The Anatomy of a Best Song

What makes a song the “Best Original Song” for a motion picture? This year is particularly fascinating.

There appears to be a clear front runner in La La Land, nominated for the maximum two songs – “Audition” and “City of Stars.” Being a “movie musical” (yes, in quotations) the songs function in a very clear and direct way, allowing their effectiveness and relevance to the dramatic whole to be more objectively quantifiable. With two nominations, however, it runs the risk of cancelling itself out.

Furthermore, historically the academy has chosen songs by famous pop artists, which gives an edge to Justin Timberlake and Sting. Although THIS year, with the massive pop appeal of Hamilton, the prize could go to Lin-Manuel Miranda. So it’s really up in the air.

There is always going to be a large amount of subjectivity when evaluating a creative endeavor. Ideally, the law of averages works it out so that the opinions of an educated sample reflect the opinions of the educated majority.

Remember, though, that while the nominations are made by Academy members who are songwriters and composers, the winners are decided by the membership as a whole. (So beware Lin Manuel Miranda – the deciding vote may come down to a tone-deaf cinematographer.)

I’ve always thought that songs in motion pictures are a difficult thing to judge, and precisely because of that they are almost always a difficult award to predict. Add to that the bizarre and ever-changing rules which govern the nominations of songs, which results in years where only two songs (???) are even nominated.

I thought it might be interesting to go through the nominations and see how to evaluate them on the principles of the Academy.

According to the voting rules of the Academy:

Works shall be judged on their effectiveness, craftsmanship, creative substance and relevance to the dramatic whole, and only as presented within the motion picture.

Here we have four criteria upon which the songs must be judged: effectiveness, craftsmanship, creative substance, and relevance to the dramatic whole (RTDW).

Craftsmanship and creative substance are a little clearer to discern, but effectiveness and relevance to the dramatic whole are open to a wide range of interpretation, especially when you consider past winners. I remember being very confused about Sam Smith’s win for “Writings on the Wall” for the movie Spectre over Lady Gaga and Diane Warren’s song “‘Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground. A rather banal pop song with a meandering lyric in a James Bond film beats an affecting survivor anthem in a documentary about rape on college campus? If you say so.

But let’s start with this year’s nominations. We have:

“The Audition” – La La Land
“City of Stars” – La La Land
“How Far I’ll Go” – Moana
“The Empty Chair” – Jim: The James Foley Story

“Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Trolls

***Full disclosure: I have not SEEN Jim: The James Foley Story or Trolls so my discussion about their effectiveness and RTDW will be entirely speculative.

Let’s take a closer look, and be sure to see my predictions at the bottom.

“The Audition (Fools Who Dream)” – La La Land

  • Music: A Chopin-esque waltz, with a very straightforward melodic line.
  • Lyrical Structure: Verse/Chorus-Verse/Chorus-Bridge-Chorus-Outro
  • Content: The verse lyrics tell the story about Mia’s (Emma Stone) aunt, with uncomplicated, playful, impressionistic, and occasionally strained language. For example, I think I understand what “she captured a feeling/Sky with no ceiling” means, but at the same time, a sky with no ceiling is just a sky.

The chorus is very strong here. It describes the aunt’s “mantra” as it were – a celebration of dreamers who are messy and complicated. It beautifully encapsulates the theme/point of the entire movie in four simple lines.

The bridge furthers this point, underscoring the need for artists and dreamers in society at large.

The outro seems to bring it back to Mia’s bottom line. It’s unclear, but perhaps Mia re-discovers the heart of her art here. Her desire is not to “make it big” but simply to “dare greatly” as her aunt once did.

The melody is built beautifully. The minor ending to the chorus always adds a twinge of melancholy or pain to the lullaby-like tune.

Lyrically, the chorus is superb. A simply-stated anthem. The verse lyrics, as I said, are at times strained, but the playfulness is nuanced and satisfying.


This is a clear front-runner with regard to relevance. This song shares the entire point of the movie, and just at the correct 11-o-clock moment.


I found this song extremely effective when watching the movie. In many ways it was the kind of “musical theatre song” I was waiting for the whole time.

“City of Stars” – La La Land

  • Music: A plaintive melody with a swung 8th, underscored with a sort of “bumbling-along” bass figure.
  • Lyrical structure: AAB AAB’ CC AA’ (Effectively: verse/chorus-bridge-chorus)
  • Content: The characters of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) search for the meaning of life in this “city of stars,” and discover that it may be love.

I think the separate components of the song are worthwhile. The AAB melodies are haunting, almost ghostly, and quite beautiful. The Bridge material starts to feel a little less interesting and tonally shifts to something more from tin-pan alley.

The lyrics match the meandering nature of the melody/accompaniment, but at times feel a bit general and casual, perhaps on account of the vocal performances. Some nice rhymes in here (wants/restaurants; a rush a glance/a touch a dance.) The bridge lyrics also veer into a more tin-pan alley tone with phrases like “send me reeling”, “this crazy feeling”, and “a rat tat tat on my heart.”

Where I feel the craftsmanship breaks down is the combination of the two elements. The lyric is a bright, almost hopeful love song, but the melody is the exact opposite. To what effect? See effectiveness below.RTDW

I think it’s fair to say this song is very relevant, given that the movie is a love story about two wandering dreamers. The love that is captured in this song is a very lonely type of love, however. One could make a compelling argument that this is director Chazelle’s point about love in LA (and he might be right about that). Given the tone of the song, it certainly colors the emotion in the film with a particular dark blue light.

They also hammer this tune over and over, giving it the “Some Enchanted Evening” treatment. You can’t help but leave the theatre singing it.


There are two problems I have with this song.

The first is that odd disconnect between the lyric and the melody. This might be the most depressing love song I’ve ever heard. Think “My Funny Valentine,” but without the irony. And that’s the thing – the lyric is so bold-faced and rosy. Perhaps if it was underscored with more pathos, the intention of the song would be clearer.

In the film, the song functions in two ways. The first – as mentioned – is as a love song. We hear Sebastian mumble the song to himself after having fallen in love with Mia, while dancing a soft-shoe on the Hermosa Beach pier at dusk (a frequent time in the movie). It’s the most “brooding-artist-like love” I’ve ever seen expressed, and feels more self-involved than unabashed. Mia and Seb are supposed to be true loves, yet if I witnessed him sing this in real life, I might advise Mia that “he’s just not that into you.”

The second problem I have comes from the other function of the song in the film. The melody is presented as Sebastian’s own, self-composed leitmotif. It’s the expression of the kind of music that Sebastian wishes he could play. However, Sebastian is supposedly obsessed with jazz. If this is the music he writes, it’s the lamest jazz I’ve ever heard.

All told, I rate this song “not that effective.”

“How Far I’ll Go” -Moana


  • Music: A very catchy musical theatre/pop tune with Polynesian instrumentation.
  • Lyrical Structure: Verse/Pre-chorus/Chorus, Verse/Pre-Chorus/Chorus, Chorus in new Key. Very unusual to not have a bridge in this song, but perhaps not the good kind of unusual.
  • Content: Your basic musical theatre “I Want Song,” describing Moana’s desire to sail out beyond the limits of her world.

    The tune is very catchy through out. It’s got an exciting build in the pre-chorus, and the suspended note on “Knows” and “Goes” in the chorus adds a great touch of longing. I’m not super fond of the minor iv chord right before the chorus, however. (Don’t get me wrong I usually LOVE a good minor iv.) It intentionally and effectively adds a bit of hesitation, but for my money they could have written a bridge instead to serve that purpose.
Lyrically, I find this a really banal “I Want” song lyric. It’s incredibly general. She’s attracted to the water and wants to sail far away. This is information we have known from the first scene, well before this song is sung.
But why does she want this? What is it about the water/the horizon that draws her? What’s the deeper desire? And furthermore what’s at stake for her if she does go? She says she wants to be the perfect daughter, and also that she could manage to be satisfied staying on land.
I get a vague sense that, like Ariel before her, she has a curiosity to “know more”, but know more about what? There’s no imagining what she might find or even plans to find. Something that would give me an insight to her bottom line. In 2 minutes and 39 seconds, I’ve learned nothing about Moana that I didn’t know before she sang the song.

Furthermore, aside from the play on the words “role” and “roll”, there isn’t anything particularly exciting about the diction. The repetition of the word “Island” in the second verse feels like a waste of precious lyrical landscape and rhyme opportunity.


Being an “I Want” song, it obviously has a major relevance to the story. It’s the thing that gets the hero out the door. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t do much more than get her out the door. The bigger want – not expressed in the song – is to save her dying island by returning a gemstone to a goddess. The song has a great reprise late in the movie (“I Am Moana”), which finally opens up the meaning of the film, but that can’t be accounted here, can it?


The song is effective in as much as it’s extremely fun to listen to and it allows me to care about our hero. It creates a desire for me to see her go beyond the breaks, but it doesn’t really create a greater expectation for the film as a whole.

“The Empty Chair” – Jim: The James Foley Story

*** Quick reminder here that I have NOT seen the following two films***


  • Music: A simple, plaintive hymn.
  • Lyrical Structure: AABA’
  • Content: A gorgeous and extremely tight lyric using the image of an empty chair held at the dinner table to capture both the sorrow and the hope of a man imprisoned and ultimately slain by enemy fighters.

The simplicity of the melody and the lyric are the secret sauce in this song. The image of the empty chair is simple, relatable, and immediately emotional. The way that an empty chair signifies both loss and hope is stunning. The lyric toward the end, “Well I was always late for every meal you’ll swear,” adds a huge dose of humanity and ironic humor that is deftly handle in what could be a sappy song.


To my understanding, this song plays over the credits of the documentary. I’m always skeptical about “credit songs,” but here I think I can see the purpose quite clearly. The story – even outside the film – is heart breaking for most Americans. To end with the sentiment of this song, allows the audience to both process, grieve, and leave with hope. It’s a yeoman’s task what this song accomplishes.


I think this song is the most effective of any of them nominated. It achieves its intention with supreme craftsmanship.

“Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Trolls

  • Music: Pop at its most poppy. An inoffensive dance club beat with a touch of disco.
  • Lyrical Structure: Verse/Verse’/Pre-Chorus/Chorus, chorus, chorus,choruschorussszzzzzz (Literally that’s the structure)
  • Content: Trolls Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake) convince the unhappy Bergens that happiness lies within them. The town becomes colorful once again as happiness is restored throughout the land.CRAFTSMANSHIP
    Nobody pops like Justin Timberlake. It’s extremely catchy and has a beat that could make boulders dance. The lyrics are facile and bright, capturing the sense of happiness that it tries to spread. The repetition of the word “dance, dance, dance” is infectious.

Given that the story is all about creatures seeking happiness (at the misfortune of trolls, whom they eat) I think it’s safe to say that this song has a big relevance to the whole. It sums up the point of the movie nicely and in that hip, modern, slightly-anachronistic style that’s popular in Dreamworks animated films.


If the point is for us to buy that this song could make the evil Bergens light with happiness and dancing, then yes – the song is extremely effective. Is it a coup of inevitable plotting? Likely not.


After hashing out the various components of the songs, I’ll make a couple predictions.

I have two Should Wins. They are “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and “The Empty Chair.” I say these two because “Audition” functions so directly into the plot, yet “The Empty Chair” is an incredibly well-written song for the moment.

My guess at what Will Win? “City of Stars.” It’s like with Donald Trump – if you play something over and over, eventually people will come to accept it as gospel.

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Actor / Writer / Idealist I believe a good story has the power to change the way people feel, think, and act. I'm a storyteller with a passion for changing the world and leaving it better than I found it.

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