You light up my life You give me hope to carry on You light up my days And fill my nights with song
Unless you were living under a rock in the last few months of 1977 and early 1978, ”You Light Up My Life” insinuated itself into your cranium and refused to leave. After hearing it for the gazillionth time, you may have smashed your radio and run screaming from your house, but there was no escaping it. And then, no sooner had it dropped off the charts than it reared its treacly head once again – and grabbed an Oscar.
Whether you view the Best Song win for ”You Light Up My Life” as the apotheosis of Oscar farce or its antidote depends on a lot of things, among them faith, taste, and tolerance for saccharine pop balladry. But for the principal characters in this microdrama, songwriter Joseph Brooks and singer Debby Boone, the song’s success had deeper – and deeply divergent – meanings: For one, it was a triumph of the will; for the other, an act of grace.
Either way, the song’s win 25 years ago was no big upset. ”You Light Up My Life” – from the movie of the same name – had spent an astounding 10 weeks atop Billboard’s singles chart, and its Oscar competition was hardly a rough crowd: ”Candle on the Water” from Pete’s Dragon, ”The Slipper and the Rose Waltz (He Danced With Me/She Danced With Me)” from The Slipper and the Rose – The Story of Cinderella – whew! – and ”Someone’s Waiting for You” from The Rescuers. (Note: None of the songs from Saturday Night Fever – not ”Stayin’ Alive,” not ”Night Fever” – were even nominated. Don’t get us started.)
The only song with a shot at beating ”You Light Up…” was Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s ”Nobody Does It Better” from the Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me. ”I don’t recall it as the kind of thing where I came home, got a knife, and tried to take my life,” says Hamlisch of his loss that night. A two-time winner for his musical contributions to 1973’s The Way We Were, he was content to let someone else soak up the spotlight: ”When I was nominated, I just thought, Wow, I’m here, I’m nominated, and there’s a free meal ahead.”
A sensible strategy, for he was dealing with a juggernaut. Brooks, a commercial jingle writer with few previous film credits (he’d scored 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush), had already seen his infectious ditty claim several awards, including a Grammy and a Golden Globe. He’d composed it for a movie he’d written and directed about a young performer (played by Grease’s Didi Conn) facing the moral pitfalls of breaking into show business.
”I knew that I could make music the subject matter of a film and surround it with a story aimed at a young girls’ market,” says Brooks of the film. ”The original film had no title song. None. Not very smart on my part.” Halfway through the shoot, Brooks wrote and recorded ”You Light Up My Life” in four days, with a jingle singer named Kasey Cisyk, whose voice Conn lip-synched in the film.