nomination for “Our Town” from Disney Pixar’s Cars in 2006 and his Creole jazz take on Princess and the Frog, which garnered him two nominations in 2009 for “Down in New Orleans” and “Almost There.” But finally, Newman would score gold again with his third and final entry into the Toy Story trilogy, “We Belong Together” in 2010.