“Jojo Rabbit” opens with a jaunty march by composer Michael Giacchino over the Fox Searchlight logo, immediately drawing us into director Taika Waititi’s anti-hate, Nazi satire. Aptly titled “Jojo’s March,” it immediately evokes “The Great Escape” and “Hogan’s Heroes” before introducing a sweet children’s choir. This effectively serves as our musical entry into the mind of impressionable Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), the devoted 10-year-old Hitler Youth member, who idolizes Adolf (Waititi) to the point of creating him as an imaginary friend.
“I love Taika’s work, especially ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ — he’s original and funny,” Giacchino said. “When he called me, I was somewhat surprised, in a way, but excited to talk to him about it. Normally, I’ll wait to see a movie before deciding to do it, but he sent me the script, I fell in love with it, and said ‘yes’ right away.” Giacchino won’t say it’s his favorite score, but it’s one of “his absolute favorite movies.”
Yet the Oscar-winning composer of Pixar’s “Up” waited to see a rough cut before starting his score. “I loved what he did in terms of the bold storytelling and the [anti-hate] conversation that the film seems to be causing [it won the Audience award at TIFF, which has become a Best Picture Oscar harbinger]. It’s a difficult subject to get around in the way that he did it. But it’s got a powerful punch to deliver in the end and that’s the most important thing about it for me.”
Waititi and Giacchino had several conversations about the musical tone, with the director emphasizing the need for a simple melody and a fairy tale vibe found in the composer’s “Up” and “Ratatouille” scores. Like “Jojo,” they evoke love and loss, but with this movie it was important to underscore the absurdity and horror of Jojo’s journey from fanaticism to compassion as a result of his friendship with Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a teenage Jewish girl hiding behind a wall in his house.
Giacchino’s usual routine consists of composing a suite and in this case he ran right home after the rough cut screening and composed the melody on his piano, which the director embraced immediately. “I wanted to have a melody that could sound as a German march, if needed, with children singing,” Giacchino added. “Kids have no idea what the Nazis are marching to, and the idea was to start off with a pure propaganda march and it becomes a loving theme about acceptance and tolerance and beyond, what Jojo was able to see at the beginning of the film. Even the lyrics, which were written by Elissa Samsel, were ambiguous: evoking both fascism and kindness to show how someone’s views could be twisted through lies.”
After the march, you get the first tender moment of the theme when Jojo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), takes him home from the Hitler Youth camp to recuperate after he’s injured by an exploding grenade. The piece boasts a lovely guitar solo. “There are very few films that go with solo guitar, especially the films that I work on, which are so big,” Giacchino said. “You also hear it when he’s hanging up the propaganda posters and the [choir] sings there. He’s proud to be a part of this crazy group of people, not really understanding the truth of what they do. The theme belongs to his family as a whole.”
However, Rosie has her own theme as well (“Beyond Questions”), allowing the composer to dabble in his trademark melancholy with a harp, which she shares with Elsa when they are secretly alone together. “Rosie gives Elsa life,” Giacchino said, “and it’s the kind of thing that Elsa will take with her as she moves on in life.” This is in sharp contrast to the main theme that progresses when Jojo interacts with Hitler. “These are straight up versions of the melody or disguised or simplified versions,” he added. “Even the piece, ‘The Kids Are All Reich,’ is a solo voice singing through it with an organ. He’s seeing the violence all around him by the people he’s been idolizing. It’s a slow, dark version of the theme, like an elegy.”
Giacchino used a small orchestra of 35, recorded at Abbey Road in London, accented by odd percussive sounds (string sticks and springs) for a different texture. “I wanted it to feel like a time and place, but not necessarily our time and place,” he said. “Because these terrible events have taken place many times throughout history and this is one of the most striking of them all, of course, and it’s also close to our memories still. I just hope that every middle school child in this country gets to see this movie because I think it would be an important conversation starter about love and hate. And we have too much of one right now.”
Next up: Not only will Giacchini take on “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and Brad Bird’s upcoming live-action animated hybrid original musical, but will continue his collaboration with “Planet of the Apes” director Matt Reeves on “The Batman.” Reeves offered him the job onstage at an event at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and Giacchino accepted.