The best Oscars musical performances of all time: From Adele's Bond to Beyoncé's Dreamgirls moment

Katie Rosseinsky
·5 min read
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Oscars aren’t just about handing out shiny gold statuettes - the annual film awards have also been the site of some headline-making musical performances.

Tradition dictates that at least a handful of the year’s Best Original Song nominees will take to the stage of the Dolby Theatre, which can often result in an eclectic line-up of performers, with feel-good show tunes up against power ballads and rap tracks.

It’s also often an opportunity for the show organisers to inject proceedings with (yet more) star power by giving musical industry players a spot at the ceremony (for a case in point, see the handful of times that Beyoncé has performed).

Ahead of this year's ceremony, we've looked back at some of the best musical moments from Academy Awards past...

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper - Shallow (2019)​

Hailed as the film to beat at the start of the awards race, Cooper’s re-telling of Hollywood’s favourite myth ended up with just one Oscar - for Best Original Song. His performance of Shallow may not have been note perfect (who among us would come off well in a sing-off with Lady Gaga?) but the duet more than made up for it with enough chemistry to send the rumour mill into overdrive.

In our revisionist minds, this is how A Star Is Born really finishes - with Ally (Gaga) and Jackson Maine (Cooper) giving a triumphant rendition of Shallow to a packed Dolby Theatre (with no pant-wetting episode and therefore no tragic ending). We’ll always remember them this way.

Adele - Skyfall (2013)​

The best Bond film of recent years got the instantly iconic theme song it deserved in Adele’s Skyfall. She sang the track live for the very first time (no pressure) at the 2013 Academy Awards with a distinct lack of first-night wobbles. Her Oscar rendition is perhaps even more haunting than the soundtrack cut - and we could listen to her hit the notes of the coda a million times and never get bored.

The performance became the perfect precursor to her Best Original Song win, shared with producer Paul Epworth.

While tearful Oscar speeches can be grating, Adele’s genuine reaction is just yet another reason to love the singer.

​Lady Gaga - Til It Happens To You (2016)

Three years before she took to the Dolby Theatre stage with Cooper, Gaga’s performance of Til It Happens To You was the most powerful moment of the 2016 Oscars. Dressed all in white, the then-first-time nominee sat at the piano to sing her track from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on campus, which was co-written with Diane Warren.

As the song reached its final chorus, a group of sexual assault survivors joined Gaga on stage, with messages such as “Not your fault” and “It happened to me” written on their arms. After the last notes, the singer joined hands with them - and the audience jumped to their feet in a standing ovation.

Ahead of the ceremony, Gaga said in a tweet that she would be “thinking of” her friend Kesha - then in the middle in a high profile sexual assault lawsuit against producer Dr Luke - that night.

The cast of Les Miserables - One Day More (2013)​

The cast of Les Miserables reunited on stage at the Oscars (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
The cast of Les Miserables reunited on stage at the Oscars (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Say what you like about Tom Hooper’s divisive adaptation of stage juggernaut Les Mis - the cast’s rousing rendition of the show’s biggest ensemble piece One Day More still feels like a standout Oscar moment, thanks largely to the combined star-power of the actors assembled on stage (Russell Crowe’s vocals were, ironically, marginally better here than they were throughout the entire film).

Musical theatre vets Samantha Barks (Eponine) and Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) inevitably stole the show, with honourable mentions for future Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne. Dedicated Les Mis nerds should also seek out the behind-the-scenes footage of the cast’s pre-show rehearsal, which emerged on YouTube a few years ago.

Sir Elton John - Can You Feel The Love Tonight (1995)

Sir Elton took centre stage at the 1995 Academy Awards after pulling off a hat trick, dominating the Best Original Song category with three nominations for him and co-writer Tim Rice. His Oscars rendition of Can You Feel The Love Tonight from The Lion King is classic mid-career Elton - just him, a piano and some very '90s synth sounds.

The singer now looks poised to take a second Oscar in 2020 - which would give him the unusual honour of setting the record for the longest gap between Best Original Song wins (previously held by Will Jennings, who won in 1982 and then in 1997).

John Legend and Common - Glory (2015)​

Legend and Common performed Glory, from Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma, in front of a model of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a site of huge symbolic importance in the US civil rights movement spearheaded by King.

As they sang, they were joined by a chorus, marching in a moving tribute to the activists who made the journey from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to advocate for voting rights.

The duo later earned the film its only Oscar (the Academy’s lack of nominations for DuVernay and star David Oyelowo were a factor in the #OscarsSoWhite movement) and delivered a powerful acceptance speech, with Legend noting the ongoing struggle for justice in America.

“When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you: we see you, we love you and march on,” he said.

Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose - Dreamgirls medley ​(2007)

Even the Academy’s odd staging choice (a random man standing in between Beyoncé and Hudson during Listen’s emotional apex provides an odd, mildly cringe-worthy distraction from their sublime performance) couldn’t bring this down this dream team.

Their medley kicks off with a solo from future Oscar winner Hudson, who is then joined by Beyoncé for standout track Listen before third Dreamgirl Rose took to the stage for the final track, Patience.

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