“Turning Red,” Pixar’s latest animated adventure, posed some pretty big musical challenges: it’s about a 13-year-old girl, obsessed with a boy band, whose Chinese ancestry literally looms large as she turns into a giant panda when her emotions spin out of control.
It demanded a trio of world-class talents: Grammy winners Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell for the songs and Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winner Ludwig Göransson to compose the score.
That such high-profile talents were available and eager to contribute to “Turning Red” says a lot about the music-friendly reputation of Pixar, which has won five music Oscars (including last year’s “Soul”) and 11 more nominations for either song or score since the original “Toy Story” in 1995.
Tom MacDougall, president of Walt Disney Music, conferred with director Domee Shi — whose personal coming-of-age, mother-daughter conflict story inspired “Turning Red” — and reached out to all of them in 2019, before production on the film began.
MacDougall had been a fan since Eilish’s early hit “Ocean Eyes” and was impressed, he says, “by the breadth of the territory that their songwriting and performing covered” ever since. He recalls Eilish saying that she had grown up listening to boy bands.
“When Mei is with her friends, what song would they be singing? What’s the one they all know?” MacDougall recalls thinking. “And when they see a boy and get that flutter in their hearts, what would they hear? Then when there’s the get-up-and-go song, what would that be? It all pointed back to the storytelling.”
The uber-successful pop duo ultimately created three songs for the film: “Nobody Like U,” a hit for the film’s fictional 4*Town group; “1 True Love,” a quiet ballad about heartbreak; and “U Know What’s Up,” a rousing stadium crowd-pleaser. All were written in early 2020, shortly after Eilish and O’Connell had completed work on their now Oscar-nominated James Bond theme “No Time to Die.”
Finneas is not only co-writer and producer of the songs, he’s actually one of the five voices of 4*Town (the others are Jordan Fisher, Josh Levi, Topher Ngo and Grayson Villanueva). “Domee had this idea that it was a diverse group of singers,” MacDougall says.
The songs were the first recordings Disney made after the COVID industry shutdown in 2020, with all five performers in specially built vocal booths on the Fox scoring stage. “They looked like gigantic phone booths,” MacDougall says. “We had baffles and foam tops and specially built doors to get them in and out.”
Göransson was hired around the same time, MacDougall says, because “we were going to need a score that embraced a broad spectrum of sounds.” He had just won the Oscar for “Black Panther” when “Turning Red” came up, but in fact MacDougall had hired him years earlier for animated shorts (including “Inner Workings” in 2016).
Coincidentally, “Turning Red” director Shi won an Oscar for her Pixar short “Bao” at the same February 2019 ceremony where Göransson won his Oscar. The composer’s wife Serena, a violinist, had played on the score for “Bao” and raved about its touching story. Plus Serena’s mother is Korean and she knew something of the complexity of mother-daughter relationships in Asian families.
“I wanted to score to represent those uncomfortable and confusing feelings that we all encounter in our journey to adulthood,” Göransson tells Variety. “It’s a crazy mix of musical genres, from New Jack Swing to ’90s boy-band, traditional Chinese sounds and Western orchestra. I wanted the music to act like a mixtape for Mei.”
He wrote a theme for Mei, played variously by conventional Western flute and the dizi, a Chinese bamboo flute, depending on how she’s feeling; a theme for Mei’s mother Ming, played by the guzheng, a Chinese plucked string instrument; and music for the panda, “a quirky, awkward theme” played by the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle, plus synthesizer and bianzhong, a set of bronze Chinese bells. The pipa, a Chinese lute, and Chinese opera percussion, provided additional colors for the family and their mystical past.
Göransson learned to play the guzheng during his research, although he hired professional soloists when it came time to record. He had seen storyboards and talked with Shi in 2020, but the actual writing took about eight months in 2021 when he could see a more finished film.
He combined the Chinese sounds with a 75-piece Los Angeles orchestra. “Adding orchestra was the last element. I used them to beef up the main ideas and make it feel more cinematic,” he says. The result is wild, raucous fun, with traditional Chinese instruments flavoring an often fast-moving, big-beat orchestral groove that propels “Turning Red” to its satisfying conclusion.
“We had two weeks” in the recording studio, Göransson reports. “Pixar gave us the time to experiment with the orchestra, to see what worked and what didn’t work.” The result, he adds, was “It all came naturally and nothing felt forced.”
With “Turning Red” behind him, Göransson now turns his attention to “Black Panther 2,” which is nearing the end of shooting in Atlanta. As for Eilish and O’Connell, they have a date with Oscar on March 27… but the songs from “Turning Red” will be eligible for next year’s Academy Awards.
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