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‘Coco’ Composers Infuse Score With Flavors of Mexican Music

Pixar filmmakers are routinely meticulous in seeking out musical scores. Ten of the studio’s 18 films have been Oscar-nominated for song, score or both, and three have won the gold.

But it seems safe to say that no Pixar film to date has gone to the lengths that “Coco” has to ensure musical authenticity for its story. The movie, out Nov. 22, tells of a 12-year-old Mexican boy whose desire to become a musician is thwarted by his family, sending him on a journey that whisks him into the netherworld of Día de Muertos — Day of the Dead.

New Jersey native Michael Giacchino composed the score; a Pixar regular, he had imbued “Ratatouille” with the flavors of Paris and won an Oscar for the score for “Up.” Prior to his arrival, the filmmakers engaged Mexican-American composer Germaine Franco to co-write and arrange many of the songs heard in the movie. In addition, they brought on Mexican Institute of Sound DJ and remix artist Camilo Lara as music consultant, and last November the Pixar team spent four days in Mexico City, recording every conceivable style of traditional music with 50 of the country’s top musicians.

“Because the film takes place in Mexico, we wanted it to be rooted in the language of Mexican music,” says co-writer and co-director Adrian Molina (who co-wrote some of the songs with Franco). “Camilo put us in contact with really great Mexican musicians. So for any given story point, we had this library of music in different moods, from different regions.”

Disney exec VP of music Tom MacDougall adds that all of the Mexican music performances were videotaped, so that animators could duplicate the fingering of the guitar strings or the hand positions on the trumpets. “When you see a band playing in the plaza, it looks and feels authentic,” he says.

The musical centerpiece of “Coco” is original song “Remember Me,” which recurs throughout the film in various contexts. “Frozen” songwriters Bobby and Kristen Anderson-Lopez researched Mexican songs of the ’30s and ’40s. “We decided to write a song in that bolero-ranchero style that also worked as a quiet ballad,” says Bobby. Adds Kristen: “I looked at it as a lullaby to my own children. We often have to travel; how do we stay connected when we are so far away? I wrote that lyric from a very personal place.”

For Giacchino — in charge of taking all this music, adding his own and fashioning a tapestry that would work for the film — the experience was instructive. “It was an incredible master class in what Mexico has to offer, musically,” he says. The composer was nostalgic about hearing an LP of traditional Mexican music he had listened to as a kid but explains that he discovered so much more about the album as an adult. “I didn’t realize how little I really knew about it, all the different styles from different parts of the country.”

“I wanted you to watch the movie and feel like you were there.”
Composer Michael Giacchino

His partner in making everything  work was Franco, who was raised on the border of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez and whose grandparents were from Chihuahua and Durango. “I grew up hearing the music and going to Mexico pretty much every week,” she says. Franco not only co-wrote four other songs with Molina; she arranged all the songs as well as the traditional Mexican material and served as co-orchestrator on Giacchino’s score.

“There are songs in the jarocho style from Vera Cruz, a mix of African, Spanish and indigenous rhythms,” Franco says. “We also have banda, which is the big brass mix of German and Mexican music. And trío romántico, the beautiful harmony of three singers with the guitar.”

Giacchino’s score, featuring an 84-piece orchestra, includes many Latin American musicians who add their own colors, from bamboo flutes to Aztec percussion and every imaginable guitar variation from guitarron to vihuela. “I wanted you to watch the movie and feel like you were there,” Giacchino says. “We wanted it to come from a place of home — Mexico.”

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