“Never underestimate the power of music.” –Ernesto de la Cruz, Pixar’s Coco
The soundtrack to Pixar’s hit film Coco is far more than the usual collection of catchy pop singles that fill most movies these days, animated or otherwise, but rather a lifeline, upon which the audience sways, their emotions tightly tethered. In Coco, the music is a character in its own right, a hero in six strings steeped in the varied influences of Mexican culture. The music not only drives the story of Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) along his journey through the Land of the Dead, but oftentimes, it is the story.
That may sound like a lot of creative pressure; however, the team of Composer Michael Giacchino (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Rogue One) and Songwriter/Arranger Germaine Franco (Dope, Kung Fu Panda 3) were up to it. And then some.
So it was that I (and a handful of other media) found myself in a small auditorium on the Pixar campus with Giacchino, Franco, Camilo Lara (Consultant) and Adrian Molina (Writer and Co-Director), learning about the vast research and study that the soundtrack required. Federico Ramos strumming the songs straight from a real-life replica of the film’s famed guitar was certainly a nice touch.
“We were so inspired by the design,” said Molina in reference to the guitar, “and so many people we worked with were so inspired, that we wanted to see if it was possible to actually make this thing in real life.” It was, and Ramos played it perfectly.
“To create the music of Coco,” said Molina, “we realized that there were three types of music that we needed to talk about. The first was source music, the second was score, and lastly, original songs.
“In Coco we wanted to use the music of the world to characterize somber moments or festive moments, and doing that in a way that really tapped into the sounds of Mexico.”
Lara, the DJ and producer behind the popular electronic music project Mexican Institute of Sound added, “I think the main goal was to create this universe and to make it as if it was music in the streets of Mexico. It was a big challenge because in a plaza in a town in Mexico, you keep hearing nonstop music, all kinds of music, so we went with a wide range of genres. We did some sessions in Mexico with really amazing, very talented musicians, and you can hear it. The idea was to make music, to have a sonic landscape that sounds like Mexico.”
The team spent time in Mexico meeting and recording a variety of local musicians — 70 minutes in just four days, said Franco. “We tried to have many different styles so the filmmakers could pick and choose. We basically created a library of music.”
The source music, meaning the traditional songs that people in Mexico grew up with, may be well known, but some forms, according to Franco, are unknown outside of Mexico. “It was formed in Mexico based on the history of colonialism. It’s a beautiful tradition, it’s oral, and you can sit and listen to them play for hours.”
“As far as the traditional songs, we wanted them [the musicians] to do it the way they like to do it. We gave them a lot of latitude. We didn’t want them to just read the notes, we wanted them to put their own spirit into it.”
Molina appreciates the variety. “It was really great as filmmakers to have this kind of palette, different moods of music, different styles of music, and different ensembles of music, so that when we came to a part in the storytelling where we wanted the source music to have a feeling and support the mood we had so many beautiful options to play with.”
The characters in Coco and the animators went to great lengths to ensure that the guitar technique of Miguel and company were believable.
“As a musician,” said Franco, “it’s really amazing how the Pixar animators take the care to get every single motion correct. I think it inspires people to see that, the artistry of their work as animators. It’s pretty amazing.”
They filmed musicians playing the songs from several different angles, so that the animators would, in Molina’s words, “be able to sell it.”
He continued, “As musicians, as people and as filmmakers, I think it was really important to us to be able to keep anyone who plays a musical instrument invested—and even anyone who doesn’t—I think they still feel it.”
While the source may set the stage, much of the heavy lifting, specifically in moving scenes and adding an emotional narrative, goes to the score.
Giacchino shared his composing process. “As far as the score goes, I generally like to watch the film first. I don’t want to read a script necessarily, because it puts different images in my head than what the directors will eventually have, so I wait, and when I watched this film it made me very emotional. I loved what the film was saying and what the film was about.
“Then I tried to put how I felt into music.”
And let’s not forget the original songs, especially the biggest of them all, “Remember Me,” which is hard to forget.
Said Franco, “‘Remember Me’ is an iconic song. It’s a song that has many messages. The theme that runs throughout is people remembering their loved ones when they have passed, their memories are kept alive. And this song is quite beautiful played in different settings.”
“What’s great about the idea of this song,” added Molina, “it’s fictional, it was written for our movie, but we wanted to create a world where it’s the type of song that you would hear everywhere.”
Thanks to the talent and hard work of those involved, they did. Something tells me that people will be hearing “Remember Me” everywhere for a very long time.