In the movies, songs often signify absence, or distance, a gap difficult to fill through plotting or dialogue. Entering the space between desire and communion, bondage and freedom, or grief and comfort, songs reinforce the reassuring magic of cinema. They resolve fundamental conflicts; in Monday night's best picture winner The Shape of Water, a song is what, controversially to some, allows the mute heroine Eliza to not only express but to realize her lust for her forbidden amphibian lover. They also prime the stage for more believable, yet still idealized, awakenings, as when the titular heroine of Sunday's snubbed critical favorite, Lady Bird, first processes and then rises above heartache via the resonantly tacky Dave Matthews ballad "Crash Into Me."
This use of songs comes from musical theater, in which forward motion mostly occurs when propelled by rhythm and melody. Just one well-placed song in an otherwise non-musical film can become a kind of pseudo-realistic special effect. From the classic (Ingrid Bergman conjuring Humphrey Bogart with "As Time Goes By" in Casablanca) to the comical (Lili Taylor talking back to her lousy, lying ex in Say Anything with "Joe Lies") to the inspirational (Ledisi, as Mahalia Jackson, soothing David Oyelowo's Martin Luther King, Jr. over the phone with "Precious Lord" in Selma), songs accomplish the seemingly impossible.
This year's nominees for best song, and the performances that brought them to life at Sunday's awards ceremony, communicated the form's purpose in film better than usual. Three were inspirational, and their staging spoke beyond the frames of the films where they originated to address the current political mood. Common and Andra Day performed the hip-hop anthem "Stand Up for Something," from Marshall, with ten well-known political activists occupying spotlights behind them. Keala Settle embodied proud unconventional beauty, singing her bearded-lady aria "This Is Me," from The Greatest Showman, as a pointedly multicultural dance troupe struck defiant poses behind her. And Mary J. Blige, the mother of hip-hop self-empowerment, sang her and Raphael Saadiq's touching country-soul hymn "Mighty River" in front of projected images from her own nominated performance in Mudbound, paying tribute to her own role in diversifying Hollywood.
Uplift is the stuff of awards shows, and though these performances all delivered in ways that aptly reflected the Academy's progressive veneer, they provided little insight into what song really does in great films. That was left to the night's two ballads — the ultimate winner and, in the minds of many music critics, its chief rival.
Coco's "Remember Me," which took the prize, is not only a constant presence in Pixar's tribute to Mexican family rituals, it's the pivotal element in the movie's story of personal and cultural reclamation. Written by the wandering patriarch Hector — Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez in real life — for the toddler daughter he left to pursue his music, "Remember Me" weaves throughout the movie like a winding echo of love grown at home, only to be thwarted by outside forces. The song works in the most private way, as a lullaby, and in the most public, as a hit single that both brings Mexican flavor to the world and distorts its music's origins in community. Sung by nearly every main character in a complicated expression of cultural heritage, "Remember Me" is the story of Mexican culture itself as it is interpreted and misinterpreted in the mainstream. (Interestingly, as in The Shape of Water, it's also the thing that helps a long-mute woman – that daughter, Coco, now a grandmother – regain her voice). More than just another sappy Disney singalong, "Remember Me" absolutely deserved its win for honoring the bolero-ranchero tradition as it's grounded in both family ties and Mexican pride.
The song's spectacular Oscars staging mostly stressed the latter, with the Blaxican heartthrob Miguel and the Mexico City-based soprano Natalia Lafourcade duetting bilingually as sombrero'd and Jalisco-beskirted dancers performed hat dances behind them. But the key moment came earlier on, when Gael Garcia Bernal, who voices Hector in the film, sang the lullaby portion accompanied only by acoustic guitar. His pitch was shaky, his demeanor somewhat timid. But those imperfections told Coco's deepest story: that of the toll of exile and the lies history can tell, and the way ritual heals and renews the family bonds that fight against those larger forces. Garcia-Bernal was the night's most intimate truth-teller, his murmur of "remember me" a plea directed not only toward his fictional family, but for America itself to acknowledge its Mexican DNA.
Also speaking in a near-whisper, though a much more cultivated one, was Sufjan Stevens, whose "Mystery of Love" is the elegiac love theme in the swooningly lush coming-of-age story Call Me By Your Name. Lucio Guadagnino's tender idyll between the teenage Elio and the graduate student Oliver (which won an Oscar for its screenwriter, James Ivory, the octogenarian master of such summer dreams) enacts its politics erotically, translating Andre Aciman's beloved novel into a paean to the signaled, the whispered, and the finally unspoken. Among other things, the film is a lament about the era of the closet. Its touchmarks – classical Greek statue, New Wave music, and, yes, Merchant-Ivory films – expressed what was once suppressed in Hollywood and everywhere. The three Stevens songs in the film inhabit that absence of open acknowledgment, and the magical, provisional openness its two main characters fleetingly achieve, with grace of classic Hollywood: they are his "As Time Goes By."
Stevens's music primarily dwells in the same space of memory, loss and longing that Elio occupies at the end of Call Me By Your Name. The singer's own refusal to make public a fixed sexual orientation is a personal decision that enhances the hazily romantic aura of his songs. He is a remarkably precise lyricist – "whoa is me," he repeats in "Mystery of Love," exactly capturing the feeling of adolescent awakening — who smears Vaseline on the lens of his sharp insights to make them glamorously universal. He's perfect for Hollywood, and at the Oscars, in his pink and blue suit, he delivered a short, perfect rendition of his song.
No dancers for Stevens — and yet he too found a way to connect with the evening's seeming mandate to make a socially progressive statement. His band consisted of six collaborators. Three were white men: his regular partners Casey Foubert and James McAlister, Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) and Chris Thile, who gave the performance a through line with his fleet work on mandolin. But Stevens was flanked by two special guests: Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, and Moses Sumney. These two category-defying, singer-songwriter-instrumentalists, in glamorous black that offset Stevens's gender-decategorizing color palette, stood for the future of popular music, beyond traditional gender roles or sexual designations. If Call Me By Your Name is about the moments when desire emerges from its smoke screens to become perfectly clear, Stevens' performance brilliantly understated that clarity in a call to recognize both virtuosity and glamor in new ways. His songs may live in the gap between longing and resolution, but his Oscar moment spoke for a future in which people can be genuine, open and free.