Sufjan Stevens nominated for Academy Award

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“Call Me By Your Name” film cover photo.| Sony Pictures Classics

Tune into  the 90th Academy Awards, showing on ABC at 7pm CT, Mar. 4.

By Lindsey Micucci 

Singer-songwriter, Sufjan Stevens is not new to Bethel listeners. From Discover Weekly playlists to singing his banjo-influenced rendition of “Come Thou Font Of Every Blessing” during chapel, and a nod to those indie-kids who have taken up their parents vinyl record players, Sufjan Stevens isn’t a new name around the block.

Within the past year, Stevens has been testing the waters in other territories of art aside from releasing albums – he has been dipping his feet into the film business.

Stevens has written three songs for two Oscar nominated films this past year. “I, Tonya” and “Call Me By Your Name” are both nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. “I, Tonya” tells the story of the 1994 incident in which ice skater, Tonya Harding, was under heavy speculation of the FBI and the public eye of being an accomplice in the plan to bash in fellow ice skating competitor Nancy Kerrigan’s knee months before the 1994 Olympics. After the 1994 Olympics, Harding was found guilty of withholding knowledge of the plot from authorities. She was ultimately banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

Stevens submitted his song, “Tonya Harding,” for the film, but the director couldn’t find a place for it. And rightfully so – the story told by director, Craig Gillespie, tells the story of Harding at an opposite angle that of which Stevens does. Gillespie holds Harding under the same harsh light that she has known for majority of her life.

Stevens’ song delivers a sorrowful ode to Harding, addressing her as his star in the songs’ first stanza, while the film’s soundtrack strikes the big screen with retro pop-rock hits from bands like Dire Straights and Fleetwood Mac. A quick comparison would show that Stevens’ compassionate song wouldn’t fit in the films’ repertoire.

As “The New Yorkers’” Richard Brody titled his review, “A Condescending Bio-pic of Tonya Harding,” he noted that the film doesn’t do justice to Harding as a person, only a subject and a character in her very own life story.

Stevens, contrary to the director’s voice, shows empathy for Harding and her life-long predicament. Stevens’s has explained his tribute to Harding on his website, writing, “I considered the wholeness of the person of Tonya Harding…and began to feel a conviction to write something with dignity and grace.”

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Stevens is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, “Mystery of Love.” |Photo by Jeannette Fleury

But for a different 2017 film, Steven’s music was accepted after it had been first requested. “Call Me By Your Name’s” director, Luca Guadagnino, spoke to Stevens first in hopes to cast him as a narrator for the film, and even mentioned the idea of having an onscreen appearance. Stevens declined the role and his shot at being on screen, but agreed to write songs for the film. Before attending a screening, Stevens said how Guadagnino told him, “I want you to know, in some ways this film is an homage to your music.”

“Call Me By Your Name” is based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman. Elio, a 17 year old living in Italy with his parents in their summer villa welcome a grad student, Oliver, into their home to work for the summer. Elio and Oliver become friends through the trials of flirtation that soon develops further into a love that all dream to have. They feel the presence of freedom and yet, lack of, in a world that seeks to only wish their feelings away.

Stevens, himself, is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, “Mystery of Love.” Steven was asked by Guadagnino, to write one song for the film, but instead, delivered two which Guadagnino used to the films’ advantage.

In fact, Stevens shows up a total of three times in the film, with a remix of his 2010 “Futile Devices.” “Mystery of Love” and “Futile Devices” plays mid-film. “Visions of Gideon” appears in the film’s ending scene and into credits.

All three of the songs deliver the life and young spirit of 17 year old Elio, capturing a breath of a summer in Northern Italy. From taking bikes rides on dirt paths to finding love over the course of three months that will last them a lifetime, the heartbreaking, soul renewing, journey of love leaves an audience in awe. Catch both films at nearby theatres.

I’ll be keeping my eyes out for Sufjan Stevens as he is set to perform “Mystery of Love” during the 90th Academy Awards, showing on ABC at 7pm CT, Mar. 4. My guess is he’ll be wearing a t-shirt under his black tux and bow tie, and maybe some avant-garde butterfly wings to go with that.  

Though Steven’s music is a golden beat on the film’s soundtrack and he’s getting more head nods from this, it doesn’t commercialize him to be expandable nor does it sell him out to Hollywood by any means. His choice in submitting a song that he is truly proud of, “Tonya Harding,” which went through a 27 year editing process, which got rejected yet he still put it out there as a single for the world to see, shows that he isn’t out there to make it big in the film industry.

Stevens being nominated for an Academy Award doesn’t suddenly put him on the map. Sufjan Stevens has been all over the map, quite literally – check out his past albums and wikipedia page for a glimpse into his life. He’s making music for people that he is passionate about. The most beautiful part about it, is that his empathy for others has yet to fail us as listeners.

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