‘Rio’ unleashes the sounds of Brazil

Fox's animated pic dances to authentic rhythms

Not many cities come with their own signature sound, but then again, not many cities are Rio de Janeiro, where, in the new 3D animated movie “Rio,” birds launch into song, bolstered by the rhythms of the streets and the rainforest.

Capturing the bewitching indigenous musical rhythms of Brazil and its capital city was paramount for the producers of the 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios film, about the last two blue macaws in existence.

“Brazilian music is extremely romantic and the percussive element is always there,” says Fox Music president Robert Kraft, who worked for nearly two years on the project, which opens April 15 and stars the voices of Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, George Lopez and Jamie Foxx. “You have an authentic basis. You can use very natural rhythms to accentuate tension. You already have a language of romance and tension.”

Brazilian native Carlos Saldanha, best known for his work on the “Ice Age” films, directed “Rio,” surrounding himself with fellow Brazilians, including legendary musician Sergio Mendes, who served as executive music producer. Mendes, who worked hand-in-hand with composer John Powell, brought in renowned percussionist Carlinhos Brown to keep the sounds genuine.

“Carlos wanted to show the beauty, the sensuality, and, most of all, the music” of Rio, says Mendes. “That’s what seduced me to be part of it.”

“There was a day when Carlinhos had 13 drummers on the stage in a circle,” recalls Kraft. “We had 13 men banging on various things for the day. John Powell just wanted to record various grooves. It was just truly authentic rhythm, truly primal.”

The movie’s musical team, in addition to Mendes, Brown and Powell, included Siedah Garrett, best known for co-writing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” who crafted the English lyrics. Inspiration hit often. “Carlinhos would compose in front of me and Sergio and explain the scene to Siedah,” says Kraft. “For ‘Funky Monkey,’ we were in the control room and I raced to the engineer and said, ‘Quick, grab a mic!’? ”

The movie also includes contemporary hitmakers. The Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am, who voices wisecracking bird Pedro, contributed the uptempo “Hot Wings (I Wanna Party).” Up-and-coming pop singer Taio Cruz, best known for his hit “Dynamite,” wrote end-title track “Telling the World,” which is also used in the trailer. The mid-tempo ballad is the single outside of the U.S. and is on the soundtrack, which came out April 5 on Fox Music/Interscope.

“We still needed that one song that was our ‘Circle of Life’ or ‘I Believe I Can Fly,’ ” Kraft says. Fox marketing president Tony Sella suggested Cruz, whose mother is Brazilian. In a remarkable case of serendipity, the British artist was in Los Angeles. Kraft showed him a film snippet and 10 minutes after Cruz left the Fox lot, he returned with a demo he’d previously written that he molded to fit the movie.

“Mas Que Nada,” Mendes’ classic bossa nova hit with Brasil ’66, got an update for one of the movie’s romantic scenes that features sweeping views over the city. “It was a very hard thing to do,” Mendes says of the song’s reinvention. “John added some strings and I think that took the song to another place.”

Mendes hopes the movie reignites interest in Brazilian music, which exploded internationally in the early ’60s with “The Girl From Ipanema” (which Lopez’s character sings in the film), followed by Mendes’ tremendous global success.

“The most beautiful thing about the movie is it shows the diversity of music in Rio and Brazil,” he says. “There are thoroughly different rhythms, melodies and flavors.”

Read the Variety review of “Rio”

Return to Music for Screens: Spring 2011