If you’ve seen the teasers and trailers for Pixar’s “Coco,” you could probably tell that apart from the having part of the film centered around the concept of death, a whole lot more is focused on music. Specifically, Hispanic music.
That focus on music extended all the way to the early press day that we attended late last month, where our first presentation of the day was all about the film’s musical elements.
“This is probably the most music-oriented film we’ve ever done,” said co-director Adrian Molina during that presentation. He was just short of saying that this would be Pixar’s first “musical” film, but the rest of the presentation did more than enough to express his statement.
To be clear, the music in “Coco” aren’t show tunes, but music that has been carefully crafted to help tell the story about this particular Hispanic culture. The “singer” in this narrative is the film’s main character named Miguel. “Music is his language,” said Molina.
That language comes in three different types of music that make up the music of “Coco”: Source music, score music, and original songs. For all the music, Molina and team consulted with musicians from all over Mexico to ensure that, just like the rest of the film, everything was culturally authentic to the story.
“Music lives on the streets in Mexico,” said Germaine Franco, the orchestrator on the film. “There are varied ensembles that play like trios to full bands.”
A lot of the source music consisted of these street musicians that were brought into local studios in Mexico to record some of their familiar tunes that included a variety of Mexican folk music that’s instantly recognizable when you hear it. “I think we re-created a sonic landscape that smelt like Mexico,” said Camilo Lara, a Mexican DJ and music consultant on the film.
There were specific music cues and arrangements that became a challenge during recordings since many of the musicians didn’t know how to read music. That ultimately was overcome because of the musician’s ability to play things by ear. According to Franco, their ability to play without notes added a level of “artistry” that can only be had with improv playing.
Additionally, all these native musicians were videotaped as they played so that animators could recreate their specific movements in the film. Said Franco, “Pixar’s animators are great because they take the extreme care to get small details like how the fingers pluck a guitar string.”
Music notes were created and followed, however, with the film’s original music. The film’s theme song titled “Remember Me,” was written by “Frozen” songwriters Robert and Kristen-Anderson Lopez and infused a lot of the traditional folk sound with elements of sadness and happiness that mark the Dia de Muertos celebration. The song is sung by the other main protagonist in the film named Ernesto de la Cruz (voice by Hispanic actor Benjamin Bratt), a famed musician who died tragically, but anchors the film which is all about family, remembrance, and legacy.
These elements also really influenced the other type of music that’s part of the film – the score. It’s basically all the other original music that fills in the gaps where no source music or original music was played, but needed to still aid in the storytelling.
“I jumped in on this film early because I had this deep personal connection to the story,” said composer Michael Giacchino. The notable composer for “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles” said that he grew up listening to Mexican folk music growing up and was enamored by it. He also said that he felt like Miguel in the story because everything he was going through was everything he felt as a kid.
Beyond his personal connections, Giacchino wanted to keep the cultural and story authenticity of the film by making sure that his score revolved around the guitar. Since Ernesto de la Cruz’s guitar is a central element in the film, the score music that Giacchino wrote was “road-tested by playing it on a guitar.”
He said he also wrote the score music with the intention of it being played by the different ensembles the other types of music being used. “The characters’ theme [music] were all designed to be played by different bands on all sorts of scales and scopes,” he continued. “It’s amazing how a quartet and a full orchestra can make you feel different things.”
It’s only appropriate that music has that role of once again making people feel as they see the animation play out on screen. With the footage that was shared from “Coco” to the press at the event, audiences should come face-to-face by going ear-to-ear of how all the Hispanic music comes together to become another storyteller in the film itself.
“Coco” isn’t purely about the tunes, but its heart is clearly in the music.