The annual Oscar ceremony brings together Hollywood celebrities and celebrated artists to toast the previous year’s cinematic accomplishments. And over the years, we’ve come to expect a few givens about the event; extravagant gowns, enthusiastic hosts, occasionally too-long acceptances speeches. But another hallmark of the Academy Awards is always the performances of each Best Original Song nominee.
Over the years, we’ve seen countless artists — from pop stars and music legends to newcomers and under-the-radar indie groups — take the stage to sing for their supper. Many of the numbers are a reminder of the magic that can happen when music and film tell a story together. And though there’s only one winner every year, some of these performances have gone on to become some of the most memorable moments in Oscar telecast history — even if the song being performed didn’t win. Here are five truly unforgettable performances of Academy Award-nominated Best Original songs.
1. Common and John Legend, “Glory” from Selma (2015)
Last year’s winners of the Best Original Song Oscar didn’t just write a memorable tune. John Legend and Common turned their moment on the Academy Award stage into a stunning and pitch-perfect commentary on civil rights and the sacrifices of those who have fought for them. Legend sat at his piano and gave a flawless vocal performance of the song’s haunting refrain. Common effortlessly delivered his verses as he marched alongside a Gospel choir in front of a replica of the Edmund Pettis Bridge — an iconic setting of both the film Selma and the Civil Rights Movement. Their performance of “Glory” was equal parts somber and triumphant, haunting and emotional. And it served as a perfect reflection on and celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and the struggles that continue today.
2. Adele, “Skyfall” from Skyfall (2013)
It’s hard to imagine it now that she’s enjoying the fruits of an incredibly successful album and upcoming tour, but when the lights came up on Adele at the 2013 Academy Awards, it had been a little while since we had heard from her. But after only a few seconds of her “Skyfall” performance, it felt like she had never left the public eye. Adele is known for her powerhouse vocals, and her rendition of this Oscar-winning James Bond theme did not disappoint. Adele struck the perfect balance between Hollywood razzle dazzle and understated old-school glamour with a vocal performance that was somehow both bombastic and restrained.
3. Bruce Springsteen, “Streets of Philadelphia” from Philadelphia
When Bruce Springsteen penned this somber number for the 1993 film Philadelphia, it wasn’t all that common for rock stars and Oscars to mix company. So in some way, it felt like a bit of an event when he took the stage at the 1994 Academy Awards to perform his Oscar-winning song “Streets of Philadelphia.” That’s part of the reason why his haunting performance of the song — which touches on the film’s themes of AIDS and prejudice — was so unexpectedly wonderful. For the three minutes the Boss was on stage, it didn’t feel like a Bruce Springsteen show; but instead, a moment of quiet reflection. With his “Streets of Philadelphia” performance, Springsteen reminded Oscar viewers why he’s one of the biggest musicians in the world — not by rocking out, but by putting his stellar songwriting and showmanship front and center.
4. Elliott Smith, “Miss Misery” from Good Will Hunting (1998)
This quiet ballad is the only song on this list that didn’t win the prize it was nominated for. But it’s impossible to deny that Elliott Smith’s simple and vulnerable rendition of “Miss Misery,” the song he penned for Good Will Hunting, was in many ways the most memorable performance of the night. Sandwiched between diva-driven performances by Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion, Smith stood all alone on stage, his white suit illuminated under a single spotlight. And while the notoriously introverted singer-songwriter looked obviously uncomfortable on stage, it made his delicate voice stand in stark contrast to the quiet orchestration that backed him up. In a night of overwrought romantic ballads, Smith and his understated song felt like it didn’t belong — which made his quietly masterful performance all the more memorable.
5. Three 6 Mafia, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow (2006)
The Oscars have tried over the years to convince us that they’re cool. But they’ve never been cooler than when Three 6 Mafia and Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson took to the stage to perform the Oscar-winning rap song from Hustle & Flow. From its elaborate staging, which replicated the scenery and aesthetic from Craig Brewer’s gritty drama, to the strobe lighting and high-energy performances from each artist, everything about “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” felt entirely un-Oscar. Which is precisely why it was so exciting to watch.
6. Lady Gaga, “Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground
Lady Gaga may not have taken home the Oscar for “Best Original Song,” but what she did do was give us one of the most emotional, heart-rending performances the Academy Awards has ever seen. Performing “Til It Happens to You” from the documentary The Hunting Ground, Gaga’s ballad brought a score of rape survivors onto the stage with her, as she tearfully screamed the refrain from a song about her own experience with sexual assault. It’s a moment that will likely be talked about decades from now, as one that left us all feeling emotionally raw.
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