Tonight She’s Nominated for “I’m Standing With You,” performed by Chrissy Metz in Breakthrough.
That the Oscars, an event honoring cinema, honors songwriters each year with the Best Song award is testament to the power of song. As great as great movies are, that greatness is amplified by the presence of a great song forever linked to the film. Even with miraculous special effects and cinematic wizardry which has forever transformed movies, there is no replacement for the power of a great song.
Of course, great songs don’t come out of nowhere; they require great songwriters to write them. Diane’s got some serious songwriters nominated with her this year. The other nominees are:
“I’m Gonna Love Me Again” from Rocketman by Elton John and Bernie Taupin,
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4, by Randy Newman,
“Into the Unknown” from Frozen II, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
“Stand Up” by Joshuah Brian Campbell from Harriet.
So we’re especially happy here on Oscars day, which is a holiday in Hollywood, to bring you this conversation with Diane Warren, a true song champion if ever there was one.
Because not only has she written many of these great movie songs, she’s done it now for decades: Remarkably, with tonight’s nomination, this marks five successive decades of Best Song nominations for her, from the 1980s through the 2020s. (Her full list of nominations follows.)
This year’s nominated song might be one of the greatest of them all, the beautifully affirmative “I’m Standing With You,” performed by Chrissy Metz, who also stars in the film Breakthrough. It’s one of those songs that projects a simple message, and one which seems more needed now than ever: you’re not alone.
Because Warren has yet to win one, some called her the “Susan Lucci of the Oscars.” But that hardly fits, as Lucci was nominated for playing one role for many years, whereas Diane’s nominations are for writing a different song every time. Is it not a greater victory for a songwriter to have eleven nominations over five decades than one win?
Keep in mind that many of her nominated songs emerged from movies which were less than memorable. That says a lot: even in movies which most of the public never saw, the Academy recognized the power of song. This year is much the same. Breakthrough, based on a true story of faith and the power of miracle, was no Joker, in terms of mass appeal. Its only recognition by the Academy is for Best Song.
Yet Diane wrote a universal song for it, and performed by Chrissy Metz, it’s had a great impact, as we discuss in the following.
Diane Warren is Hollywood royalty for another reason at this juncture: the Diane Warren Music building stands in the heart of Hollywood – right where Solar Records and L.A. Reid & Babyface’s headquarters was – and it’s there she runs her publishing empire. Yet she does most of her songwriting, she said, in a little apartment nearby where she’s written for years. ” I just go back and forth all day long,” she said, “because I record there and I also have a writing room there. I’m kind of in both places all the time.”
Her building is just a few blocks from the Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars are held on Hollywood Boulevard. Right in-between is the former site of LASS, the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase, where Diane got her start. Run by John Braheny and Len Chandler, with much loving help from Mandi Martin, it’s where Diane learned how to be a professional songwriter in the world.
Sure, she already had a bounty of talent. But it takes serious work to develop the real artistry of enduring songwriting.
But it also takes diligence. Diligence to endure as an artist within an industry, and the fortitude to never stop. Diane’s diligence, like that of the legendary Sammy Cahn, also nominated for countless Best Song nominations, is legend.
AMERICAN SONGWRITER: Congratulations on yet another Best Song nomination. But especially for this song, which is really special, and having a powerful impact.
DIANE WARREN: Thank you. [The song] has been having this life outside of the movie which is really cool, because it’s the end song of the movie and it means something different in that movie. But it’s being adopted by all these amazing other situations.
Someone just did a video with the firefighters saving animals in Australia. You can’t get through it without crying.
Chrissy sang it at the ACLU, where it represented the ACLU’s fighting for our rights and standing with us there. She sang it with the Gay Men’s Choir celebrating 50 years of Stonewall, representing solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
Now all these women all over the world just did a version of it against violence towards women. So it’s crazy. It has all these different lives. Because, I think, it has a powerful message.
It’s the message, and also that it’s a beautifully written song. One I feel people would always love, but now more than ever this kind of song is so needed. It’s one of those songs like “Stand By Me” that is universal, so it fits all those situations when you just need someone to say, you’re not alone.
Yeah, right? It’s so simple but that’s the truth. No matter what you go through, I’m standing with you.
The simplicity of that comes across. We live in a time where it’s such a divided country and divided world, and not only that, we’re all on our phones. We’re all connected but we’re also alone. People feel really alone. A lot of times you go through a lot of the stuff and you don’t think anybody’s going to understand you.
Absolutely. Even in giant cities like this one, people feel more isolated than ever.
Yeah. Even more isolated than ever.
And I find, and I’m sure you do too, that a real song, a beautifully written song with a great melody, gets through because you can’t fake that. You know it’s real.
Yeah, it resonates. It’s somehow going to break through, right?
Yeah, I think so. Because a lot of songs that are hits now are really compelling records and performances, but are they great songs? Could you play them at a piano bar twenty years from now?
Yeah. A lot of them aren’t. I mean there’s good stuff out there but some of the stuff isn’t. There is a lot of really cool production and really cool record making. It’s similar to the use of a lot of special effects in movies sometimes. They’re cool, but I want a real story with my special effects.
Yes. I spoke to James Taylor for our next cover story and he was saying the same thing, that there are a lot of really amazing performances and great records but not necessarily a solidly written song. So that when you do hear one like this it really makes an impact, because we miss it.
Yes. An actual melody. Something that you want to hear that just moves you. Right? I knowI do.
I sure do.
But it could move you to dance too, or move you to feel something.
Some of the stuff is so perfectly recorded, so perfectly made, that I miss things that aren’t so perfectly made, even records.
Yeah, I agree. Because it sounds human. When we hear Toni Braxton sing your song “Unbreak My Heart,” it’s a powerful human connection. And that’s very true with this song and the way Chrissy Metz projects it.
Yeah, that’s what’s beautiful. I don’t know if you know the story, but I didn’t want her to do the song.
The producer of the movie was pretty insistent on Chrissy singing it. But I didn’t know if she could sing or not. And I knew the song’s really good so we could get anybody. Let’s get Kelly Clarkson. Let’s get Carrie Underwood!
It’s funny because Chrissy and I were just on Kelly Clarkson’s show where Chrissy sang the song and we did an interview together, and I said, “Yeah, you were one of the ones I wanted to replace her.” It was kind of a funny moment. But I just felt with a song like that we could have our choice.
But the producers insisted, and told me to just try her. So I went in the studio with Kyle (Townsend), my producer, and said, “Okay, well, I’ll come back in a few hours. I didn’t want to be in the room. So I left and I came back and they played what she did and I just was so … man.. I was stunned. It was amazing. It was so beautiful. I love her tone, but also she’s so authentic. She makes you feel it. You believe it and she’s like that as an actress as well. She makes it real. You really can’t learn that. You can’t go to lessons and learn how to be authentic.
So the combination of her voice and that song was really magical. At first when I said we’;; try her out I was still thinking, okay, how about Chrissy with Carrie Underwood? [Laughs] I was still trying to get other people on there. But after I heard her I knew it was her song and I told her, “This belongs to you. Nobody’s getting this song but you.”
We premiered the song on the ACMS [Academy of Country Music Awards] and there were a bunch of artists onstage with her – Carrie Underwood, Lauren Alaina, and Mickey Guyton. Most of those people were people I wanted to replace Chrissy with. So there was irony there.
And they were all singing with her so it was really cool. And by the way, that night the meaning was all about women standing together in country music. So it’s really cool to see how the song has been used.
I didn’t realize that at all. I thought you had written the song for her. Because it is so perfect for her, that no matter what happens, that’s her theme song forever. Don’t you think?
Oh yeah, yeah. She’s going to be singing that forever.
That’s her “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” you know. She embodies that song in such a beautiful way—
She really does. I can’t imagine someone else doing that like her.
So funny you didn’t think she could do it. That you needed someone better. Like thinking, Judy Garland, yeah, she’s good. But can we get someone better?
Right! I had no idea. And there’s something really cool in the fact that she stars in a movie and sings the song. And the fact that the movie came out almost a year ago and not a lot of people saw it. It did well at the box office but it’s not your typical LA. or New York movie because it’s more faith based. Though it’s not super religious. It’s a beautiful movie about a real life miracle. It’s a true story. It’s an amazing story. I met the kid and I met his mom. It really happened.
But the point is, here’s a movie, a smaller movie, and the song from that gets nominated. And then you have songs from Beyoncé from The Lion King, or songs from Aladdin, these mega-movies. You add all that up and it’s probably three billion dollars worth of movies or more. My little movie was worth 50 million, which is something, but it’s a lot smaller.
It shows us good songs make an impact.
You’ve had ten previous Oscar nominations for Best Song ––
Isn’t that crazy? Five in the last six years.
And a lot of those songs, as you know well, are much more famous than the movies now.
But a great song stands out. You’ve been nominated now over five decades.
Yeah, this is my fifth decade [laughs]. And I have the crazy distinction of being the most nominated women in Oscar history to have not won. So I hope that changes.
Yeah. It’s true you haven’t won yet. But eleven Oscar nominations for Best Song over five decades? Isn’t that greater than winning one?
Yeah. I was just talking to somebody about that, if I had the choice of winning one of those nominations back in the day and then not getting nominated again, would I choose that? No. I would choose this. Because it’s about longevity. It’s a body of work that I can be proud of.
It really is. And it’s rare for songwriters to have success during one decade, let alone five.
Yeah, I don’t stop to think about that much, because I’m always on to the next thing. But if I stop and think about it, yeah, it is pretty cool. And especially with this song because it was such a long shot and an underdog really. It was David and Goliath with this song.
It seems to indicate, as others have said, that the academy loves you. Don’t you think?
Maybe not love, but I think that I have some respect.
Also they appreciate, again, a real song. Her performance of it is great, but it’s the song. It feels like a standard already.
Yeah, I think that it can be one. And the thing is to be appreciated by your peers is phenomenal, and the people in the music branch, some of the best musicians and composers and songwriters in history are in there.
Yeah, this year you’re up against a Oh yeah. This year I noticed you’re up against Elton John & Bernie Taupin, and Randy Newman. It takes real songwriters to write real songs.
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s funny because when Randy Newman finally won I was against him with my song from Pearl Harbor, called “There You’ll Be,” that Faith Hill. That was 2000, literally 20 years ago. So 20 years later I’m going up against Randy Newman again.
Maybe it’ll be my turn.
He’s one of the few who’s been nominated for this so many times.
Yeah, I think him and I are both the most nominated songwriters.
How was the song born? Did you watch the film first?
Yeah. I saw the movie and there was a scene in it where the pastor is asking everybody in church to keep faith that the kid would be okay. Right? Because science has given up on him. The doctors said he wasn’t going to live. And basically when the doctor came out to tell his mom that he was dead, she walked in and prayed, and it was the force of her faith that brought this miracle; his pulse came back. But the doctor says, “No, his pulse came back but his brain’s dead.” He was dead for an hour.
So there was no hope for him but his community rallied behind him. His mother at first was the only one and then slowly but surely other people in the community rallied behind her. So there’s that one scene where the pastor was asking everybody to stand that didn’t lose faith, and the whole room stood up, and there was this beautiful moment. And that’s what stayed with me.
So the next day when I came into to work on a song for the movie I came up with that chorus and it just really got me, and I was like, this is it. It really moved me and I figured if it moved me it’s going to move somebody else.
Words and music? You came up with the whole chorus?
Yeah. The chorus came kind of quick. The rest of it took time.
Is that unusual that something like that would come quick?
No. Sometimes it happens like that. That chorus kind of wrote itself. It was kind of weird. And then it’s like you’re in the middle of a forest and you’ve got to find your way out.
Is it easy for you to get to that place where things start writing themselves like that?
That one in particular did. That one was just kind of a stream of consciousness, just the chorus.
do you have times when nothing’s happening?
We all do. You know?
Yeah, of course.
I ask because you’ve done it for decades. Tom Petty did it for 40 years, but it’s unusual to keep doing good work for so long.
Yeah. I think my best work’s ahead of me and I think that my best songs people haven’t heard yet, so yeah.
A lot of your peers have been nominated for Grammys. But getting nominated for an Oscar for best song is a whole other thing, isn’t it?
To me it is, yeah. You know why?
Here’s the thing. The Grammys have a lot of song categories. They have Best Song, Best Country song, Best R &B song, Best Rap song. There’s tons of song categories. Not to take anything away from it. I’ve been nominated for a lot of them. But the Oscars have one song category. And there’s hundreds of songs in movies a year. To be one of those five songs is a huge win, and that’s not lost on me.
I stayed up all night waiting for the nominations and I was jumping up and down with my friends.
Yeah, I saw the video.
Yeah, it’s the best right? It was such a long shot and here, it came through. That’s a win. When you think of how many songs are in movies a year.
Yes. And it is the only nomination for this film, which will sure help the film.
Yeah, it’s going to help the movie. But I’m proud of it and I know a lot of people are coming to the movie through the song and that’s great.
And everyday I hear amazing stories about the song in people’s lives. People talking about going through cancer right now, and how that song’s giving them strength. Music is a very healing force.
It really is. It’s evidence that even with technology changing and our culture shifting so much, that songs still really matter. Don’t you think?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Songs will always matter. People want to be moved. They want to be touched. However form you get them in that doesn’t change, a song needs to be created. Quincy [Jones] says there’s three things that matter: the song, the song, and the song.
Diane Warren’s Nominations for Best Song Oscars Over Five Decades
“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Albert Hammond & Diane Warren from Mannequin.
“Because You Loved Me” from Up Close and Personal.
“How Do I Live” from Con Air.
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” from Armageddon.
“Music of My Heart” from Music of the Heart
“There You’ll Be” from Pearl Harbor
“Grateful” from Beyond The Lights
“Stand Up for Something” from Marshall
“I’ll Fight” from RBG
“I’m Standing With You” from Breakthrough