(March 13, 2023). The 2023 Academy Awards (Sunday, March 12 in Los Angeles) will be remembered for many things happening in one place at approximately the same time (a corny reference to the night’s big winner, I know), but they will be mostly remembered for a bunch of first-time wins for decades-long veterans, some confusing snubs, the many tearful (and noticeably clipped) acceptance speeches, and an “In Memoriam” segment that had viewers grabbing for tissues before it even started.
Oh, and a dance performance for the ages of the night’s Best Original Song winner that easily stole (and salvaged) the otherwise typical ceremony.
But there were two other emotional moments on opposite ends of the spectrum—one happy, one sad; one a surprise, one not so much—which invoked two classic songs from the 1970s originally sung by deceased female pop icons, and which likely tugged at viewers’ heartstrings more than any of the featured song performances that evening.
The night’s big winner was the film Everything Everwhere All At Once, a sci-fi adventure starring Best Actress winner Michelle Yeoh, which also took six other trophies for Best Supporting Actor (Ke Huy Quan) and Actress (Jamie Lee Curtis)—the latter leading to calls of foul for “snubs” of co-star Stephanie Hsu and fellow nominee Angela Bassett (Wakanda Forever)—plus awards for Directing, Original Screenplay, Film Editing and, of course, Best Picture.
While Curtis’ win prompted cries of foul, she did get a rousing applause during her acceptance speech while acknowledging her “genre film” legacy (how many Halloween movies have there been now?) and the legacy of her deceased actor parents Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, neither of whom ever won an Oscar.
There were some traditionally corny jokes; host Jimmy Kimmel, unfortunately, had several of those, including predictable lines about last year’s “smack” and a cultural flub during his opening monologue where the late-night talk show host and comedian mistakenly referred to RRR as a “Bollywood” movie when it was actually a film produced in India’s southern region known as Tollywood (in the Telugu language).
But Kimmel did have a couple good ones, including a well-timed zinger for the lead-in to the film editing award and a reference to a certain TV network’s ability to take 44,000 hours of Jan 6 insurrection footage and reduce it to a four-minute video likening the mob to peaceful sightseers.
Aside from the staid jokes and traditionally long (and predictably cutoff) acceptance speeches, there were those memorable musical moments.
Pop superstars Lady Gaga (in a stripped-down moment) and Rihanna (a month deeper into the pregnancy she revealed during February’s Super Bowl Halftime Show), gave stirring performances of their nominated hits “Hold My Hand” (from Top Gun: Maverick) and “Lift Me Up” (from Wakanda Forever), respectively.
But the night’s most rousing performance was easily the burst of energy known as “Naatu Naatu,” a colorful reenactment of the nominated original song (and ultimate winner) from the Indian film RRR.
Merely calling it a song would be doing the moment a huge disservice. Singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava performed the incredibly choreographed number while a diverse ensemble of dancers gave the Oscar audience a workout for the ages (kudos to the two amazing main dancers that led the performance).
Had there ever been a more stunning, impeccable, continuous blast of excitement to grace the Oscars stage in all its 95 years? I must have rewound it at least three times during the telecast, which gave me the luxury of both enjoying the performance on repeat and later skipping through commercials to catch up to the live broadcast (a double-win in my view).
“Naatu Naatu” was handily rewarded when the award for Best Original Song was given out about two-thirds of the way into the ceremony. And that was when the first of two 1970s pop hits moments happened.
In the acceptance speech for his Best Original Song win, “Naatu Naatu” composer MM Keeravaani demonstrated the universal language that is music when he mentioned that he grew up listening to—of all things—the Carpenters, the American brother-sister duo of Richard and late Karen who first made it big 53 years ago.
The surprising nod to the seventies pop duo prompted a few laughs from the audience, but nothing prepared them (and us viewers) for what came next: a tweaked a capella version of the Carpenters’ 1973 No. 1 smash “Top of the World,” with Keeravaani singing modified lines that captured his career moment.
It was at once entertaining and unexpected, so left-field in nature that Indian news media reportedly mistook Keeravaani’s “Carpenters” reference as a nod to actual woodworkers, prompting some educational moments and internet memes. But the Oscar win for RRR—and “Naatu Naatu” in particular—was clearly a proud moment for Indian culture with the “Top of the World” shout-out a heartwarming example of how two worlds can collide and exist as one.
But the night’s most tearful—and heart-tugging—moment had to have been later when actor John Travolta walked out on stage to introduce the show’s “In Memoriam” segment as the orchestra played the instrumental bed to another 1970s classic as his walk-on music (no, not “Stayin’ Alive”).
The song was “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” the torch ballad sung by the late Olivia Newton-John from the 1978 film Grease. Travolta could hardly hold back tears from the moment he appeared on stage to describe the genuine lifelong friendships actors form while working together.
Without making a specific reference to his Grease costar, who died of cancer in August 2022, it was clear Travolta was cherishing Newton-John’s memory as he closed his heartfelt speech with these words: “They’ve touched our hearts. They’ve made us smile, and became dear friends who we will always remain hopelessly devoted to.”
His voice was cracking the whole time as tears filled his eyes (and ours).
Next, Olivia’s was the first of dozens of departed actors and filmmakers whose images graced the “In Memoriam” screens as rocker Lenny Kravitz soundtracked the moment while playing the somber “Calling All Angels,” seated at his piano.
But it was that brief moment of Olivia’s “Hopelessly Devoted To You” that had evoked the fondest memories, and triggered some waterworks in the process.
Both “Top of the World” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You” were sung by two of the biggest pop female stars of the 1970s who made their marks in music more than film (although Olivia’s Grease and Xanadu should never be dismissed, yes Xanadu too). Both singers left us way before we were ready.
But both the songs and their vocalists—Karen Carpenter and Olivia Newton-John—got to briefly shine on an Oscars stage in 2023 in tearful posthumous moments that showed us their legacies will continue to endure for decades to come.
And the winning 2022 song that prompted reflections of Karen Carpenter—“Naatu Naatu” from the movie RRR—was a performance the Oscars won’t be able to top for a long time!
Still reeling from “The Woman King” Oscar snub, DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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