April 22, 2014

Oscars: Bret McKenzie talks “Muppets,” music and the magic of Jim Henson – AWARDS ALLEY


By Sean O’Connell
hollywoodnews.com: “The Muppets” soundtrack rarely leaves the CD player in our house. My boys, ages 7 and 3, adore the movie’s catchy tunes, from the opening number of “Life’s a Happy Song” to the sentimental “Man or Muppet.” My youngest repeats Fozzie’s line “I didn’t do it, I’ve been framed” ad nauseam, which is cute, until it drives you a little crazy.

For that, I must blame Bret McKenzie, one half of the famed “Flight of the Conchords” duo who served as Music Supervisor on James Bobin’s winning Muppet reboot. McKenzie penned a number of the movie’s signature songs, from “Me Party” –a self-righteous duet between Amy Adams and Miss Piggy – to the Chris Copper rap “Let’s Talk About Me.”

Now McKenzie’s catchy tunes are catching the eye of year-end award voters. The Broadcast Film Critics Association filled three of its five Best Song nominations with “Muppets” tracks. The Satellite Awards also recognized “Man or Muppet” and the cheery “Life’s a Happy Song.”

Will the Academy follow their lead? It’s one of the topics McKenzie and I discussed during a recent interview:

HollywoodNews.com: The original “Muppets” television program balanced a fine line between adult and adolescent humor. When writing the songs for “Muppets,” were you thinking of kids or their parents?

Bret McKenzie: Yeah, no, I totally agree. I watched a lot of the original films and TV shows, and I was really amazed at how funny they are, how they completely hold up. I think that was part of Jim Henson’s secret. He made children’s entertainment that was also funny for adults. He didn’t second guess or patronize children. And I think we took that approach to the film. We wanted to make a film that we’d like to watch, and I think kids like to watch it as well.

In that sense, the songs in the film will appeal to adults. All we had to do was make sure that the songs stayed clean. I was tempted to have some “motherfrogger” lines in there.

HollywoodNews.com: Well, you know, I’m glad you didn’t. The film is such a throwback to a time of wholesome family entertainment, and I don’t think that kind of walk-the-line humor of “Shrek” wouldn’t fit with “The Muppets.”

Oh yeah, I totally agree.

HollywoodNews.com: The songs are technically proficient and yet surprisingly simple. The yare effervescent. Did they come easily to you?

“Life’s a Happy Song” came to me very quickly. It’s a simple song. I’m not sure if your kids play music, but it’s all white notes. It’s just a C-major triad going up. The songs are nice and simple, and I kept them simple because I was hoping that kids would be able to play them. So they did come quickly, but then they took a long time to finesse, to fit the film. That took months and months to arrange them for the picture.

HollywoodNews.com: That’s interesting. I never thought that “Muppets” could be a gateway to kids learning more about music, but that’s absolutely possible.

Right. And the great thing about the Muppets is that so many of them are musicians. So many of the characters play instruments. I think Kermit might be the world’s most famous banjo player.

HollywoodNews.com: OK, I’m glad that you brought up “The Rainbow Connection.” Obviously, it’s a song that you had to include, but why do you think we have such a deep, emotional tie to that song?

I can remember reading somewhere “The Rainbow Connection” described as a great opening to Kermit’s mind. It introduces him in the first “Muppet” movie. What I loved about that is that it showed Kermit as this dreamer, and through a song, we get a feeling of a metaphorical introduction to this iconic character. Not many people do that now, taking a strange risk in using a song that doesn’t play up plot or story points. It’s a song that’s purely about character.

HollywoodNews.com: And did you feel compelled to write to the level of that song?

Well, that was the most intimidating part about this job, songs like “Rainbow Connection.” I had a close friend tell me, “You’re never going to write another ‘Rainbow Connection.’ [Laughs] And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ But we just tried to do our best.”

HollywoodNews.com: If your “Muppets” songs are nominated for the Oscars, they’ll have to be performed as part of the live telecast. Do you think we’ll see the Muppets sing from the stage of the Kodak Theatre?

That’s all quite new to me. I went to the Emmys once, with “Conchords.” But this is new. Someone sings the songs?

HollywoodNews.com: They’re traditionally performed at the ceremony. There’s usually a montage.

Oh right. Wow! I didn’t know about that. You know, I do recall Randy Newman singing on the Oscars.

HollywoodNews.com: Right, exactly. So you coiuld have Randy Newman singing “Me Party.”

Oh man, if I can get Randy Newman to sing “Man or Muppet” with me, that would be great! [Laughs] I don’t know what we would do, but that would be really fun to try and do something with the Muppets. We’ll see.

(Video courtesy of The New York Times)

Awards Alley brings you the best Oscar coverage. Click below to read our exclusive interviews with:
- Harvey Weinstein
- The cast of “The Artist.”
- Kenneth Branagh for “My Week With Marilyn.”
- Bennett Miller talks “Moneyball.”
- Sir Ben Kingsley and Chloe Grace Moretz for “Hugo.”
- Tilda Swinton for “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”
- David Fincher, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
- Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for “The Help.”
- Tate Taylor for “The Help.”
- Gavin O’Connor for “Warrior.”
- Gary Oldman and Colin Firth for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
- Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody for “Young Adult.”
- Steve McQueen for “Shame.”
- Glenn Close for “Albert Nobbs.”
- Seth Rogen and Will Reiser for “50/50.”

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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