Composer John Debney has worked on the scores for “Elf” and “The Greatest Showman” and is no stranger to setting a warm holiday mood. When it came to working on Netflix’s “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” he sought a timeless and classic approach, hinting at classic holiday melodies.
Debney worked with director David E. Talbert on the film which follows young Journey, played by Madelyn Mills, who stays with her grandfather. He happens to be an inventor who has long since lost his spark and Journey’s young curious mind helps bring the magic back to his life.
In an interview with Variety, Debney talks about how he felt compelled to be a part of the story, putting it together during the pandemic and what he used in his music toolbox to tell Journey’s story through the score.
You’re no stranger to holiday scores, so this must have been right up your alley. How did this happen?
I heard about this through a friend who is the music supervisor on the film. Julia Michaels told me about this film over a year ago, and she said, ‘There’s this great Christmas film that David. E. Talbert is going to direct.’ I had met David a few times over the years. Through a series of phone calls and agent calls, they sent me a script. I read the script and fell in love with it. It was one of those things where I said, ‘I have to do this somehow.’
So, I did a few demos and playlists while he was filming in London. He responded to the music I sent. He responded to “Come Away” which is the Angelina Jolie film I worked on and he loved that score. That led to a meeting and lo and behold, he decided to invite me on the journey with him.
You mention the script, and it’s a beautiful story with a beautiful message.
And that’s what appealed to me. This is the story of a father and a daughter who are estranged. His granddaughter comes into his life and this idea of the magical granddaughter who can reconnect his daughter. I told David that’s what I honed in on because it touches your heart. I think I told David without embarrassing myself that I think I even cried while I read the script.
The musical numbers are beautiful and so delightful. What went into your orchestra toolbox when you put the score together to make it feel like holiday magic?
One of the things that I envisioned and something that I expressed to David, I felt the score and songs are so wonderful and magical. I felt the score needed to be classic, timeless and at times magical, big and adventurous.
I remember telling David early on, I said, we’ve got it. You know, we’ve got to do this with a big orchestra somewhere, maybe L.A. or in London. He loved the idea and we started our work.
David was very clear that he didn’t necessarily want a Christmas score, and I agreed with that. We just wanted to hint at that and utilize melodies from those great songs.
This filmed in June 2019, so did you escape having to work on it during the pandemic?
We started work on this before the pandemic. We started our early work and I wrote a few things and started arranging some of the material. Then COVID hit, and our worlds changed.
We learned how to do the Zoom meetings. We had remote meetings and remote learning. It was a challenge. But Netflix was so wonderful and we were able to record certain numbers of people in the room at a time. It wasn’t like the old days where we could have 90 musicians together. We would have the strings one day and the woodwinds the next. But through very hard work and effort, we got it done and I’m pleased with how it all sounds.
So, how big was the orchestra in the end?
When we put it together, we had 90 musicians — we had the 40 strings and 12 woodwinds. We had a lot of percussion and we also had a big choir.
What did you want to do differently with the sound to not make it like a typical holiday movie?
He wanted elements of Christmas, but he wanted this soulfulness to it. At the beginning of the movie, we are magical, and then we go into the town. David gave me carte blanche. We used African percussion, we had a gospel choir and gospel soloists. We wanted it to be as inclusive and as interesting as possible. We wanted sounds, textures and instrumental colors that would make it a little different.