For the love of entertainment
This was a HUGE decade for Best Original Song. Movie soundtracks were hot sellers in stores, perhaps responding to the fact that the craft was hitting an apex of talent. It helps that animated Disney movie musicals were also in their prime. There just isn’t a bad song on this list. It’s quite a shame that both music sales and quality dropped drastically in the next decade.
“Sooner or Later” is… fine. You might expect more from Stephen Sondheim, but ‘fine’ is actually respectable for anything involving Dick Tracy. In the movie, Madonna quietly sings the song as femme fatale caricature Breathless Mahoney, but in the real world Madonna went on a staggeringly thirsty campaign for recognition (even for Madonna), belting the song out in a series of cartoonishly sexy performances. It certainly gave the song enough momentum to secure a win for Sondheim, but compared to other songs on the list it’s imminently forgettable.
It’s Madonna again! Since musical adaptations are ineligible for the Best Original Song category, it has become standard practice to write an additional song to compete here. Most of the time the song is either tonally off from the rest of the music, randomly tacked onto the plot, or just plain lazy (or all three). “You Must Love Me” may be a bit off in terms of tone but it seamlessly fits into the plot of Evita and manages to be a lovely song in its own right without threatening the musical’s more famous numbers. A subsequent revival on Broadway included it in the program, but otherwise “You Must Love Me” is, like “Sooner or Later,” on the forgettable side.
The 90s closed out with an award for what would prove to be the last movie in Disney’s animation glory days. As with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” they opted for a collaboration with a pop star (this time Phil Collins). The song is good but ultimately just doesn’t have the same appeal as its predecessors.
“When You Believe” could have easily been a clichéd, forgettable song from a movie studio desperate to challenge Disney’s animation dominance, but someone wisely decided to turn it into a battle of the divas, which made it a wild success. Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey are like the world’s greatest frenemies performing this song–trying to seem friendly with each other while not-so-subtly trying to hit bigger and better notes than the other. Even the music video is more about Whitney and Mariah walking around like celebrities than the movie.
Everything from here on out is iconic–true powerhouses of the Best Original Song category. Such was the power of Disney in the 90s that a corny song with ever-so-slightly problematic racial tropes still manages to be beautiful and empowering. The music is sumptuous and it makes a wonderful vocal showcase (Broadway vet Judy Kuhn sang it for the movie and Vanessa Williams covered it with a pop version for the film’s soundtrack).
The version of this song spotlighted in the movie is definitely inferior, but Elton John’s pop version is gorgeous. It walks a fine balance between standing alone and honoring the plot of the movie it comes from and in a decade with weaker competition, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” would have made a much better showing.
“Streets of Philadelphia” is much more subdued than the other songs on this list, but that makes it a perfect fit for Philadelphia–a drama about a man dying of AIDS fighting a legal battle for his dignity. It’s a great song and a personal favorite. Of all the songs on this list, it’s the only one currently on any of my music playlists.
Of all the songs on this list, this one was probably the biggest hit and has left the biggest impact on pop culture, which says a lot. The song has become emblematic of Titanic and a touchstone of Celine Dion’s career. Yes, it’s cheesy, but it almost doesn’t even matter. Celine Dion was just the right choice to perform it because her dramatic persona does a great deal to sell material that might otherwise have been eye-roll inducing. It’s quite possibly one of the most popular love songs of all time.
“A Whole New World” is an iconic touchstone in the Disney library, and for good reason. It’s a soaring (both literally and figuratively) love song that’s impossible to dislike. It’s clever, endearing, and just the right amount of sweet. It also feels entirely genuine and earnest–no small feat for the frequently over-the-top animation industry.
In the end, you just can’t top the quiet magic of Beauty and the Beast‘s seminal love song, especially when performed by the legendary Angela Lansbury in the movie (she recorded it in a single take). It’s a song about the timeless wonders of love and friendship, but also the magic of storytelling and humanity’s capacity for goodness. It was the final collaboration of composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken as Ashman was dying of complications from AIDS when it was written (he died 8 months before the film’s release and the movie was dedicated to him). Given that Ashman’s music shaped the narrative of Beauty and the Beast as it underwent rewrites, you can read into its fairy tale an allegory of what Ashman was enduring as a result of his illness (fear, intolerance, and critical misunderstandings about the nature of one’s condition, but also the strength and endurance of love). “Beauty and the Beast” is the perfect vessel for that celebration of love, and in fitting fashion it has stood the test of time.
Next, we’ll go back to the Best Original Song winners of the 1980s, but you can also look at my Academy Awards page for much more content.