25 Greatest Oscar Telecast Performances So Far
Mar 20, 2023
The 95th Academy Awards are upon us and with it a number of highly anticipated musical performances. Rihanna is set to perform “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” for the first time publicly. Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava will sing “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR” no doubt accompanied by a pack of energetic backup dancers. David Byrne and Son Lux will join Supporting Actress nominee Stephanie Hsu to sing “This is a Life” from expected Best Picture winner “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Lenny Kravitz will perform the In Memoriam and, maybe if we’re lucky, Lady Gaga will show up to sing “Hold My Hand” from “Top Gun: Maverick.” And it’s possible that one or two of these performances will join the increasingly long list of great musical numbers that have graced the Oscars stage. At least those that haven’t been lost to history, that is.
READ MORE: Rihanna announced as first performer for the 2023 Oscars
Even with the advent of the internet and YouTube, it’s incredible what you can and cannot find online in regard to Oscar musical numbers. In fact, a number of performances from only a few years ago can’t be found at all. And almost anything before 1970 is impossible to find. Even some of this era’s biggest stars such as Adele, John Legend, and Celine Dion have not worked out the music rights to put their performances from recent telecasts online. Granted, unlike traditional music releases theatrical songs can be contractually messy. Often times the movie studios have controlling rights to the songs, but you’d think even they would want to monetize them (especially with Wall Street counting every revenue opportunity).
In doing a deep dive into Oscar’s musical moments, it’s shocking what low-quality versions of incredible performances actually exist. We’ll hope there are high-quality versions stored in the Academy’s physical libraries, but it makes you wonder what will soon be forgotten. Want to see Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova sing “Falling Slowly” from “Once?” A performance praised by Oscar telecast critics just 15 years ago? Yeah, well good luck with that. There are tons of videos of the duo performing that song all over the world, but not at the Academy Awards. And that’s just the tipping point of what’s “missing” for generations to come.
As for the Oscars’ musical legacy overall, it’s an impressive one. Well, outside of some moments in the ’70s and ’80s where pre-recording tracks were sometimes the preferred option (sorry Ms. Minelli, the dancing was great though). But dig deep enough and you’ll find some incredible hidden gems (get ready for Aretha) and some moments that may not live up to their hyped reputations (U2, Bjork, etc.). And, again, a lot has been lost in 94 years. But maybe these surviving great moments will spur someone at The Academy to find a way to give them a digital face-lift.
Melba Moore and Lou Rawls – “Take My Breath Away” from “Top Gun” (1987)The ’80s new wave band Berlin, who took the single to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, were on the verge of breaking up when it came to the Oscars. Instead, the “Top Gun” power ballad was part of a medley that featured presenter Bernadette Peters singing between multiple nominees (a terrible trend). The song itself was performed by Moore and Rawls who were an inspired choice but on stage for just 90 seconds. It’s more of a tease than a genuine, knock-out performance. Watch the performance here.
Keala Settle – “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman” (2018)Settle is absolutely fantastic, but the over-emoting chorus and some awkward choreography sort of take you out of it by the end. Watch the performance here.
Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster – Opening Number (1959)Did you know these two Hollywood legends could sing? Did you know they could dance? How about a number where Douglas ends up standing on Lancaster’s shoulders? Note: This is actually their second duet. They first appeared together the year prior. Watch the 1959 performance here.
Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes – “Up Where We Belong” from “An Officer and A Gentleman” (1983)Cocker’s distinct voice was one for the ages. That being said, he and Warnes couldn’t overcome the unnecessary military ROTC member inclusion, their placement on a distant balcony, and a jarring ending. Some truly terrible choices there. Watch the performance here.
Dolly Parton – “Travelin’ Thru” from “Transamerica”(2006)Parton had previously graced the stage decades earlier with a fantastic version of “9 to 5,” but that number had dancers and something of a set. This time around, the country music icon was just on her own. And, as you’d expect, she had the audience in her hands in minutes. Watch the performance here.
Denise Williams – “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” from “Footloose” (1984)Like Dolly, the Academy Producers sent Denise out on stage all by her lonesome. She didn’t disappoint. That last refrain of “Let’s hear for my baybeeeeeee?” She hit that note out of the theater and all the way to Dodger Stadium. Watch the performance here.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova – “Falling Slowly” from “Once” (2008)Those of us old enough to have watched this ceremony live seem to recall that the “Once” duo were fantastic. Unfortunately, the lack of any video to reference it keeps it out of the top 25 on a technicality.
Bjork – “I’ve Seen It All” from “Dancer in the Dark” (2001)Still remembered for Bjork’s iconic swan dress and the fact such an independent film (Lars Von Trier!) and that an alternative artist landed an Original Song nomination, but the number itself is perhaps a bit overrated at this point. Watch the performance here.
Queen Latifah – In Memoriam (2009)The Bill Condon-produced Academy Awards ceremony is arguably still the best telecast in Oscar history. One of its contributions that almost every awards show has copied since was a live performance accompanying the In Memoriam. Latifah is not an exceptional vocalist, but she was superb here. Watch the performance here.
Lady Gaga – “Sound of Music” tribute (2015)Wonderfully arranged and beautifully sung in a Broadway style that had to be surprising to even Gaga’s hardcore fans, it left many wondering whether the number was celebrating the stage musical or the movie. Eight years later we’re still not sure. Hence, an honorable mention. Watch the performance here.
Isaac Hayes, “Theme from Shaft” from “Shaft” (1972)This performance is often touted as one of the greatest in the telecast’s history, but that’s probably because it opened the door for funk and R&B at the ceremony more than anything else. The number itself is fun and sexy in the over-the-top ’70s style of the time, but Hayes is also lip-syncing to a pre-recorded track. So, yeah. Watch the performance here.
THE TOP 25 TO DATE
25. Irene Cara – “What A Feeling” from “Flashdance” (1983)For the most part, pre-recorded numbers shouldn’t qualify for this list, but the choreography, Cara’s energy, and the throngs of kids dancing their hearts out on stage are too hard to resist. Watch the performance here.
24. Madonna – “Sooner or Later” from “Dick Tracy” (1991)Listen, Madge is very good here and her General Schwarzkopf call out was a nice wink (Schwarzkopf was the commander of the Gulf War collation forces at the time), but we’ll admit it’s all a wee bit forced. It’s certainly a lot of fun though and still holds up three decades later. Notably, the song went on to win the Oscar for a little under-the-radar songwriter you probably haven’t heard of. Some bloke named Stephen Sondheim. Watch the performance here.
23. Three 6 Mafia and Taraji P. Henson – “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from “Hustle & Flow” (2006)Shockingly (or should that be sadly?) the first real hip-hop performance on the Oscars stage (Eminem famously did not perform “Lose Yourself” in 2003), Three 6 Mafia and Henson were one of the highlights of this particular ceremony. The choreographed dance number alongside them was a mistake though and unnecessary. Watch the performance here.
22. Olivia Newton-John – “Hopelessly Devoted To You” from “Grease” (1979)Newton-John’s live vocals are simply captivating. Watch the performance here.
21. Hugh Jackman’s Opening “Tribute” (2009)Billy Crystal might have been the blueprint, but Jackman took the musical opening monologue (if it’s even that) to completely another level. He also sang much more than Crystal ever did, pulled in Anne Hathaway (which at first seemed like a genuine surprise, but was clearly planned), did a German techno-inspired number for “The Reader” (sort of a deep cut), and ended with “I’m Wolverine!” Super fun and makes you wish he’d return to host again. Watch the performance here.
20. Celine Dion – “Because You Loved Me” from “Up Close and Personal” and “I Finally Found Someone” from “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (1997)Not only did Dion deliver a pitch-perfect rendition of her no. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit, but she filled in for an ailing Natalie Cole to perform the Marvin Hamlisch-penned ballad “I Finally Found Someone” on 24 hours’ notice. For a song written originally for Barbra Streisand, no less. Sort of incredible in context. Watch the performance here.
19. Justin Timberlake – “Can’t Stop The Feeling” from “Trolls” (2017)It took Oscar producers 15 years to realize opening the show with a number walking into the Dolby Theater might be a cinematic and dazzling way to open the show. Timberlake took the ball and ran with it mixing Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” into the number to keep the party going. The telecast hasn’t been able to match that sort of opening energy since. Watch the performance here.
18. Barbra Streisand – “The Way We Were” for the In Memoriam (2013)Famously afraid to sing live despite her incredible talent, the then 70-year-old Streisand made a surprise appearance in 2013 to perform the Oscar-winning song at the end of the traditional In Memoriam segment. Her longtime collaborator, the aforementioned Hamlisch (a three-time winner), had passed away the previous summer. A truly beautiful moment. Watch the performance here.
17. Peter Allen and Bernadette Peters – Salute to Irving Berlin (1983)An Oscar-winning songwriter and performer, Allen (aka “The Boy from Oz”) passed away far too early at the age of 48 from AIDS complications in 1992. 10 years prior he took the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion stage alongside Peters for a monster of a salute for the famous American composer. The 12-minute number featured Allen on piano, at least two costume changes for Peters, more backup dancers than we could count, and a show-stopping “There’s No Business Like Show Business” finale that had the audience clapping and cheering throughout its entirety. Now, imagine if there was proper audio and video of this one somewhere. Watch the performance here.
16. Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose – “Dreamgirls” Medley (2007)Medley numbers at the Oscars are nothing new. Producers have used them for years to try to trim the show’s running time, but the three-song medley from “Dreamgirls” was something special. And not just because it was the last time Beyonce and now EGOT winner Hudson performed live on stage together (at least at publication). Watch the performance here.
15. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara – “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from “A Mighty Wind”Two “comedic” actors with a genuinely moving rendition of a legitimately beautiful ballad? In character and playing their own instruments live? More please. Watch the performance here.
14. Adele – “Skyfall” from “Skyfall” (2013)Is the sound mix wonky? Absolutely. Was that disappointing at the time? You bet it was. Did Adele still kill it? Is her name Adele? Of course, she did. Watch the performance here.
13. Billie Eilish, FINNEAS – “No Time To Die” (2022)Recency bias aside, Eilish was simply fantastic. Even if she was only able to perform a slightly amended version of the song. It also didn’t hurt that she had a much better live mix than Adele did. Watch the performance here.
12. Elton John – “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from “The Lion King” (1995)No dancers. No projection of footage from the film to make it more visually appealing. Just John at a piano alongside his band. Simply great. Watch the performance here.
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