Viewers could be forgiven for mistaking Sunday’s 91st Academy Awards telecast for the Grammys. It was the most rockin’ Oscars ever — with the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and Lady Gaga vehicle A Star Is Born nominated for a combined 13 awards; Queen opening the show in stadium style; and Barbra Streisand, Queen Latifah, Pharrell Williams and even Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello presenting.
Even though A Star Is Born wasn’t the big winner of the night — it lost Best Picture to Green Book, Gaga lost Best Actress to Olivia Colman and Bradley Cooper lost Best Actor to BoRap’s Rami Malek — Star far and away provided the most magical musical moment of Sunday’s ceremony, when Gaga and Cooper performed “Shallow” (which, yes, of course, won Best Song).
Taking a radically different approach from the Cooper-less glam-rock version Gaga performed at the Grammy Awards two weeks ago, the co-stars left their front-row seats and ascended to the stage hand in hand, where Cooper serenaded a positively rapt Gaga with the first verse before she came crashing in with the familiar, epic “oh, oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, whoaaaaah” refrain. This sequence effectively raised the same goose-bumps-upon-goose-bumps that every A Star Is Born viewer felt the first time they saw Jackson Maine coax Ally onstage in the film.
And by the time Cooper cozily joined Gaga at a single microphone, their chemistry was so convincingly sizzling, they should have been handed Best Acting honorary Oscars right then and there. (Either that, or the rumors about their offscreen/offstage chemistry are true.) This “Shallow” was deep.
“Something major just happened,” Hollywood Reporter journalist Chris Gardner tweeted shortly thereafter. “After ‘Shallow’ perf, @ladygaga & Bradley Cooper exited stage for commercial break. During break, they came back to their seats from stage then audience gave them another standing o. I’ve never seen that happen for any performers.”
Accepting her Best Song Oscar later with co-writers Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt, a teary Gaga gushed to Cooper, “There’s not a single person on the planet that could have sang this song with me but you.” She then urged her fans, “If you are at home and you’re sitting on your couch, and you are watching this right now, all I have to say is that this is hard work. I’ve worked hard for a long time, and it’s not about winning. What it’s about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. There’s a discipline for passion, and it’s not about how many times you get rejected or you fall down, or you’re beaten up. It’s about how many times you stand up and are brave, and you keep going.”
These were the other musical highlights of a very rockin’ Oscars night:
Queen performs under pressure
With no host monologue this year, it was up to Queen and Adam Lambert to open the show and save the day. And although it was a missed opportunity that they didn’t play “Radio Ga Ga” (so that all the A-list celebrities in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre could recreate that iconic Live Aid double clap in unison, naturally), their “We Will Rock You”/”We Are the Champions” medley — complete with dry-ice fog, KISS-style pyro, a fiery Brian May solo, Lambert in a Mercurial mustache and fingerless leather gloves, and a wall-size backdrop of Freddie Mercury — was a more dynamic musical opener than, say, Rob Lowe duetting with Snow White. And it set the tone for an electric Oscars evening. Especially entertaining were all the camera cutaways to the visibly rocked Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga (who got her stage name from Queen), and recent Best Album Grammy-winner Kacey Musgraves, all singing along rhapsodically.
Don’t stop Rami Malek now
Following his Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA wins for his uncanny channeling of Freddie Mercury, the unstoppable Malek picked up an Oscar and gave a speech fit for a Queen. “I think to anyone struggling with their [identity] and trying to discover their voice — listen, we made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself. The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this,” he said, while Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor looked on proudly.
David Rawlings and Gillian Welch spread their ‘Wings’
Sadly, Kendrick Lamar and SZA opted not to perform their Best Song contender from Black Panther, “All the Stars,” but at least the other nominated artists performed live (after a protest when less-popular songs were initially axed from the broadcast). And one of those thankfully reinstated musical numbers was the lovely Americana ballad “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, harmonized exquisitely by the venerable folk-rockers and introduced by Musgraves. Like Elliott Smith doing “Miss Misery” at the 1998 Oscars or “Falling Slowly” from Once winning in 2008, this was a wonderful indie-underdog moment.
Jennifer Hudson puts up a ‘Fight’
Looking like Hollywood royalty in a sleek tuxedo, the Oscar-winning diva belted the RBG triumph-of-the-spirit theme “I’ll Fight” with all the bluster and bravado befitting an unsubtle Diane Warren ballad and badass Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Declared Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke in her introduction, “Although the song’s subject is soft-spoken, its singer is a vocal powerhouse, presenting its message with the passion it deserves.”
Bette Midler keeps it ‘Poppin’
The 73-year-old Divine Miss M, a two-time Best Actress Oscar nominee, delivered a divine, if subdued, piano performance of “The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns. Although no tune had a shot at winning Best Song over “Shallow” (maybe that’s why Lamar abstained), its co-writer, Marc Shaiman, already felt like a winner, posting on Facebook: “As a child of the ’60s, I grew up obsessed with the ‘Mary Poppins’ soundtrack, learning everything about songwriting and film scoring from it. As a teenager in the ’70s, I became obsessed with new star Bette Midler. … Could I have ever imagined that one day Bette Midler would sing a song I co-wrote with Scott Wittman for a sequel to ‘Mary Poppins’ at the Academy Awards? My heart is exploding!”
Ludwig Göransson caps off a very good awards season
Following his Record and Song of the Year wins at the Grammys two weeks ago for “This Is America,” which he co-wrote with Childish Gambino, the buzzy Swedish producer returned to the podium this Sunday to accept the Best Original Score Oscar for his work on Black Panther. America has been treating Göransson quite well … even if his hip-hop collaborators tend to be awards-show no-shows.
New Idol stars are born
If anyone ever argues that American Idol doesn’t create superstars, please note that Idol runners-up Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert — the former a Best Supporting Actress winner, the latter a man who sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” at his Idol audition a decade ago — performed at the Oscars this Sunday. In a brilliant bit of network synergy, some hopefuls from the upcoming 17th Idol season, which premieres on ABC next weekend, got their first shot at TV glory in a genuinely exciting promo featuring them belting Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” My eye is on the growly death-metal dude and the tall showman with the dreadlocks. Maybe we’ll see one of them at the Academy Awards in a few years.
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