We Will Woke You: ‘Trolls World Tour’ Navigates Tricky Musical Terrain

An animated movie about cultural appropriation? Hollywood is increasingly hip to the idea.

Trolls World Tour

For the animated musical “Trolls World Tour,” DreamWorks producer Gina Shay racked up her share of frequent flyer miles over four years — traveling to New York City for reggaeton superstar J Balvin, South Korea for K-Pop girl group Red Velvet and Stockholm for star and music curator Justin Timberlake. “It felt like I was going around the world collecting people’s voices,” she says.

Singing voices, that is. Nearly 40 tunes are woven into the fabric of the film, which tells the tale of hard rock royals trying to overtake competing genres including pop, country, funk, classical and techno. “Different tribes of trolls celebrating different genres of music,” says Universal’s head of film music Mike Knobloch.

Adds Shay: “We wanted people to come together and telling that story through musical genres seemed like a clever way of doing it without feeling preachy.”

That’s no small feat when it comes to using popular songs. First, they tried inserting potential covers — classics that advanced the narrative “without changing the lyrics too much” — such as Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which was reimagined as “Trolls Just Wanna Have Fun.” That collection of covers grew to include “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls, “Barracuda” by Heart and a remix of George Clinton’s classic “Atomic Dog.” “A movie like this is just as much of an accomplishment for the licensing team as it is for all the creatives involved,” Knobloch says.

The original songs in “World Tour,” which stars the voices of cast members Clinton, Ozzy Osbourne and Kelly Clarkson, proved to be even more of a labor-intensive process. That’s when the soundtrack’s co-executive producers Timberlake and Ludwig Göransson came in (SZA and Timberlake’s “The Other Side” is the lead single).

“If we got one thing right, it was hiring Ludwig to do the songs and Teddy [Shapiro] to do the score,” says Knobloch, who also helped to get hitmakers Max Martin, Sarah Aarons and James Fauntleroy on board to create scene-specific tracks that were input as demos. “Some were more challenging than others,” adds DreamWorks’ Shay.

The problem wasn’t trying to top “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” Timberlake’s smash from the original film that received both Grammy and Oscar nominations.

“The biggest challenge [was] finding the right lyrical content for the song ‘It’s All Love’.”

Subtitled “History of Funk,” it explores the genre through the lens of the Trolls. “Pop stole the beats,” says Shay matter-of-factly. “They used everybody else’s music and called it their own and did not give anybody the credit, so it’s a deep, meaningful part of the movie. We also wanted it to have an uplifting chorus — but when you’re telling the story of a revisionist history and cultural appropriation, it’s hard
to be uplifting.”

“A challenge is having it come across in the right way,” adds Knobloch. “This is not a little kiddie movie — it’s got substance and intelligence and some much weightier themes that people are not going to expect.”

Clinton’s participation, along with his blessing, was key “from the very seed of the idea,” says Shay, recalling the legend’s first visit to the DreamWorks campus rocking a sequined robe. “He embodies funk. He wanted to be involved and to help us when we pitched him the concept. He cared so much about making this right. And it was very important to us to tell the story in a way that would honor the genre.”

“Funk in an animated movie?” Clinton marvels to Variety, “I’ve been “wanting to do that for so long.”

The iconic artist has been on tour for the past three years as the third generation of P-Funk. “All of my family is in the band — my kids and my grandkids — and each one has a different genre they want to play: For my grandson it’s hard rock; my granddaughter’s thing is R&B; and one of my daughters is into rap,” he says.

“Trolls World Tour” is “perfect for right now,” adds Clinton (pictured below), citing a message in the film that spoke to him — “We are different but to create harmony we all have to be together as one.”

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Courtesy of Mark Nguyen/Dreamworks Animation LLC

“That was the whole movie to me,” says the veteran performer. “We are different in our ethnicity and culture and lifestyles but if you put it all together, that’s what makes harmony. One or two people by themselves won’t be that pretty harmony you can get with the whole world blossoming together.”

The King of Funk wasn’t the only adviser on board; Shay also reached out to academics. “We consulted with Dr. Darnell Hunt at UCLA to help us with the cultural appropriation and the revisionist history [themes],” she says.

Not coincidentally, Hunt is the author of the annual Bunche Center’s Hollywood Diversity Report, which explores the connection between diversity and profit in the entertainment industry: “Evidence continues to mount that diversity on the big screen sells,” wrote Hunt in the seventh and latest report.

Adding to the inclusive cast is Balvin, who voices a reggaeton troll. “He’s basically me,” says the singer. “And it’s reality. Reggaeton has become so popular all over the world. Even though it’s in Spanish, people connect to it.” The movie’s message mirrors the theme of Balvin’s new album, “Colores”: “It’s about expression and has that feeling of different styles and different sounds and different vibes.”

“Just Sing,” the ambitious final song — positioned as “Can’t Fight the Feeling!” was in the original — attempts to unite all the disparate genres. “You could write a big pop song but then we’d end up with a — like [they] say — white savior,” Shay says. “We did not want pop to save the day — that was really important to the story.”

Describing its penultimate tune as “kind of like a folk sing-along,” it took Timberlake and Göransson “months to find the right production on the track,” she adds, “but it’s such a positive song for these unprecedented times. I wanted people to leave the theater feeling like there’s hope for us all to come together. And if we’re not seeing eye to eye, then at least we can open our ears.”