Music was integral to “Coco” as Pixar’s love letter to Mexico and Día de los Muertos tribute. “Everything musically comes out of this world like a tapestry,” said Pixar go-to composer Michael Giacchino, who reached back to his own childhood memories of Mexican music in crafting the score.
“Coco” concerns 12-year-old Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez), an aspiring guitarist from a rural Mexican town called Santa Cecilia, whose family of shoemakers has banned music. After borrowing the guitar from the tomb of his great-great grandfather and musical icon, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel gets transported to the Land of the Dead during Día de los Muertos, where he tries to reclaim his family heritage and return home with the help of trickster skeleton Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal).
Strategically, the Oscar frontrunner was organized by an organic melding of Giacchino’s flavorful score, traditional source music (popular songs indigenous to the region), and original songs (including the signature ballad, “Remember Me,” by “Frozen” Oscar winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez). It’s a winner.
A Personal Score
Giacchino was affected personally by “Coco” and everything in his score was road-tested on the guitar. But rather than starting with his usual musical suite, he immediately honed in on Miguel and Hector. For Miguel, Giacchino came up with a joyous melody, in contrast to a waltz for Hector, whom he thought of as a traveling salesman.
“It took me back to my childhood in a couple of ways,” Giacchino said. “Listening to Mexican music that my dad had in his varied record collection, which was melodic, soulful, but told a story. And also because it was connected to family — your past, your heritage. That was a big thing in my family.
“We didn’t necessarily have an ofrenda [collection of objects], but my mother had pictures of every relative that ever existed up on this one wall,” added Giacchino (an Oscar winner for Pixar’s “Up”). “And I never thought about that at all until this movie. So it was a chance for me to explore — and almost correct — that moment in my life where I wish I had paid more attention.”
The buoyant Miguel leitmotif progressed into two family themes, Giacchino said, one devoted to remembrance and the other to a more expansive one about family in general: “You have to explore your own self to do it and that can be uncomfortable sometimes. It’s not fun feeling sad but it’s important.”
Instrumentally, Giacchino worked with songwriter-composer Germaine Franco, who co-wrote additional songs with “Coco” co-director Adrian Molina (including the upbeat “Un Poco Loco”). They used a guitarrón, folkloric harp, a quijada, sousaphone, charchetas, jaranas, requintos, marimba, trumpets, and violins. This enabled the score to play off a range of Mexican musical styles.
The Sounds of Mexico
Meanwhile, for the authentic source music, Molina, Franco, and musical producer-arranger Camilo Lara went to Mexico to soak up the diverse sounds found in town squares and plazas in the cultural capital of Oaxaca. They encouraged local musicians to riff on such popular songs as “La Llorona,” “La Petenera,” and “La Paloma,” mixing familiar mariachi with banda (brass and percussion), jarocho (folk combos),and peteneras (African rhythms and Spanish guitars).
“We tried to pick several songs that were particular to the region, and also songs that told stories, and, texturally, we wanted to have a big variety,” Lara said.
“It was fascinating to watch all the layers come together,” said Giacchino. “For me, it’s about the idea that your life should be lived looking with one eye to the past, one eye to the future, to remember who you were, where you’re going, and who you could be.”