The Academy Awards aren’t known for their stellar music performances, though there have been some very notable exceptions over the years. Isaac Hayes delivered a career-defining “Theme From Shaft” performance at the 1972 ceremony, Björk rocked “I’ve Seen It All” in her swan dress in 2001, Adele crushed “Skyfall” in 2013 and Mariah Carey staged a diva-off with Whitey Houston in 1999 for The Prince of Egypt’s “When You Believe.” And just this past week, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper revived “Shallow” from A Star Is Born and stole the show.
Maybe the best year for musical performance was the 1994 ceremony. It was the night when Schindler’s List took Best Picture, Tommy Lee Jones won Best Supporting Actor for The Fugitive and a young Anna Paquin took home the statue for her supporting role in The Piano, Tom Hanks won Best Actor for Philadelphia, and Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young battled it out over Best Original Song for their contributions to the movie’s soundtrack. They both played that night, and here’s video of Springsteen singing “The Streets of Philadelphia” shortly before he won.
This was a pivotal time in Springsteen’s career. The reaction to his two 1992 albums Human Touch and Lucky Town was, at best, extremely mixed. He toured them all over the world with a new band and sold a ton of tickets, but most fans missed the E Street Band and he seemed like yet another Eighties icon that would unable to adjust to a post-Nirvana world. But when asked to write a song for Jonathan Demme’s AIDS drama Philadelphia, he created a haunting tune using drum loops that was unlike anything he’d done before. The song shot to Number Nine and was all over the radio and VH1.
He performed it at the Grammys and the MTV Video Music Awards with Max Weinberg on drums, but at the Academy Awards Human Touch tour drummer Zack Alford was behind the kit, possibly because of Weinberg’s commitments to his new gig with Conan O’Brien. As you can see here, Alford did an incredible job recreating the drum machine from the original recording. “I actually got a great compliment after that gig,” Alford told Rolling Stone in 2013. “A drummer that I respect named Charlie Drayton came up to me and said, ‘Why did you guys mime to that song?’ And I said, ‘Actually, we didn’t.’ That was a huge compliment.”
Later in the evening, Springsteen took home the Best Original Song award. “This is the first song I ever wrote for a motion picture, so I guess it’s all downhill from here,” he said. “But, Neil, I gotta share this with you. You do your best work and you hope that it pulls out the best in your audience and some piece of it spills over into the real world and into people’s everyday lives. And it takes the edge off fear and allows us to recognize each other through our veil of differences. I always thought that was one of the things popular art was supposed to be about, along with the merchandising and all the other stuff.”
Two years later, Springsteen wrote “Dead Man Walkin'” for the Sean Penn–Susan Sarandon movie Dead Man Walking and was nominated for another Oscar, but this time was beat out by “Colors of the Wind” from the Pocahontas soundtrack. In 2009, he won a Golden Globe for his song “The Wrestler” from the movie of the same name, but he somehow wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award.