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Listening In Reel Life: The Pop Music Inside The Oscar Nominees

The most romantic scene from any of this year's Oscar-nominated films begins with a deliciously idiosyncratic pickup line. At a swinger's pool party in 1978, a flabby yet still somehow alluring Christian Bale gently grabs the arm of Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams at her most wide-eyed and guileful. "Is that Duke Ellington on your bracelet?" he murmurs. The pair quickly retire to a private room, where Rosenfeld has a stereo at the ready; he drops the needle on "Jeep's Blues," the pivotal Duke piece these made-for-each other lovers both love. The way they listen together is as intimate and quietly climactic as real sex.

For my money, this is the best single use of popular music in a film this year. It structures the entire film by establishing both the ground of the Rosenfeld-Prosser relationship and the reason for their inevitable triumph. As Ellington fans, and as perfect listeners, these two stand together above the rest. No one — not the cops, or more powerful crooks, or an angry wife, or even, in the worst of times, each other — can break the connection between them, as elastic and strong as the winding lines of a Johnny Hodges saxophone solo.

This achievement comes in a remarkable year for music as an engine of plot and mood in Oscar-nominated movies. I've already commented on the astonishing way 12 Years a Slave demonstrates how song and dance were forces of both liberation and further oppression for Africans living under American bondage. I still think that film's profundities on the subject can't be topped, but after seeing all of the year's Best Picture nominees, I'm happy to say that most offer at least one signature scene that reveals how, in our lives as well as in cinema, music shapes character and cements relationships.

You won't see these songs up for their own awards on Sunday night, but they animate nearly everything else that's nominated — performances and plot twists and the unknowable thing that tethers us to home even when we're spinning in space. I'll be rooting for Frozen's blockbuster, "Let It Go," and for Will Butler and Owen Pallett's tender, sad score for Her, but let's imagine a new category: Here are five nominees for what you might call Best Music in Reel Life.

1. Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams get down to "I Feel Love" in American Hustle.

I've already given my proposed statuette to a different scene in David O. Russell's song-saturated film, but two others rival it. The one in which Jennifer Lawrence furiously housecleans while singing along to Wings' "Live and Let Die" feels slightly overplayed to me: too much hair-tossing, not enough genuine rage. But the brief encounter between Cooper and Adams on the dancefloor expertly captures how two desiring bodies could use Eurodisco's gale force pull to align. Cooper is all in, his torso undulating, sweat collecting in his perm. Adams circles him and flits away like a coked-up Tinkerbell, her independence intact even when she rubs up against him. Their dynamic is fully established by the time they make it into one of Studio 54's infamous bathroom stalls: and like Donna Summer herself riding on the wave of Giorgio Moroder's synths, Adams is in charge, even when she seems to start to surrender.

2. Rayon blasts some T. Rex in Dallas Buyer's Club.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee, whose films have always ingeniously used music, Gave Jared Leto a gift by making 1970s rock god Mark Bolan this AIDS drama's patron saint. The glam connection clearly helps this eyeliner rocker lean into the role of the transgender heroine Rayon with conviction instead of camp. Not reducible to one scene, Rayon's reliance on Bolan's music and look — and the way she uses it to invade the space of Matthew McConaughey's Ron Woodruff, incrementally unsettling him by playing songs on her tape deck and pinning hot photos of Bolan to the wall of the apartment where they run the buyer's club — offers insight into how music fanship can become not just a source of style for some, but a matter of root identity, and even life or death.

3. George Clooney floats free to Hank Williams, Jr. in Gravity.

I'm with the many critics who've gasped at the technical wonder of Alfonso Cuaron's astronaut drama while gagging on its ridiculous dialogue. In a key sequence, however, a sentimental song sets the tone in ways that the tragic backstory of scientist Ryan Stone cannot. George Clooney's Matt Kowalksi is the most genteel of space cowboys, but he has his own corny side, which shows in the tall tales he tells and the music he listens to while lingering in the void. The Hank Williams, Jr. ballad "Angels Are Hard To Find" ain't Wagner; it's exactly the kind of weeper that manages huge emotions instead of intensifying them. Listening to it is a coping mechanism that serves Kowalski's longing to be normal; when it plays a second time, as he saves Sandra Bullock's Stone from death and launches her on what will soon become her terrifying solo journey, the song reminds us that the most unimaginable human realities constantly intermingle with the banal stuff of daily life.

4. Stacy Keach kills at karaoke in Nebraska.

Alexander Payne's perplexed love letter to his home state and the sinewy people it's made is filled with incredibly realistic non-events: the family party where everybody silently watches sports on television; the trip to the graveyard that brings out the most embarrassing side of the family matriarch. Its music scene, a classic in the growing subgenre of celluloid karaoke, is equally, unbearably authentic. As Ed Pegram, the aging bully of the Grant family's hometown, Stacy Keach oils bluster with Brylcreem — and delivers a version of the monumental Elvis song "In the Ghetto" that reveals all of his hubris along with all of his power over a pitiful community. Bruce Dern's Woody Grant withers under the force, invoking the pain of every one of us who's had to endure being accosted by the humiliating amplification of an unwanted "Happy Birthday" or dedication from the bar.

5. Scarlett Johanssen and Joaquin Phoenix write a song together in Her.

This one is an extra — since "The Moon Song," actually written by Herdirector Spike Jonze and his longtime collaborator (and, for a while, girlfriend) Karen O, did earn an official nomination. The way the little wisp of a ditty unfolds as part of Her's love story is what makes it truly memorable, though. More than the film's rather uncomfortable sex scene or the other dates Phoenix's Twombly makes special for his computer queen, the pair's after-dinner collaboration on a piece of music shows the depth of their intimacy. He strums a ukulele. She sings. They sing together. It's not magic or even advanced technology: it's soul communication, as easy and miraculous as love itself. And as fragile. In the simplest of the scenes that have made music real for us this year, Jonze asserts that it can also help us be meaningful to each other in ways that mere words or even images fail.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.