Eye on the Oscars: Song & Score

The film, which inspired the popular Angry Birds spinoff videogame app (also named “Rio”), “was a love letter to (Saldanha’s) hometown,” says Powell, who earned an Oscar nom last year for his soaring “How to Train Your Dragon” score.

In preparation, Powell visited Rio and was given the grand tour by Saldanha, spending three days visiting locations that would appear in the film, and soaking up local sounds and flavors. “Carlos really wanted the sound of the film to feel representative of Rio,” says Powell. “He wanted the flavors and smells and the charm.”

John Powell, arguably Hollywood’s king of animation soundtracks, experienced a busy 2011, scoring no fewer than four blockbuster animated features, among them Fox’s “Rio,” an avian caper directed by Brazilian helmer Carlos Saldanha.

The result is a soundtrack nothing short of carnivalesque, bold and colorful as its feathered characters, and featuring guest appearances by some of the biggest names in Brazilian pop and bossa nova. A main flying sequence features iconic song “Mas Que Nada,” re-recorded with Sergio Mendes, the musician who made it famous with his group Brasil 66.

“We gave it our own spin, put an orchestral arrangement around it, and made it as romantic and soaring as we could,” says Powell.

Having Mendes on board opened the door to other top-tier Brazilian musicians, including Bebel Gilberto. She sings a song and voices a toucan that, ironically, can’t sing. “Making her sound tone-deaf was very difficult for us, because Bebel’s voice is just beautiful,” says Powell. “She had to really act to get that scene right; Carlos was on at her, saying, ‘Worse, worse!’ ”

For “Kung Fu Panda 2,” Powell teamed up with mentor Hans Zimmer (with whom he had scored the first film in the franchise). As is often the case with sequels, the main musical themes had already been established, so the challenge was “to play with those themes in new ways,” particularly for the entertaining fight scenes that have become a trademark of the franchise.

Most painstaking was an opening fight scene that director Jennifer Yuh Nelson wanted to animate exactly in time to the music. “We had to create the music for that particular scene a year ahead of time,” says Powell, “while everything else was made three months before the final dub.”

George Miller’s “Happy Feet Two” represents a rare sequel for which a director demanded entirely new musical themes. “I worked on ‘Happy Feet Two’ for 3 1/2 years, and I was on the first one for 3 1/2 years, too. That’s because the way George works is to fine-tune and fine-tune things until they are perfect, in a constant state of back and forth.”

And just because “Mars Needs Moms” was a critical and box office disappointment didn’t mean Powell was any less attached to the characters or the music he created for them.

“When you’re involved in a story you lose all perspective,” he says. “So when the film comes out and no one goes to see it, it’s very puzzling.”

Next year will see the release of Dr. Seuss adventure “The Lorax,” for which Powell has written five songs; a score for “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” and possible future shows with his band, formed by Jeffrey Katzenberg and fronted by Powell and Hans Zimmer.

Their last performance was on the DreamWorks rooftop; another was in front of 12,000 people at Althorp, the U.K., the estate of the Spencer family (of which Princess Diana was a member). “We had a lovely time,” says Powell, “although I don’t think I’ve ever been in front of 12,000 people in my life.”

Eye on the Oscars: Song & Score
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