By Craig D. Lindsey
Press Play Contributor
There are several artists/sought-after producers I wish would take a chance one of these days and score a movie: Danger Mouse, Mark Ronson,
Bernard Butler, the team of James Poyser and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. These guys not only have distinctive sounds that I would love to see serve as the musical backbone of a film, but with all the eclectic artists they’ve worked with in the past, I would love to see who they would round up to work with on the soundtrack.
Pharrell Williams is another producer I most wanted to see with a music/composer credit opening a movie. (Wait a minute – do movies even have opening credits anymore?) Last year, Williams did indeed take that plunge and supplied music for – of all films – Despicable Me, the computer-animated kiddie flick where Steve Carell strapped on an Eastern European accent and voiced spear-tip-nosed wannabe supervillain Gru.
Having Williams (or Pharrell, as he’s usually referred to), who’s mostly known for producing basically every pop, rap and R&B hit from the past decade (at least it certainly seems that way), is indeed an unorthodox choice for a kids’ movie. I mean, this is a man who has produced some hardcore down-and-dirty hip-hop starring pimps, hoes, drug kingpins and other assorted ghetto dwellers. Not to mention he’s had his hand in some sexually-suggestive baby-making music. You’d think with a resume like that, Universal wouldn’t have let him anywhere near this project. (Think of the children!) Somehow, someway,Williams got involved and ended up proving he’s versatile enough to compose music that can appeal to both thugs and their children. Apparently, he’s been itching to branch out into movie composing. In 2005, Williams said he was going to produce and score the live-action big-screen version of the ’80s anime show Voltron. Although Relativity Media announced at this year’s Comic-Con that they’ve optioned the film rights, Williams cut off his ties to that project years ago. I guess he just needed to score something. Like most animated feature scores helmed by major artists, the music in Despicable Me is featured quite prominently. In the film, both Gru and Williams show up virtually at the same time. When we first get a whiff of Gru’s awfulness, as he pulls out a freeze gun and zaps everyone in line at a coffee shop so he can get in front, Williams steps into the protagonist’s shoes on the soundtrack and starts rapping about his bad behavior:
“I’m having a bad, bad day/It’s about time that I get my way/Steamrolling whatever I see/Huh, despicable me.”
Here it is. Listen for yourself below.
You’d think a guy like Williams, who has created platinum-selling hits for Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Jay-Z and other A-list pop stars, would pull out the big guns when it came to his first soundtrack effort, calling in favors from the people who, thanks to his compositions, he’s helped make famous, and turn out a star-studded compilation album under his supervision.
Instead, Williams chooses to keep it low-key and perform most of the music himself. You could say that the soundtrack is Williams once again showing that he can be a viable recording artist, a man who is talented both behind the control board and in front of the microphone. It seems like this is a chip that’s been resting heavily on his shoulder ever since his 2006 solo album In My Mind – a much-delayed, critically maligned (unfairly, I think) flop.
But while In My Mind had Williams the artist looking for some of that mainstream recognition, the Despicable Me soundtrack has him looking to appeal to the all-ages crowd. His next song, the bouncy, acoustic-guitar-crazy Fun, Fun, Fun plays completely to the prepubescent cheap seats. It’s played briefly during a sequence where Gru takes the trio of orphaned kid sisters he’s adopted (part of his plan to steal a shrink ray gun from a rival evil genius so he can rocket into space and steal the moon – you know, that old story!) to an amusement park so he can abandon them. The song kicks in when he begrudgingly gets on a roller coaster with the girls, the youngsters screaming out of sheer joy while Gru screams out of pure fear. During the ride though, we get Williams lyrically pandering in a falsetto voice:
“No more teachers and principals/A good behavior is sensible/Let’s do everything till the summer’s done/It’s the greatest time for a soda, yum!”
It almost seems fitting that, as both the song and the roller coaster ride end, Gru is on the verge of vomiting as he steps off. Nevertheless, the song is also used to pinpoint the beginning of Gru’s slow-but-sure evolution from dastardly bastard to misunderstood sweetheart, as he stops worrying about being a criminal mastermind and starts enjoying himself. The song rolls back in after he finds himself coming to the girls’ aid when a con-man carny (voiced by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer) deprives the youngest girl of a big, plush unicorn doll following a rigged game. This incites Gru to pull out a fireball-creating gun (what’s up with the guns in this movie?), blasting the game and the whole stand to shreds, getting both the unicorn and the girls’ admiration. Listen to Pharrell’s Fun, Fun, Fun below.
The next song we get is Prettiest Girls, a sprightly, upbeat number that’s played over a montage of Gru and his minions (comprised of small, yellow, nubby-looking, purposely adorable creatures who can have either one or two eyes) building his rocket and of the girls practicing for a ballet recital. As Williams sings of beautiful girls winning over his cynical heart, the same thing starts happening to Gru in the montage. Soon he’s making them pancakes – pancakes that are shaped like skulls and corpses, however. When Gru checks off dates on his calendar, noticing on a ticket that the recital is on the same day as his moon-jacking, Williams, in a perfectly timed moment of pondering, realizes on the soundtrack, “Oh God, I think I’ve changed.” Listen to Prettiest Girls below.
The final Williams number isn’t even performed by Williams, but by blue-eyed soul singer Robin Thicke, the star of Williams’ Star Trak label, which released the soundtrack. Titled My Life, it had me wondering if it was an old, unreleased song Thicke and Williams had lying around. In the tune, Thicke riffs on a time he invited a pretty girl from D.C. to a party and wondered if she was going to stand a dude up. She doesn’t, prompting Thicke to rave about how much he loves his life. (I don’t think kids will pay attention to the song’s subject matter, since it’s played during the end credits as those cute little minions engage in shenanigans.) As corny as that sounds, My Life is the best track on the soundtrack, thanks to Williams serving up a this-joint-is-jumping rhythm by throwing in high-energy horns, a thumping piano and jubilant hand claps. It also provides a nice button to the film, as Gru (not to give anything away!) learns he can have the moon without stealing it – and still be happy about it. Listen to Robin Thicke’s My Life below.
Williams doesn’t just provide songs for the soundtrack. He collaborated on the score – not with Chad Hugo, his on-again, off-again partner in the super-producing duo known as the Neptunes, but with film composer Heitor Pereira, whose credits include Beverly Hills Chihuahua, From Prada to Nada and that recent, big-screen monstrosity known as The Smurfs. Dubious credits aside, he does manage to take Williams’ slick, synthesized sound and lay it out for the theatrical crowd. It appears that Williams and Pereira owe a lot to the late, great John Barry, creating a score that sounds like a remixed version of one of his wildly orchestral James Bond film scores. Despicable Me’s score was also produced by the omnipresent Hans Zimmer, who additionally picks up some slack by throwing his more conservative, staccato-heavy orchestral cues into the mix. (You can hear those cues here.) One of many cues composed by Heitor Pereira appears below.
The Despicable Me soundtrack may not have raised Pharrell Williams’ profile as a legitimate mainstream recording artist, but it did show that the man can be called in to add some unexpected hipness to another all-star, computer-animated, kids’ movie.
Craig D. Lindsey used to have a job as the film critic and pop-culture columnist for the Raleigh News & Observer. Now, he’s back out there hustling, writing about whatever for Nashville Scene, the Greensboro News & Record, Philadelphia Weekly, the Independent Weekly and other publications. He has a Tumblr blog. You can also hit him up on Twitter.