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The Muppets was easily one of the best films to come out last year, and one of the key reasons was the music. In addition to bringing back classics like “The Muppet Show Theme” and “Rainbow Connection,” the movie was filled with brilliant, hilarious, touching and catchy songs that audiences were humming while walking out of the theater. While it was a disgrace that the Golden Globes left the film out of their Best Original Song category (Machine Gun Preacher? Really?) we can hope for Oscar glory and there is nobody more deserving of that award than Bret McKenzie.
With ballots now in the hands of Academy voters, I recently had the chance to talk to McKenzie, who served as the music supervisor for the film, about his work on the project. Check out our interview below, in which he talks about the pressures that come with writing music for characters with such an iconic legacy, working with the Muppets in the recording studio, and just what it is about the characters that makes them so special.
How does the songwriting process start for you, and I’m curious if it changes with the material. For example, was writing the music for The Muppets much different than writing for Flight of the Conchords?
Well, they weren’t measurably different. In Conchords we often changed styles, so we’d choose a genre and then apply that to a song idea. In this, I guess the genre for this, for The Muppets was The Muppets. So I watched all of the original TV shows and saturated myself in Muppets material and also just listed to a lot of banjos, like The Stampeders’ “Sweet City Woman.” And then I wrote the songs with that in mind. One difference was that I wrote them on piano rather than guitar. It wasn’t that different to be honest, except that they had to be cleaner for the Muppet movie [laughs].
I did see the performance of “Life’s A Happy Song” that you did with Kermit the Frog, which was really great, but when you were recording the songs for the movie did you have time to hang around the Muppets a lot?
Not that much. I mean, I had them in the studio, I recorded them all. So I got to meet everyone and work with them. That was fun because some of them would stay in character between takes. So you’d be talking to Fozzie The Bear in the studio. Some of them are kind of method Muppets. Recording, one of those moments when I was pinching myself was when we were recording Kermit the Frog singing “Rainbow Connection.” That was a very special moment.
When I talked with Nicholas Stoller back before the movie came out he actually told me that while making the movie he actually found himself looking at the puppeteer rather than the muppet. Did you have that same problem?
Well, in the studio they didn’t wear the puppets.
Oh, they didn’t. Okay.
I didn’t really get to work with the Muppets, I worked with the muppeteers.
Yes, huge amount of pressure going into the job, and somehow I forgot about it [laughs]. I think we all, James and Nick and Jason and I, we were all very aware that we were dealing with something iconic and classic and we desperately didn’t want to ruin it. A friend of mine said to me, “You’re never going to write another ‘Rainbow Connection’,” and I said to him, “Yeah, you’re right.” [laughs] But we had to write something! It was a very intimidating job for sure.
Were any of the songs more complicated to write than the others? Did you ever suffer from any kind of writer’s block?
The one that was hardest to crack was the rap song with Chris Cooper because we just went back and forth. We did about a dozen different versions of that song and it was just getting the time right. But we ended up going with one of the original versions.
And that was a real highlight, working with him, because I had the job of being his rap coach, and he’s a pretty serious dude. He’s a very serious actor and I was getting him to rap comedy [laughs]. I think he was approaching it as an actor. In his mind he was acting the part of a rapper. You know what I mean? So there were a lot of layers going on. And one thing that made the job…it was fun for me because I’ve done acting and singing as well. I was comfortable working with actors and getting a good performance out of them.
To talk more about Chris Cooper’s rap, I noticed that the song on the soundtrack is actually longer than it was in the movie. Knowing how difficult it was to write, how did you feel when you saw the final cut of the film?
I think the way that it plays in the movie works really well, and I think James made the right call to shorten it. But yeah, it is a bummer when you spend literally months recording something and then you watch it and they’ve used 40 seconds [laughs]. Hopefully it will be a DVD extra!
The Muppets really are universally beloved. You can’t show Kermit the Frog to somebody and have them not start smiling from ear to ear. But what do you think it is about the Muppets that makes them so cherished?
I think it has something to do with their inherent failures. They all slightly look wrong and they sound wrong, and they sound slightly off. In a world where everything is so perfect and overly produced, it’s great to have these characters who have such obvious problems. And also, that they’re hilarious!
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