With an acclaimed television series, blockbuster film and Academy Award to his credit, Bret McKenzie faces a lot of pressure to top himself – which may be why in his opening song for Disney’s Muppets Most Wanted, he openly acknowledges that sequels are never quite as good.
But McKenzie accomplishes the considerable task of at least maintaining the same quality with his music for director James Bobin’s highly anticipated follow-up, which finds Kermit & Co. shuffling through a series of European destinations – and musical genres – as they’re unwittingly embroiled in a series of robberies.
McKenzie, who introduced his songwriting talents to audiences in Flight of the Conchords before scoring an Oscar for “Man or a Muppet” from 2011’s The Muppets, spoke with Spinoff Online at the recent Los Angeles press day for Muppets Most Wanted. In addition to talking about the pressure he faced in following up the first film’s mammoth success, he explored the challenges of meta-songwriting, be it self-aware or even openly bad, creating tunes that stand on their own, and finding his own voice while trying to evoke (or even imitate) styles and songs by other artists.
Spinoff Online: When the first song in the movie says, “Sequels can never be as good as the film that came before them,” does that take the pressure off or does it put more on?
Bret McKenzie: I think it does both at the same time. But it definitely takes the pressure off because at least the audience knows that we’re aware that this is a sequel and it’s probably not going to be as good, which is what the audience is already thinking when they go into the theater. So at least it kind of acknowledges the problem or the challenge. But despite that we still have the challenge of trying to make it better or as good as the last one. And there’s something weird about sequels that that whole song’s about, that is the audience cannot help if they saw the last one but compare it. The first thing people are going to say when they come out was, oh, I liked it more, or I liked the first one more. That’s just going to happen. That’s unavoidable. But I love that the Muppets can do that. That we could talk about what we’re doing. And it reminds me a little bit of the Team America/South Park song, the montage song, which I love that song, just the self-awareness and the being aware of being in a movie.
How far can you go in deconstructing storytelling tropes in general without potentially undermining something that is meaningful to an audience?
I’ve seen that problem. I think that’s a problem that our generation of filmmakers has because we are quite an ironic creative generation and very self-aware of all stories. And just the world is so media savvy and story savvy that you only need a few seconds and people get the idea. And I think storytelling wise it’s a very tricky line because if you do an ironic plot move it can collapse the whole film. This is quite boring. An ironic plot tends to floor a movie I think. But I think the way to do it, and the Muppets – I love the way Muppets can do this, it’s more theatrical in a way. It’s like they can turn to the audience like the way a cabaret show might. They can turn into the crowd and say has everybody got a drink and then go back into the scene. They can drop out of character and drop again, break that fourth wall. And that I think is OK. That works. And you can see in the movie I think that works really well.
What are the challenges of creating performance and even writing components of songs that sort of have to be bad? The idea is their show is not great in this because it’s so unrefined, but you can’t actually write a bad song, because audiences will be like, “That’s a terrible song,” as opposed to, “I’m watching these people perform poorly and it’s really entertaining.”
Yeah. That’s always a tricky one and it’s a funny thing when you do sessions with musicians. You’re like, “Can you play this song as though you don’t know how to play it?” And they really struggle to do that. They just naturally fall into a groove. Yeah, that’s a tricky thing to do because you’re exactly right, if you have a bad show on screen then you risk that thing of it just being a bad part of the film. And you have the same problem in films where this person has a boring life, well we don’t want to watch that. Let’s get to the bit where it’s an interesting life. So I guess the fun thing of that is, and James [Bobin] does a great job of that, is keeping short glimpses of so you don’t see that much of them singing “The Macarena,” you get a glimpse of that. Yeah, you don’t want too much of that stuff.
What’s the secret for you in writing a song that not only works in the movie but stands on its own? I was thinking about the Oscars this year, and even though I loved Frozen, comparing “Let It Go” to “Happy,” “Happy” is a song that can exist very easily outside of Despicable Me, whereas “Let It Go” I don’t think I would ever hear on the radio because it is so —
Specific to the story.
Yeah. How careful do you have to be, and how do you pull it off?
I think that’s one of the challenges is trying to create a song that addresses character and story needs but access as a song itself. And that’s a very tricky thing to do. And in a film the story is the most important thing. So if you can manage to make it feel like a complete song as well, it’s a bonus. But it will get cut if it’s not. I’ve developed a technique of making quite sort of bulletproof songs so that they can’t be edited. Because I’ve done it for long enough now I can tell what might get cut so I cut it already. I just make them as strong as I possibly can to get through the testing process of filming and recording and to try and make the song survive throughout the process, because they can get ruined in the edit. But it’s a funny one – I know what you mean because “Happy” is a brilliant song. [But] if “Happy” could have told a story at the same time, legendary – if “Happy” the verses move the story forward, then that is the dream song. And you get to things like — you go back to “The Bare Necessities,” from Jungle Book. They managed to do that. They’ve got a chorus that just connects with the character, but the verses move things forward. It’s a skill that not many people have now, because it’s not used very often.
Not to be to self-congratulatory, but which of the songs in this do you feel like were maybe most successful in that regard?
I think the opening song is really successful in the film. I like how it turned out. I never know how they’re going to turn out because they go off to film with the Muppets and they come back and I see what they’ve done. It’s like, well, what did you film? I just like the way that kicks the movie off – it has a great energy and video. I like the way that gets the film going. I think the ballad with Miss Piggy and Celine Dion was a highlight for me, partly because it was a real thrill to get Celine Dion on a song I’d written. But that also has a nice mixture of comedy and emotion. And within that song this ridiculous moment Celine and Piggy having a diva off. And there’s this sort of quite strangely heartwarming moment seeing Piggy and Kermit age and having these green and pink babies. Yeah, I really like that one. That was one of those moments when I wrote a lyric describing the pink, a little pink frog and a little green piggy, and then when the footage came back I was pleasantly surprised how the idea translated into a video.
At this point, how much do you feel like, because you have to adapt to so many different styles, this really is sort of your own sort of creative process, your own songwriting as opposed to maybe sort of aping a different style that would be necessary for a component of the plot or to resemble a certain kind of song you might need to have in the film? The Constantine song, for example, almost feels like a Jamiroquai song or something like that.
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you mean. “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu).” That’s great. I think this is true of all songwriters, is you’re trying to ape something or you’re trying to copy something and it ends up being different just because. Like, I heard Michael Jackson was trying to do a rock song when he wrote “Beat It,” and it’s like, that’s a rock song? That’s his version of a rock song. It’s like you take the idea and then you put yourself in it and it’s always going to end up some way different.
Muppets Most Wanted is in theaters now.