In contrast to the last few Oscars ceremonies that celebrated music-intensive movies (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “A Star is Born”), the 2020 edition leaned heavily on the clever class-disparity drama, “Parasite.”
But along with the standard best-original-song-nominee-performances, Sunday’s ceremony also boasted a spirited opening number by Atlanta’s Janelle Monae, who began with a sweet takeoff on Mr. Rogers’ theme song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
She sang most of it in front of Tom Hanks, best supporting actor nominee for playing the beloved children’s TV host. But then the real Monae kicked in, along with a soul-funk high-stepper, “It’s Time to Come Alive,” which was part “Thriller” and part Jazz Age. Joined by a cadre of dancers and Billy Porter, who shared vocals with her, Monae demonstrated a smidgen of her kinetic dance moves and encouraged an audience singalong from the Hollywood crowd.
“I’m so proud to stand here as a black, queer woman telling stories,” Monae said, signaling the official start of Sunday’s 92nd edition of the Academy Awards.
While Monae’s appearance was announced last week (though not her role in the show), Eminem’s was not. The rapper – looking like a random male country singer with his brown trimmed beard - surprised at the end of a montage about movie songs and powered through sound issues to spit a heavily bleeped version of “Lose Yourself.”
The fiery theme to his film “Eight Mile” won an Oscar in 2003, but Eminem wasn’t there to accept it (the story goes that he didn’t think he had any chance of winning and fell asleep). The song still resonates – and the addition of a string section always enhances - but watching the crowd reactions of Billie Eilish and Martin Scorsese won the entertainment battle.
Another sometime-Atlantan, Elton John, earned his second career Oscar with a best original song win for “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” from the autobiographical dazzler, “Rocketman.”
The win was the first for John’s songwriting partner of half a century, Bernie Taupin, who quipped, “This doesn’t suck,” upon reaching the microphone.
“Being here with this guy,” he said with a nod toward John, “I don’t have words for it. This is just justification for 53 years of hammering it out and doing what we do.”
John, whose win spurred a standing ovation, was understandably emotional as he said, “Bernie has been the constant thing in my life. When I was screwed up and when I was normal, he’s always been here for me. This is a dream for us.” He also thanked his fellow nominees, “for all of the great work you do,” and acknowledged Atlanta producer/engineer Matt Still.
John’s performance of the Oscar-winner looked similar to his recent Las Vegas production, with vibrant graphics framed by red stars to match John’s piano, if not his purple suit (with a rocket on the lapel) and glasses and mismatched sneakers.
The song isn’t the most memorable in the John/Taupin canon, but it runs with a catchy chorus, a soaring bridge and an easy swing.
As for the other performances:
- The always-radiant Idina Menzel belted “Into the Unknown” from “Frozen 2,” a song that is over the top even by “Let it Go” standards. But the collection of female singers each performing a line from the song in their native language was a cool touch.
- Some “This is Us” fans might not know that Chrissy Metz (“Kate”) is a singer as well as an actress. She’s been working on a country album for about a year and has displayed her vocal skills on the NBC drama several times. During “I’m Standing with You,” a booming gospel-pop song in the comfortable niche of songwriter Diane Warren, Metz ably handled some skyrocketing notes.
- The reliable Randy Newman sat in his usual place – behind his black Steinway & Sons piano – and banged his right heel against the stage floor as he played “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from “Toy Story 4.” This – and his nod for best original score for “Marriage Story” – marked Newman’s 21st and 22nd Oscars nominations; the cutesy ditty is the type that Newman sneezes out.
- Multi-talented Cynthia Erivo, looking fabulously sleek in a shimmery gold dress, stood in a circle of lanterns as she slayed the vocal to “Stand Up” – which she co-wrote - from “Harriett.” A gospel choir clapped in the aisle to close the uplifting performance.
Also – you heard Eilish would be there, and the 18-year-old and producer brother Finneas O’Connell handled the In Memorium segment. With her hair partially tinted Gatorade green, as it was when she corralled five Grammy Awards two weeks ago, Eilish sang a hushed, curled lip and husky-voiced rendition of “Yesterday” with O’Connell accompanying her on piano.
And a historical tidbit: maestra Eímear Noone was the first female conductor to helm the Oscars and Hildur Gudnadottir's best score win marked the end of a 22-year streak of honoring male composers.
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