Every year, during Hollywood’s biggest (and longest) night at the Oscars, it is a tradition for the nominees of the Best Song category to perform live at the Academy Awards. Just like the films nominated, the songs also often have a wide-ranging diversity. A look back at the Oscars will give you an oddball mix of pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop, old-school show tunes, old-fashioned showstoppers and a few undefinable genre-bending gems as well.
From a pre-pubescent King of Pop singing a love song to a rat, to a Canadian chart-topping superstar singing surrounded by dry ice, to Robin Williams cleverly masking the f-word while singing a vulgar cartoon anthem and everything in between, few musical spreads are as strange and rewarding as the musical performances at the Oscars.
Undoubtedly, this also makes it very hard to rank the performances because each one is so delightfully different from the other. So in no particular order, here is our hand-picked list of the 12 most unforgettable musical performances at the Academy Awards:
12. Michael Jackson - 'Ben' (1973)
When Charlton Heston introduced a 13-year-old Michael Jackson on stage during the 1973 Oscars, he suggested that "it might be past his bedtime" and billed him as one-fifth of the Jackson 5. That should give you some perspective while you watch the video above where the pre-pubescent King of Pop takes to the stage to sing the song 'Ben' form the film with the same name - an ode to the horror film's titular killer vermin, a song with surprising tenderness and skill. On retrospection, perhaps this moment, when Michael sang alone for the whole world to hear foreshadowed the most impressive showmanship of pop to ever grace the planet.
11. Celine Dion - 'My Heart Will Go On' (1998)
In 1997, it was impossible to be alive without listening to the Canadian songbird’s ode to romantic endurance and perpetually beating cardiovascular organs. ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from ‘Titanic’ was so ubiquitous at the time that it had frankly gotten annoying.
But as Celine Dion walked on to the Oscar stage, surrounded by a copious helping of smoke and dry ice to belt out that treacly power-ballad everyone was sick of hearing everywhere, it turns into something triumphant on stage as she hits those high notes that are powerful enough to take down a few cruise ships without the help of icebergs.
10. Bjork – 'I’ve Seen It All' (2001)
The fact that a Lars von Trier film broke into the category that mostly celebrates mainstream mediocrity is sort of remarkable, and his bleak, yet joyful musical 'Dancer In The Dark' is certainly a strange pick for the category, just as Bjork's song from the film, '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 even Radiohead's Thom Yorke, as it was on record), it would have been even better, but still, it’s a moment for the record books. The song may be called "I've Seen It All," but most Oscar attendees and television viewers had never seen anything like it.
9. Three 6 Mafia - 'It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp' (2006)
Few artists are as incongruous with the Academy Awards as Three 6 Mafia - and yet there they were, front and center at the 2006 Oscars. The Southern rappers performed their 'Hustle & Flow' song 'It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp,' backed up by the movie's co-star Taraji P. Henson and about a dozen extras who helped recreate the movie's rough-and-tumble setting. The only thing more surprising than the fact that 'Pimp' went on to win Best Original Song? The fact that Three 6 Mafia made it through this performance without being interrupted by network censors. They dropped four letter words all over the place and there was nothing anyone could do but just watch open-mouthed. It was glorious!
8. Hugh Jackman – Opening Number (2009)
Some kind of opening musical number has become, if not essential, then certainly customary at the Oscars, usually exemplified by 8-time host 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 singer-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 that was relevant in light of the 2008 global market crash. Penned by ‘Community' creator Dan Harmon and 'Parks and Recreation' star Ben Schwartz, the song killed quite a few birds with one stone: It 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 the fact 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, it’s the high watermark of present-day musical openers at the Oscars.
7. Jack Black, Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly - 'A Comedian At The Oscars' (2007)
Another familiar tradition of late is bringing up big comedy stars to do a bit for the smaller categories, to liven things up mid-show (the Oscars do tend to stretch on beyond four hours at times). 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 '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 that raises one natural question - how the hell have the pair never hosted the Oscars till date?
6. Jennifer Hudson & Beyonce - 'Dreamgirls' Medley (2007)
When Dreamgirls co-stars Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson took the stage at the 2007 Academy Awards, the rumor mill said that there was a feud between the two and all anyone wanted to know was which diva would come out on top. The performance turned out be mostly a draw, as Beyoncé and Hudson both had their moments to shine during "Love You I Do," "Listen" and "Patience." Unfortunately, none of the songs won that night, but Hudson enjoyed a sweeter victory with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win, making it one of the few nights where Queen Bey has her thunder stolen!
5. Glen & Marketa - 'Falling Slowly’ (2007)
By now, you might have noticed that 2007 was a spectacular year for musical performances at the Oscars. But this one was truly something else. Even when the whole world was watching, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová sang the nominated number from the Irish musical romance film 'Once' as if they were the only two people in the room. Undoubtedly the most intimate musical performance that's ever graced the Oscar stage, this showstopper is what happens when you get an earnest 37-year-old rocker and his 19-year-old girlfriend to belt out the mega-ballad inspired by their relationship. He sat on a stool, she tucked herself behind a piano, and the two of them sneaked looks at each other on the downbeats as they bared their hearts for an audience of millions. The moment was so transporting that you quickly forgot how incongruous it was for Hollywood's biggest night.
4. Robin Williams - Blame Canada (1999)
Thanks to one of the most unlikely nominations in the history of the Academy Awards, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut's foul-mouthed ode to Canada would be performed live for a crowd of millions! The big question was this: What to do with the repeated uses of the word "f*ck"? Luckily, a galloping chorus gasped whenever Robin Williams hit the curse word (with the comedian strategically turning and mouthing the phrase). He did yelp "and that bitch Ann Murray, too!" with glee, however, while surrounded by a dance line of scantily clad women dressed as mounties! When the song lost to Phil Collins' "You'll Be in My Heart," Trey Parker and Matt Stone promptly parodied the singer in a South Park episode the following year.
3. Bruce Springsteen - 'Streets of Philadelphia' (1994)
Musical legends from Michael Jackson to Madonna have all had their moments on stage at the Oscars (not to mention Sting who has done it fourteen effing times). But the most spellbinding of them all comes from the "Boss" - Bruce Springsteen. His theme tune to Jonathan Demme‘s AIDS drama 'Philadelphia' (for which Tom Hanks bagged best actor) isn’t at the top of the Springsteen canon, but the moody, synth-filled ballad was a deserving winner, and the performance was a great one - free of gimmicks, and just letting the songwriting, and Boss' voice, sing out and do the magic! Sure, the backing vocalist who looks like a bodyguard undermines the whole thing a bit, but it’s still miles better than most Oscar performances in the last couple of decades.
2. Adele - Skyfall (2013)
Adele couldn't have picked a grander scene for her first live performance of "Skyfall," the title track from the 2012 Bond film 'Skyfall'. About 30 minutes before winning best original song, the British dynamo led a large scale run of the track.
With hair down and gold-sequined black dress shimmering, Adele did her trademark stand-and-sway as a full chorus and massive backing band (complete with a 15-plus orchestra) brought the layered, building track home. By the time she unleashed that climactic "Sky-faaaa-AAAAALLL" chorus, Adele had entered the gates of James-Bond-theme-singers'-Valhalla and we half-expected Shirley Bassey to walk onstage and high-five her! That did not happen of course! Right after she was done, she smiled and gazed at the upper tier of the Dolby Theater as Hollywood's A-list handed out a standing ovation.
1. John Legend and Common - Glory (2015)
John Legend has an incredibly shiny set of pipes - it's no secret. Of course, his incredible pipes are hardly the only reason why this performance of the stirring anthem from 2014's Oscar-nominated 'Selma' injected a rare feeling of urgency into Hollywood's most self-congratulatory spectacle. It was the rare case where the Oscars stage helped make something special, as the cloud of exclusion hung over the Academy's head — as Common rapped to the audience, a largely black crowd gathered behind him in front of a mock-up of Alabama's Edmund Pettus Bridge and chanted the song's title as a refrain. Even a five-star pro like John Legend couldn’t keep his voice from cracking with emotion and by the time the performance was done, the audience was moved to tears.
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