Magazine article Variety

Toons Dig Deep to Craft Musical Worlds

Magazine article Variety

Toons Dig Deep to Craft Musical Worlds

Article excerpt

New songs, covers of old songs, chart-topping singers, Broadway tunesmiths: musically speaking, this year's crop of animated movies has a little of everything.

Both "Trolls" and "Sing" feature lavishly produced covers of classic songs. "Sing" features no fewer than 65 tunes, of which just 20 are the original master recordings; the other 45 not only needed to be cleared but arranged, performed, and animated.

It was a two-year process, says executive music producer Harvey Mason Jr., a Grammy-winning songwriter and producer whose resume includes everyone from Justin Bieber to Beyonce. "It was the craziest job ever," he says. "We did some of the songs eight or nine different times in different ways."

Because "Sing" is about a vocal competition, the settings ranged from auditions to a singing, dancing finale. Characters include a punk-rock porcupine (Scarlett Johansson), a Sinatra-esque mouse (Seth MacFarlane), a soulful gorilla (Taron Egerton), a shy elephant (Tori Kelly), and a pop-singing pig (Reese Witherspoon).

"My job as music producer was to figure out how to make each one of these songs special," says Mason. "Should I do a replication of the song? Should I flip the version on its head? What story beats do we need to hit? What do we want the audience to feel at this point in the movie?"

Each song was meticulously conceived. The old Stevie Wonder classic "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," for example, sung by Kelly, "went through probably 30 revisions," Mason reports.

The Elton John song "I'm Still Standing" was "down to the 11th hour," Universal film-music president Mike Knobloch adds, "with different drummers, different grooves," searching for just the right sound.

Universal won't say what all this cost, although some estimates put the music budget in the $10 million range. Just licensing the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight" would have been expensive but, as Knobloch points out, Jennifer Hudson's rendition of that song "becomes the soul of the movie."

Capping the film is a new song, "Faith," sung by Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande. Producer and co-writer Ryan Tedder says he conceived the song as a duet between the gorilla and elephant characters without being too obvious. "If you're too on the nose with lyrics, it can be cheesy and disingenuous," he says.

In the case of DreamWorks' "Trolls," new songs are sprinkled into the mix of covers including Paul Simon's "The Sound of Silence," Lionel Richie's "Hello," and the Cyndi Lauper standard "True Colors."

Justin Timberlake, who co-wrote the new songs, also served as the film's executive music producer (and voiced one of the main characters). "It was something for the parents, to have these classic songs in there too," he tells Variety. "The mission with all the covers was just to make sure they sounded good, and close enough to what we were doing and vice versa, so the movie felt like it had its own musical DNA."

Timberlake's pop anthem "Can't Stop the Feeling!," written for "Trolls," was released a full six months before the film. The early release paid off, as it not only promoted the film but has become the best-selling song of the year. It's Timberlake's fifth No. 1 single, and its accompanying video has been watched more than 300 million times on YouTube.

Watching the movie reminded him of the disco era. "I felt like I was tripping out watching an Abba video," he quips. So he decided to convey "the idea of happiness, how we are all searching for it, it's within all of us and we can access it whenever we want. …

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