During a recording session for Disney’s “The Muppets,” Bret McKenzie asked his session piano player to “stick to the simple chords” when the composition became too intricate. The tune became “Life’s a Happy Song,” an ambitious, Broadway-styled track performed by an ensemble cast that McKenzie concedes “is pretty much all white notes. I would say it probably could be played by a 5-year-old.”
McKenzie, who served as music supervisor and wrote/produced four original songs for the puppet farce, spent a lot of time dialing back the slick, over-produced sheen typical of Disney musicals in favor of something more unhinged, something more “Muppet.”
“(Jim) Henson would say if the music sounds too good it’s not right, and I think that is something we kept in our mind because there is something about the Muppets — there is a fallibility to them, and the music has that quality as well,” McKenzie says.
Most notable for his role in HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” McKenzie keeps the tunes sounding “Muppety” by hewing to the goofy felt universe Henson envisioned.
“We used a lot of tack piano, which sounds like a saloon piano, a lot of banjo and a lot of sloppy bass,” says McKenzie, “all the same instruments that Paul Williams used in the original Muppet movie.”
The newest Muppet soundtrack takes advantage of an earlier era. Much of the franchise was produced in the age of disco — a distinct, if not comic, sound that makes a big appearance.
“Me Party,” a duet between Mary (Amy Adams) and Miss Piggy, is a sparkly disco jam that recalls K.C. and the Sunshine Band, but with a stripped-down Muppet treatment; McKenzie wrote the melody with Paul Roemen over some Arnold Palmers.
“It’s a party jam for the lonely,” he jokes.
With co-producer Mickey Petralia, McKenzie listened to Harry Nilsson and Captain & Tennille to prepare for the film.
“I didn’t feel like the Muppets needed to be updated,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I needed to make it sound like current pop music.”
There is also a distinct McKenzie stamp apparent to listeners familiar with the musician’s work on “Flight of the Conchords,” a comedy that relied heavily on musical interludes.
The emotional “Man or Muppet” calls up the Conchords’ “I’m Not Crying,” and then there’s the show’s Rhymenoceros-influenced rap stylings of Tex Rickman (Chris Cooper) on “Let’s Talk About Me.”
To prepare for the hip-hop-oriented track, McKenzie freestyled with Cooper over Skype and demoed the lyrics, saying that the Oscar winner “has mad flow.”
Writing for the Muppets brings its own unique set of constraints — some Muppets can talk while others can simply emote — and McKenzie had to adapt to writing for voices, both human and Muppet, other than his own.
“The Muppets have very specific vocal rangers,” says McKenzie. “Miss Piggy cannot sing too high or low, or she doesn’t sound like Miss Piggy anymore.”
The musician had to pull back in other areas as well, censoring his humor to keep the film’s PG rating. It would have been easy to write a “motherfrogger” line, he jokes.
“(Director James) Bobin and I spent time writing things that we found funny and I think that children find things funny that adults find funny,” he says. “We avoided the film feeling patronizing.”
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