Even before Chris Rock opened his mouth to speak at Sunday night’s Oscars, the tone had been set. The music that played as the host walked on stage was not a classic Hollywood number, but rather Public Enemy’s call-to-action track “Fight the Power.”
The song, originally written for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, bookended the ceremony, playing during Rock’s walk-on and the end credits of the Academy Awards. The track was long in the crosshairs for music supervisor Byron Phillips.
“[We wanted to] really set the tone for what the night was going to be and do something that was representative of Chris, and who Chris was, and the vibe and tone Chris wanted to set for the evening,” Phillips tells EW. “There was obviously nothing more perfect than ‘Fight the Power’ for that.”
“Fight the Power” may have been the first choice on Phillips’ wish list, but it wasn’t the only one. Phillips teamed with composer Harold Wheeler to whittle down the list; they wanted to ensure the orchestra, which returned to the Dolby Theatre after three years performing off-site at Capitol Records, would be able to give the show an edge. “A lot of Oscar award show music hasn’t been super aggressive,” Phillips says. “We wanted just, overall, the music to be more aggressive in the show this year.”
Other songs considered to open the show included the theme song from the landmark 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft, written and performed by Isaac Hayes. But Phillips and Rock sought something more modern and more in tune with their age group. “[‘Fight the Power’ is] such an anthem for our generation that it made more sense to, first of all, have a contemporary feel, and just [for] the association with what you think of when you think of Chris,” Phillips explains.
When the notes of “Fight the Power” rang out on the broadcast as Rock walked on stage, people on social media took note. “You’ve never had a song like that open the Oscars,” Phillips adds. “I think anytime you do something that’s some dramatic break with what you’ve seen historically on the show, I think that people will always be interested in how it happened or certainly talk about it in social [media].”
And immediately after the song played, Rock confronted the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Hollywood’s diversity issues in his biting monologue. “I really had a debate whether or not Chris wanted to come out that aggressively with it,” Phillips says about the song choice. But Rock encouraged going with Public Enemy’s signature song. ”[Rock] as like, ‘Nuh-uh, I want to do ‘Fight the Power.’ There was no hesitation.”
Outside of the opening and closing salvo, the music team also had fun in picking songs for particular presenters. For example, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden walked on stage to the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark: “I wanted something that felt a little bit American hero-ish,” Phillips explains. “And why not do it for the Vice President?”
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Whoopi Goldberg took the stage to Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It”: “I just liked the idea that it was made to be representative of a strong black woman in the business and had a unique attitude to it. You can substitute Tina Turner for Whoopi when you talk about those traits,” says Phillips.
Another pairing: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, and a take on The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”: “I wanted something that felt modern rock stars,” says Phillips. “Not loud, balls-out rock star, but cool rock star.”
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Despite his goal of making the show’s score more energetic and fresh, Phillips says he wanted to be inclusive of the audience and recognize the tradition of the Oscars.
“We didn’t want it to just become a pop playlist; we also wanted it to actually have a little something for everybody,” Phillips says. “I think I did a pretty good job.”