Jonsi’s music animates Crowe’s ‘Zoo’

Eye on the Oscars 2011: Music Preview

Although director Cameron Crowe didn’t approach Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi about scoring “We Bought a Zoo” until the last day of shooting, in hindsight the choice seems like a foregone conclusion.

“We had a code name for the filming, it was ‘Heima,’ the (2007) Sigur Ros documentary title, which all of us had been watching,” Crowe says. Plus, Jonsi’s music was a constant companion on the movie set. “We started to get really addicted to the ‘Go’ album,” Crowe says, referencing Jonsi’s 2010 solo debut. “He was part of the DNA of the movie.”

The Fox film, which opens Dec. 23 and stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, chronicles a father’s purchase of a zoo following the death of his wife. It is based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee.

Even though Crowe calls Jonsi the movie’s “emotional tour guide,” he admits “there were a couple of other musical voices that were looming” as possibilities for composers, but then fate intervened.

Across the globe, around the same time shooting was ending, Jonsi turned on his television in his native Iceland one afternoon and Crowe’s 2000 film “Almost Famous” was playing. “I sent (Crowe) a short email and told him I loved that movie,” Jonsi says. Crowe, who had licensed Sigur Ros’ music for 2001’s “Vanilla Sky,” replied, telling Jonsi that his music had been an integral influence on the “Zoo” set. One thing quickly led to another and soon thereafter, Jonsi hopped on a plane to Los Angeles to discuss composing the score.

“The question was could he write stuff based on this movie and based on these characters as opposed to the huge canvas that he’d always written on in the past,” Crowe says. Any qualms were so quickly dispelled that Crowe says, “about halfway through, I started to contact some director friends and said there’s a new gunslinger in town.”

The first piece Jonsi wrote became the theme to the movie. It’s a magical, childlike cue, played primarily on glockenspiel, with a simultaneously haunting and lilting appeal that trails off into hints of Sigur Ros’ alluring quirkiness. In all, Jonsi composed the bulk of the major themes on his laptop during that first week-long visit to Los Angeles, later returning for a month-long stay to record both at the Village studios and the Newman Sound Stage on the Fox lot.

Like many rockers-turned-composers, Jonsi’s biggest challenge was writing in service of something other than his own vision. “You can be egocentric when writing your own music,” he says. “Here, you have to think about all these other things (including) how the movie flows (and) the scene.”

In addition to the score, “Zoo” incorporates two new Jonsi tunes written specifically for the film, two songs from “Go,” and one Sigur Ros song.

Unlike past Crowe movies, there are only a handful of needle drops in “Zoo,” including tracks from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Neil Young, Randy Newman, Wilco, Yusef Islam, Bon Iver, Temple of the Dog, and Bob Dylan. “I just had a feeling that this was the movie where we could do more score than ever before,” Crowe says.

Columbia Records will release the “We Bought a Zoo” soundtrack Dec. 6 with Jonsi’s score and the five Jonsi-related songs. Fox and Columbia’s marketing teams are working together to promote the set both to Jonsi fans and film buffs.

Eye on the Oscars 2011: Music Preview:

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