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The Muppet franchise has hit the jackpot with composers over the years, with songwriters like Joe Raposo, Jeff Moss, Tony Geiss and Paul Williams (to name a few) earning multiple Grammys and Emmys while writing for our favorite fleece friends. When a new team of Muppet enthusiasts set out to bring the Muppet Show gang back to the big screen in 2011’s The Muppets, it was no surprise that they branched out musically as well. Flight of The Conchords’s (FOTC) Bret McKenzie had us all singing a happy song or two, and while my assessment of that soundtrack was not without criticism, I commended McKenzie for experimenting with different song styles, composing several very memorable melodies and snagging the first Muppet songwriting Oscar.
I figured instead of keeping all my musical musings to myself this time around, it would be fun to share them with the Tough Pigs community. As a songwriter with both theatrical and pop sensibilities who has written specifically for puppet performers, I am especially excited to be reviewing the soundtrack of Muppets Most Wanted.
In addition to the film’s original songs, several other types of tracks were included on the album. Instead of discussing them in the order in which they appear on the disc (people still buy CDs, right?), I will divide them into categories, saving the best stuff for last.
The producers of this soundtrack chose to include short, spoken tracks on the album, presumably to set up the context for the songs. While I would not include them in my own personal playlist, they are definitely helpful for recreating the story with children, who especially respond well to narratives and will enjoy remembering the major plot points of the film. Thankfully they chose to make the spoken bits separate tracks, so it’s easy enough to uncheck them on iTunes or skip them if they don’t float your boat.
I’m not sure if this is unique to songwriters, but I always love listening to demos. I feel like they give me a secret glimpse into the creative process of creating an album. Sometimes, through a demo, you can discover that a particular vocal riff or lyric came about somewhere amidst the recording process. Who determined, for example, that “mortgage loan” should be used over “banking loan” in “I’ll Get You What You Want?” Was it a New Zealand vs. American lingo thing? I guess it doesn’t really matter, because either way, Constantine will give it to you.
Los Del Rio’s 1995 one-hit-wonder “The Macarena”? Really!? If this is what the Muppets go for when left to their own devices, Kermit is even more essential than we’d realized. I don’t really have any strong opinions about “Moves Like Jagger.” I get that the contemporary songs get a big laugh from the young’uns and we want them to drag their parents to the theater, so I’m not going to spend too much time analyzing it.
Hearing the theme song from The Muppet Show sung in Spanish was a fun surprise. But how is there a separate Spanish word for “Muppetational?” Does anyone here speak Español? What are they actually saying?? The gulag prisoners’ version of “Working in the Coal Mine” was a cute gag. I liked how the song was slowed down a bit (perhaps to get the full comic effect of the Russian accents). I really liked watching the prisoners in this scene and found Jemaine Clement to be especially entertaining.
I should note that “I Hope I Get It” from Chorus Line is missing from the album, despite getting some of the heartiest laughs. I can only presume that this was a licensing issue (after all, a modernized film version of the musical is rumored to be in production).
It’s a shame that the songwriters get most of the glory for movie musicals, because Christophe Beck wrote a GORGEOUS score for this movie. At more than one point in the film, I remarked out loud, “this music is sooooo good.” My favorite songwriters never “write down” for audiences with children, and I felt that Beck wrote no differently for Kermit hanging from a ‘copter than he would have for Tom Cruise. There were instrumental sequences that could have easily backed a Spielberg blockbuster, and although it would be tough for Beck to beat out his own score to last year’s Frozen, I think that his work in Muppets Most Wanted is award-worthy.
OK, so now onto the serious tofu of the soundtrack (vegetarian, here).
THE ORIGINAL SONGS:
This is what the Muppets were born to do. Hand them canes, slap on some top hats and add a swingin’ bass line, and you have all the ingredients for a sensational number. I’m not going to lie—it grinded my gears a bit that they kept the line where they said, “let’s give it a name” and then proceeded to sing the rest of the song as if the title of the movie was The Muppets Again, but I totally got over it because the song is just so darn catchy and it was thrilling to be in a theater seeing the Muppets on a big screen again. I especially enjoyed the way the melody ascended the scale in the lines that led up to “let’s do it all again.”
Do you guys remember that episode of Blossom where the dad, who was a professional songwriter, kept hitting his head on the keyboard because his songs were reminding him of already-produced tunes?! What’s this you say? I’m the only one who remembers that episode? I’m the only one who remembers Blossom? Well, the point is, this is an affliction that I too have been cursed with. I am always detecting other songs within songs. That’s not to say that I am constantly deeming music derivative, it’s just that I have one of those ears that renders me a walking Wikipedia of chord progressions and melody lines. All this means as far as Muppets Most Wanted is concerned is that, if you have been around me the last couple of weeks, you’ve heard me conflating “We’re Doing a Sequel” with the 1980s My Buddy jingle: “The Muppets again, it’s the Muppets again. Wherever I go, they go! The Muppets again, oh the Muppets again. The Muppets and me! (From Playskool)!”
Done in a similar vaudevillian style, “I’m Number One” is the fun number-two song of the movie. In the musical theatre (with an r-e) world, this would be referred to as an “I Am” song. Much like “The Jet Song” in West Side Story or “I Cain’t Say No” from Oklahoma, it serves to establish the characters’ personalities and motivations. I think Ricky Gervais’s delivery of the song is perfectly understated. He manages to clearly address the audience (referring to Constantine in the third person despite his being present) without hamming it up the way Jason Segel did in his big numbers in The Muppets. Not an easy feat when there is a frog tap dancing on your head.
This song is delightful. I loved how it didn’t just go for a 1960s sound, but more specifically for a 1980s throwback to the 1960s sound (think “Morning Train (9 to 5)“). Was anyone else surprised by the high pitch of Tina Fey’s singing voice? And was I the only one who kicked themselves for not placing that solitary confinement prisoner’s voice? It’s painfully obvious after the fact, but during the song I was so preoccupied with not missing a beat (literally), that I never concentrated too hard on identifying the singer. This number is a perfect example of visual and audio contrast, as those gruff prisoners provide backup to a guard who is essentially crooning a love song to the slammer. Now that’s comedy.
I have proclaimed many times in my life that I detest disco. This, however, was disco done right. After all, if you’re going to include a disco number in a musical, it should both playfully make fun of the genre as well as reference a kangaroo. Visually, this number reminded me a bit of that Old Spice commercial featuring Grover where everything is done in one cinematic take. McKenzie nails the music stylistically–so much so that I’m somewhat convinced that he plagiarized the melody completely and just added a lot of words that end in “oo.” I could also totally see Pepe singing a cover of this song to Lady Gaga.
This is hands-down my favorite musical number in the film. I might be a tad bit biased because it not only starred my favorite Muppet, but it also had an instrumental hook that reminded me of a tune by my favorite musical theater composer, Jason Robert Brown (“It Can’t Be True” from 13). With all that aside though, it is a fun song that furthers the plot and speeds up the interrogation process in a humorous way.
McKenzie cowrote the lyrics with Paul Roemen, who was an assistant to the producers of FOTC and received a writing credit for “Me Party” in The Muppets. My favorite sequence was “yes they did, and we can pin it/if they did how did they do it?/If they didn’t, how did they didn’t?” I enjoy that McKenzie is a vocabularian (a word I made up to explain to my students why I’m allowed to make up/change words and grammar), especially since he uses his powers judiciously and with great comedic timing. Every movie needs a dynamic relationship, and I think Jean’s and Sam’s might be my favorite. They even gave each other the huggies at the end of the movie!
I can’t decide if it detracts from the joke that Piggy had already referenced/sung Celine Dion earlier in the script, or if this is in fact the icing on the cake, but either way, I didn’t have too long to ponder it, because before I knew it I was won over by the schmaltziness of the number. I would have enjoyed some more harmonies between the two songstresses (especially since Eric Jacobson has proven himself to be quite the songbird), but we can’t have it all.
One of my favorite musical moments occurs in this song, though it has nothing to do with either diva. I have always been a sucker for the big numbers that usually come towards the end of Act I that feature all the principal characters in their own worlds (think “One More Day” from Les Miserables and “Christmas Bells” from Rent). I was just sorry they didn’t layer the vocals more, as I’m also a sucker for counterpoint (that moment when Jean Valjean and Javert start singing over each other in “Confrontation” gives me an eargasm). But structurally, this was in fact the film’s 11 o’clock number, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the track that gets nominated for an Oscar.
Calling this section of my review “Original Songs” was definitely setting myself up for controversy. I know that “Together Again” is anything but an original song. Some of you might insist that it was unnecessarily recycled material that made the finale cheesy and attempted to manipulate our impression of the film via nostalgia. Although I obviously can understand this perspective (I just typed it out, after all), it doesn’t change the fact that I reflexively gasped with joy when the first few chords came up on the speakers.
I think that the content of the lyrics can explain why I didn’t mind this musical choice, despite actively disliking the decision to include “The Rainbow Connection” in this film’s predecessor. In The Muppet Movie, “The Rainbow Connection” was an existential song that gave us a window into the soul of a humble frog on a log, tugging on our heartstrings as he tugged on banjo strings. When it was plunked into The Muppets, though, it was completely stripped of its intimacy and was merely a segment in a national telethon. It was devoid of all its original sentimentality (and in my humble opinion butchered both visually and musically).
In Muppets Most Wanted, however, it could be argued that the content of this cover has even more meaning today than it did in 1984. When “Together Again” was sung in The Muppets Take Manhattan, it was a number in the show’s fictional musical Manhattan Melodies. Of course it was also symbolic of the Muppets coming together for their third film, but in Muppets Most Wanted, I believe the song has even greater layers. Not only did Kermit finally reunite with his family, but for us Muppet lovers in the audience who had waited so long for the Muppets to find their way back onto the silver screen and into the hearts of a new generation of fans — well, gee — it really was good to be together again (again).
Click here to clearly address the audience without hamming it up on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Staci Rosen