It took composer Dan Romer a while to find the right Italian touch for the music of “Luca,” Disney-Pixar’s animated fantasy (opening June 18) about young sea monsters masquerading as humans on the Italian Riviera.
“Not quite Italian enough” was director Enrico Casarosa’s response to his first try. “Too Italian!” was the response to his second. Eventually Romer discovered the correct instrumental seasoning: a bit of accordion, a little mandolin, a lot of acoustic guitar and pizzicato strings — just enough to hint at the locale and the period (late ’50s, early ’60s).
“I was looking for something off the beaten path, a little bit independent,” Casarosa tells Variety about his choice for composer. The director had been a fan of Romer’s music for the Benh Zeitlin films “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Wendy,” and says “there was something about his scores that said ‘kids on an adventure ride,’” which nicely describes “Luca.”
Romer has no Italian lineage, but, he says, “I grew up in Brooklyn, so Italian Americans have been a huge part of my life.”
The composer took inspiration from a playlist Casarosa gave him that consisted of classic Italian film music as well as folk and pop music from the era. “There’s no doubt those songs influenced my writing,” he says. “When I score a film that invokes the music of another culture, I like to dig in very deep and live and breathe that music so that it becomes second nature.”
Italian colors were only a part of Romer’s assignment. The story follows Luca and Alberto — who discover that they appear human when out of the water — and their summertime adventures in a seaside town, where they befriend a girl, Giulia; are plagued by an obnoxious older teen; and must avoid not only water but also Luca’s parents, who have come onshore looking for their missing son.
“Each kid has their own theme,” notes Romer. Luca’s conveyed “a sense of longing and wonder,” Alberto’s had “a rousing ‘let’s go!’ kind of feeling, and Giulia’s was “the most Italian, with a more homespun regional feel.” Because the youngsters dominate the story, he made sure that all three themes were harmonically compatible and could work in counterpoint during scenes that involved two or three at once.
Luca’s meddlesome parents are voiced by a bass clarinet and tuba. “We thought it would be fun to have two low instruments that kind of bumbled back and forth,” Romer explains. “I ended up writing this rhythmic, melodic figure that was a call and response between the two instruments.”
The town of Portorosso, where most of the action takes place, is “where we wanted to lean into the romantic Italian-score side,” reports director Casarosa.
Romer first saw a “rough animatic” of the film, “all drawings, no animation,” in late 2019, prior to the pandemic, and he began composing in July 2020. Recording took place in mid-March under strict COVID guidelines: Strings, brass, woodwind and percussion sections — a total of 82 musicians — were all recorded separately and mixed together later.
“I wanted a slightly smaller sound than a lot of other big movies,” he points out. “A lot of string sections for those classical Italian scores were fairly small.” And he wanted to replicate the sound of such legendary Italian composers as Nino Rota (“La Dolce Vita”), Nicola Piovani (“Life Is Beautiful”) and Luis Bacalov (“Il Postino”).
There’s also a smattering of Puccini, Rossini and several popular Italian tunes of the period scattered throughout. Casarosa decided to conclude the film with “Città vuota” by the hugely popular Italian singer Mina. The song is a cover of Gene McDaniels’ 1963 “It’s a Lonely Town (Lonely Without You).” Mina’s recording, released the same year, appealed to the director as “a wonderfully melancholic song that felt right” for the moments after the characters’ goodbyes.
Romer managed to score “Luca,” his biggest feature to date, while maintaining weekly scoring chores on several TV series including “Superman and Lois,” “The Good Doctor” and “Atypical.”
The composer, an old-school rock ’n’ roller, had never owned a nylon-stringed classical guitar but bought one for “Luca.” He plays many of the guitar and accordion parts in the score. “I’ve been playing accordion for 20 years now, which is a shock to me because I’m still pretty bad at it,” he says with a laugh. “But it was such a pleasure to sit in front of a pair of microphones and just play accordion every single day while working on the film.”