The following article was written by our pal Matt Wilkie. Thanks for all your hard work, Matt!!
When the guys at Tough Pigs asked me to review “The Muppets” soundtrack, I said of course, but I had one caveat: I wanted to see the movie first. And having done that, I can now write down my thoughts on the music of the film we’ve all been waiting for.
But first, a word, if I may:
In my opinion, there is almost no way to write this soundtrack review without telling you about the movie. It’s a Muppet musical, folks, and musicals are gonna give away some plot points in their lyrics. The reason I didn’t want to listen to the soundtrack before seeing the film was that I wanted to experience the songs for the first time on the big screen, to have these songs forever linked to the images I saw on the big screen. And I’m extremely glad I did that.
So this is a soundtrack review, sure, but you’re going to be getting a little bit of a movie review in there, too. They just go hand-in-hand. Like peanut butter and jelly. Pet fish and plastic castles. Muppets and … music.
I also have a confession to make. I listened to a few tracks of this soundtrack beforehand. I tried so not to, to avoid at the very least the sweeping music that I would be humming for weeks after seeing “The Muppets.” And while I knew some of these songs already, I caved in a little when “Life’s A Happy Song” debuted online a few weeks ago. It was more of a litmus test than anything else; I wanted to hear what Bret McKenzie, the film’s music supervisor and one-half of the folk-comedy band Flight of the Conchords (As if you didn’t know that by now) came up with.
And my verdict on this track was a resounding “Yayyyyy!” McKenzie has tapped into something very Muppety with this opening song and has given us a tune that you will be whistling, or humming, or if you’re brave enough and don’t sound like a dying walrus when you do it like I do, singing for days to come. It’s fun, bouncy, and sets up the beginning of the film beautifully, complete with a dance number set in Smalltown, U.S.A. that’s sure to put a grin above your chin. We are introduced to Walter here, who is just the epitome of optimism and love. If you have any doubts about him, just wait until you see his first big number. The little guy breathes enthusiasm – without any lungs, no less!
This is also the first time you’ll see any cameos in the film, and what’s interesting is that you may not recognize them for two distinct reasons. The first guest singer is Feist, an indie singer whom I adore. I think her voice is incredible and she’s a very talented songwriter. But she’s more underground sensation than international superstar, so her appearance may seem to some as non-noteworthy, as if she was a dancer who got promoted to sing a line because her voice was sweet and melodious. Similarly, you may be tempted to think that the old guy in the hat had a funny voice and thus was granted permission to croon a line (especially since his son choreographed the phenomenal dancing), but in reality that’s Mickey Rooney sharing the spotlight for a moment. Obsessive fans like us recognize Rooney as a seasoned actor and have been reading his name for months as part of the cast, but there are likely plenty of people nowadays who sadly have no idea who Rooney is and why he’s important enough to have a cameo. Kids especially will most likely not recognize either one of these celebrity appearances, unless they remember from the brief few seconds she’s on screen that Leslie Feist once danced with 1-2-3-4 chickens across the floor on Sesame Street. So it’s a brave choice to have these two be the film’s first cameos, yet definitely gives it a little indie cred from the get-go.
Now, while it is the opening number, “Life’s A Happy Song” is the second song on the album. The very first track on the soundtrack is one you’re intimately familiar with: “The Muppet Show Theme.” In this updated version – which is, I believe, the first time we’ve heard it sung by Steve Whitmire – there is another guest singer for one line that is tied in directly to a piece of the film’s plot for a terrific joke that I wouldn’t dare give away. A great, crisp, beautiful new version of a classic Muppet song, this was very enjoyable to hear coming through my headphones, and a great way to start out.
This is also what’s so great about this soundtrack – a careful mix of old and new tunes. And the sound clips interspersed are fun, too. I always hate it when a soundtrack has a sound bite from the film in front of or behind a song, so that you have to leave the clip in when you play the songs separately, so I was very happy to see them as their own tracks. And aside from the mix of old and new songs, there’s also a helping of maudlin mix with mirthful in both the soundtrack and corresponding film.
Which brings us to “Pictures In My Head,” Kermit’s anthem in this film. It’s a sad, soul-stirring tune that encapsulates how he feels about the gang breaking up and his own doubts about whether or not they can rally together again to save the theater. This was one of the best scenes in the film, and I can also see how it’s one that caused some rifts within the Muppeteer ranks. Would Kermit even doubt this in the old days of the Muppets? No, he’d say that there’s nothing they can’t do if they work together, call them all up, everyone would agree immediately to come back (Well, maybe Sam would take a little more convincing), and they’d be at the theater in no time. But this is a movie. We’re supposed to suspend our disbelief that the Muppets have never split up and realize that what Jason Segel and Nick Stoller tried to do in writing this script was what Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl and Frank Oz and all the other writers who worked on previous movies did, which is to put the Muppets, who are actors, into situations they’re not really part of in real life. We all know they’ve never split up. It’s just a movie plot. And if you can sit back and enjoy that, you’ll look at Jeannie Lurie, Aris Archontis, & Chen Neeman’s ballad in a different way. Think about it – the frog is emoting! He’s taken on a dramatic role in this film, and he wears it well.
As a lifelong Paul Simon fan, I always love hearing “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard” if it’s used well. In the film, it’s the opening song, accompanying a montage of Walter and Gary growing up, and it fits very well there. But the soundtrack pairs this song with the dialogue clip of Kermit telling Walter that Muppets drive, thus insinuating that the picking-up-the-Muppets scene will be accompanied by Paul Simon’s classic, which is won’t be. It’s actually “Cars” by Gary Numan in the film, which is a fine song by itself. It’s just that a little consistency would’ve been nice.
On the other side of that coin, when Walter tells the gang that they should clean up the theater to music, this inspires them to play “We Built This City” by Starship. This happens in the film, and also on the soundtrack, in back-to-back tracks. Interesting tidbit for you: This song was voted “Most Awesomely Bad Song … Ever” by Blender magazine in 2004 as well as “Worst Song of the ‘80s” by Rolling Stone in 2011. But don’t tell the Muppets that – or do, they won’t care! They just have fun listening to it while they clean up the theater and get ready for their big return. And hopefully, you will, too. Is it the best-written song in the world? Hell no! But it’s catchy and fun and you should never be ashamed of enjoying a song for that reason alone. Keep in mind, this is coming from a guy who has one or two Kelly Clarkson songs hidden somewhere on his iPod that seem to pop up on shuffle every single time he invites a girl over. Oh well! At least I dance like no one is watching.
There are also two versions of “Rainbow Connection” on display here. One is a parody of itself that Fozzie and The Moopets perform at Fozzie’s new gig in Reno with some clever and funny moments, and a classic reprise that all The Muppets join in on at the telethon. It’s another case of re-recording, and how many times have we heard another version of this song? Even so, the elaborate sets and all of the classic characters we’ve missed coming out of the woodworks to sing along make the scene something magical to behold. The song itself sounds great yet again, but just wait until you see it on the big screen.
Miss Piggy and Amy Adams both have their chance in the limelight with “Me Party” where they talk about not needing their significant others around to enjoy themselves. It’s an empowering tune and I hope young girls especially enjoy it and recognize that boys are yucky anyway and they don’t need them; they can be happy by themselves! Something that’s missing from this part of the film, however, bubbles to the surface within “Me Party.” In a few different scenes, Miss Piggy and Kermit talk about how unfinished their business was when last they parted. I wish the film had expanded on that more – not just with Piggy and Kermie, but with all of the Muppets. Why did the old gang even need to get back together? What was the incident that broke them up? As well-put-together the film is, there are a few holes here and there like this one, and I’m crossing my fingers extra-hard for an extended cut of the film at some point on DVD.
If the extended cut ever does come to fruition, one scene that will definitely have to be in it is one that involves “evil” Tex Richman’s motivation behind hating the Muppets, besides them just being in the way of the oil beneath the theater. In the film, Kermit humbly asks Tex to give them back the deed, and Tex then begins rapping about why he won’t do that. This rap is one verse and one chorus long in this scene. However, on the soundtrack “Let’s Talk About Me” features additional verses, including one operatic verse sung by Nathan Pacheco, which explains Tex’s hatred of our favorite felted friends. You’ll have to listen to it to hear exactly what I mean, but it’s a little frustrating to say the least. The song itself is great, though: with a very Flight of the Conchords feel, Chris Cooper channels the rhyme-noceros to wax poetic about his anger. It’s extremely well-written, very clever, and will probably be a fun karaoke hit amongst more adventurous Muppet fans.
Speaking of Flight of the Conchords, the next song, “Man Or Muppet?”, is a wonderfully triumphant song of self-discovery as Gary and Walter both try to figure out where they fit in life – as men or Muppets. They each have their own reasons for deciding to choose the life they choose in the film, and this song frames perfectly their journeys to their discoveries. And the “man” version of Walter is hilarious to see on screen (No, not Michael Cera – if only!), while the Muppet version of Jason Segel is also quite a sight to behold. Who knew Segel and Peter Linz had such terrific voices? They compliment each other well and the song is a delight.
Then we come to the songs performed at The Muppet Telethon, the raucous third act of the film. The songs, as performed during the film, are cut and interspersed with movie plot action, which of course works well within the context of the film. But a very special treat on the soundtrack is that “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Forget You,” “The Whistling Caruso,” and the afore-mentioned reprise of “Rainbow Connection” all get their proper dues as they’re played out in their entirety. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of the best tracks on the album, as it’s not a straight-up version of the song and benefits so much from the Muppetizing, even though it seems strange that Sam the Eagle is singing a grunge rock standard. Maybe in that extended cut we’ll find that someone convinced him it was written by his favorite opera singer, Rudolf Nureyev, and not Kurt Cobain and company.
And I know I’ve said it before, but “Forget You” may be the official title on the soundtrack listing, but I’m still calling it “Byuck You” in my head.
“The Whistling Caruso” is interesting to note. Andrew Bird, a great musician who we’ve heard previously on Muppets: The Green Album singing “Bein’ Green,” is a world-class whistler who has showcased his talent many times over on his own albums, so it’s nice to hear him subbing in for Walter as he performs the final act the Muppets need to end their telethon. It’s beautiful and fluttery, accompanied by a string section and light drums, which highlight Bird’s talent without overshadowing it. As a fan of this style of grandiose whistling, I love this track.
Finally, as Uncle Deadly tells us (That’s right, Uncle Deadly is such an important character that he gets his own dialogue clip. Deadly 2012, folks!), it’s time for a finale. Another version of “Life’s A Happy Song” performed by the entire cast – humans, frogs, dogs, bears, chickens, whatevers – they’re all there lifting your spirits in the way only a rousing movie musical number can. It is the perfect way to end this film. It’s stunning! It’s stupendous! It’s … not the last song.
Just like in the film, the soundtrack ends with a little “Mahna Mahna” action. And while it’s a nice way to end the film, featuring a sing-along with celebrities and cast members, it would’ve been nice to leave out a track we probably already have in our iTunes libraries or reposition it so that the “Life’s A Happy Song” reprise could be the punctuation mark at the end of this album. It could’ve been a great exclamation point instead of the “Mahna Mahna” period. (Still love you, Snowths! Just wanted that variety.)
So, how does the music rank as a whole? I think you’ll find that the soundtrack is an essential buy to get the full scope of the film’s music. There are things on here that you won’t find in the movie, as well as songs that you’ll want to hear again and again long after the final credits roll. McKenzie and company have done a great job with the new song as well as the returning classics, and it’s just an all-around satisfying listen. Getting this album will certainly fill your life with some happy songs, and I hope everyone reading this will have someone by their side to sing along to them!
As a bonus, check out this official preview of the soundtrack to “The Muppets”:
Click here to whistle along with the ToughPigs forum!
by Matt Wilkie