Janelle Monáe opened the Oscars in hectic style with a performance of her 2009 song Come Alive – reworked with Oscar-appropriate lyrics.
Beginning in a suit, she then donned a red cardigan so tight the button popped, in order to dress as a raunchy version of the children TV’s presenter Mr Rogers. Monáe then started singing his theme, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood – also the theme to the Oscar-nominated biopic. Walking down the stairs at the front of the stage, Monáe serenaded its star, Tom Hanks, who was sat in the front row. Having placed her trademark bowler hat on his head, she then launched into a frantic Come Alive.
“Tonight, we celebrate the art of the storyteller,” Monáe announced, as dancers dressed as characters from Joker, Midsommar, Us, Queen and Slim, and Dolemite Is My Name gyrated in the background. “Those voices long deprived.” Deprived indeed – of those films, only the first had received any major nominations.
Referring to Bong Jung-ho’s film, the first South Korean movie up for best picture, Monáe warbled “Parasite, it’s time to shine,” before adding “it’s time to come alive, ’cos the Oscars, it’s so white.”
Before all the contradictions of this number criticising the awards ceremony it was opening it could be fully absorbed, Monáe strode over to a grand piano topped by a giant flower arrangement, where Pose actor Billy Porter was waiting dressed as Elton John in a red velvet suit and floor-length gold embroidered cape – a nod to Rocketman.
Porter launched into I’m Still Standing, with rewritten lyrics including the advice: “You better put a smile on just in case you won.” In the audience, Rebel Wilson sang along and Olivia Coleman looked delighted and just a touched bemused.
“Tonight, we celebrate the women who directed phenomenal films,” claimed Monáe – in fact, the opposite is notorious for being true, with no women nominated for best director. “I’m happy to stand here as a black queer artist telling stories. Happy black history month.”
Monáe then engaged actors including Brie Larson and an embarrassed Leonardo DiCaprio in a call and response section, before lying with her dancers in the aisle. As ticker tape rained down on to the audience and the camera panned back to the dancers, some military uniforms caused sudden alarm. Could these really be dancing Nazis in a tribute to Jojo Rabbit?
Fortunately they were British first world war uniforms, a reference to 1917. And with that, Monáe departed the stage, leaving behind the distinct impression that, while her performance had diversity front and centre, it would serve more as a fig leaf for the Academy than evidence of actual structural change – though as Parasite won the top awards later that night, there seemed greater grounds for optimism that the Oscars, and the film industry, are really changing.