By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist February 28, 2014 at 2:00PM
In the week running up to tomorrow Oscar's ceremony, we've looked at various aspects of Academy Award mania, from the best, and the worst, Best Picture winners, to the directors who went unrecognized, to our final predictions. But there's one final element of Oscar ceremonies themselves that we wanted to highlight: the musical numbers.
Though musicals don't always dominate ceremonies the way they used to back in the day, the Academy's love for a good (or disastrous) musical moment has remained fairly consistent. And after a few years off, as Best Original Song performances were ignored, they're back in force. And this year will see, for the first time in some years, all four Original Song nominees performed, with U2, Karen O, Idina Menzel and Pharrell Williams taking the stage.
That means that right now, LA is full of stressed-out dancers desperately trying to learn their interpretative dance moves to a tossed-off Bono number, so to lessen their pain, and to prepare you for your own ahead of Sunday's ceremony, we've picked out five great Oscar musical numbers from previous years, and five terrible ones. We're not making any claims to being definitive—there's an 85-year history here, and not all that much of it is available (legend has it that the 1987 ceremony began with Telly Savalas, Pat Morita and Dom DeLuise singing "Fugue For Tinhorns" from "Guys and Dolls," but it's somehow defied the Internet and never made its way online). But that's not to besmirch the quality, or lack of it, that you'll find in the potted history below. Take a look, and speak up for your own favorites, or anti-favorites, in the comments section.
5 Great Ones
Bjork - "I've Seen It All" - from "Dancer In The Dark" (2001)
The ceremony can do razzle-dazzle well, but with the right song and performer, sometimes all you need is an empty stage. And, sometimes, a dress that looks like a swan. That a Lars von Trier film broke into the category that mostly celebrates mediocrity is sort of remarkable, and his bleak, yet joyful musical "Dancer In The Dark" (which might remain his best film) is certainly an atypical picture for the category, just as Bjork's song "I've Seen It All" was equally out of place. But the Icelandic chanteuse is a world-class live performer, and complete with her bird-themed outfit, she owns the stage, and probably freaked out the elderly Academy members while she was at it. If she'd performed the full duet with Peter Stormare, as in the film (or Thom Yorke, as it was on record), it would have been ever better, but even so, it's not a moment we'll ever forget.
Elliott Smith - "Miss Misery" - from "Good Will Hunting" (1998)
Another unlikely performer, and another (rightly) stripped down set, this is one of the more emotionally potent and memorable Original Song performances in living memory. Singer-songwriter Elliott Smith contributed a number of tracks to the "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack, but it's the lovely "Miss Misery" that was the specially-composed one, and which in a year dominated by Celine Dion and a ballad from "Con Air," proved to be a real standout. Smith was initially reluctant to perform, but when told that another artist would cover the tune it if he turned down, he eventually acquiesced. Smith later commented, "I enjoy performing almost as much as I enjoy making up songs in the first place. But the Oscars was a very strange show, where the set was only one song cut down to less than two minutes, and the audience was a lot of people who didn't come to hear me play. I wouldn't want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day."
Hugh Jackman - Opening Number (2009)
Some kind of opening musical number has become, if not essential, than certainly traditional, usually exemplified by Billy Crystal. They're usually big production numbers that name-check the big nominees, with a few gags thrown in. Given his status as both a Broadway song-and-dancer and A-list movie star, hopes were high for Hugh Jackman's hosting gig in 2009, and he didn't disappoint, following the Billy Crystal template, but with a topical, handmade recession feel. Penned by, among others, "Community" creator Dan Harmon and "Parks and Recreation" star Ben Schwartz, the song took in the nominees, addressed the controversy that "The Dark Knight" had gone un-nominated, pulled Anne Hathaway on stage to re-enact "Frost/Nixon," made a surprisingly cutting, electro-scored gag that acknowledged that no one really liked "The Reader," and closed with Jackman, dressed as Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler," exclaiming "I'm Wolverine." Energetic and legitimately funny even when the music was a bit strained, it's the high watermark of present-day openers.
Jack Black, Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly - "A Comedian At The Oscars" (2008)
Another familiar tradition of late is bringing up big comedy stars—Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey et al.—to do a bit for the smaller categories, to liven things up mid-show. Having teamed up in 2004 for a fairly funny illustration of the lyrics to the "Get Off The Stage" Oscar song, Will Ferrell and Jack Black returned in 2007 to sing a lament (with music by "Hairspray"/"South Park" composer Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Judd Apatow and Adam McKay) to how comedians are ignored by the Academy Awards. "A comedian at the Oscars is the saddest, bitterest, most alcoholic clown," begins Ferrell, before Black takes to the stage and challenges Peter O'Toole to a fight. But fortunately, John C. Reilly stands up from the audience, and tells them that "you can be in both Boogie and Talladega Nights." It's an ingenious and totally winning bit—how have these guys never hosted together?
Bruce Springsteen - "Streets Of Philadelphia" from "Philadelphia" (1994)
Musical legends from Michael Jackson to Madonna have all had their moments on stage at the Oscars (and Sting has done it like fourteen fucking times). But our personal favorite might be the Boss. His theme tune to Jonathan Demme's AIDS drama "Philadelphia" isn't at the top of the Springsteen canon, but the moody, synthy ballad was a deserving winner, and the performance was a great one, free of gimmicks, and just letting the songwriting, and Bruce's voice, sing out. Sure, the backing vocalist who looks like a bodyguard undermines the whole thing a bit, but it's leagues better than most performances in the last couple of decades.
Also Worth Mentioning: Michael Jackson's rendition of "Ben" might have made the list, but it wasn't a live turn (and it's also pretty treacly, though Jackson does it brilliantly). We're also fond of Bob Dylan's "Things Have Changed" from "Wonder Boys" (performed live from Australia), the song from "Belleville Rendez-Vous," Robin Williams doing "Blame Canada" from "South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut." And more recently, there's Three Six Mafia's "It's Hard Out There For A Pimp," Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova doing "Falling Slowly," and from last year, Adele performing "Skyfall," doubled with Shirley Bassey doing "Goldfinger."