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by emira » Fri Apr 11, 2014 2:50 pm

Bret McKenzie on the Muppets: 'I'd love to see Miss Piggy and Celine Dion play Las Vegas'

The Muppets Most Wanted composer and Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie on Ricky Gervais's singing, his 'crazy' Oscar win, and why Muppets ruin his songs


By Lucinda Everett
26 Mar 2014


"I think I might be a little too comfortable with The Muppets these days,” Bret McKenzie tells me sheepishly. “I know them all so well, I have to remind myself they’re puppets. And I can do authentic impressions of most of them. My Miss Piggy is so good now that some of my vocals almost made it into the final movie by mistake.”

McKenzie, a 37-year-old New Zealander best known as the shyer, more handsome half of musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, has been writing songs for Jim Henson’s fuzzy gang almost non-stop for the past four years. Having worked on their 2011 film The Muppets (winning an Oscar for his soul-searching power ballad Man or Muppet), he was signed up for the follow-up, a crime caper called Muppets Most Wanted, which is released later this month.

To those aware of his ­pre-Muppets career, McKenzie’s involvement in the films is a surprise; warm-hearted, PG-rated ditties haven’t always been his speciality.

Born in Wellington, he grew up convinced he would be a ballet dancer – “I had a bit of a Billy Elliot childhood… without the labour conflict going on in the background” – until he discovered music at school. Then in 1998, while studying film and theatre at university in Wellington, he met his Flight of the Conchords co-star, Jemaine Clement. The pair moved in together, taught themselves guitar and began writing songs parodying every musical genre from Barry White-style seduction tunes to state of the nation rants.

In 2004, they were spotted by an HBO talent scout and went on to make two impeccable seasons of a self-titled television show, which followed their fictional and utterly feckless attempts to crack New York’s music and dating scenes. Critics and fans lapped up the show's self-effacing Kiwi gags (‘New Zealand: Why not?’ went one tourism poster), cast of absurd regular characters (Rhys Darby became a scene-stealer as New Zealand consulate worker come inept band manager Murray), and sharply-observed song sequences. (A career highlight was Business Time, their ode to scheduled marital sex: “Monday night is my night to cook, Tuesday night we go and visit your mother, but Wednesday we make sweet weekly love.”) By 2009, when they called time on the series, the pair were reluctant cult celebrities – the kings of the novelty song.

But it was the show’s third, British co-creator, James Bobin, who facilitated McKenzie’s move into Muppets. Having been asked to direct the 2011 film, Bobin encouraged his friend to submit a demo. That first film didn’t leave much room for Conchords-style mockery (one of McKenzie’s lines, in which a Muppet remembers being “just a little piece of felt”, earned him a lecture on upholding the characters’ mythology). But its sequel feels more offbeat, with Kermit mistakenly banged up in a Russian gulag, and his criminal doppelganger Constantine leading The Muppets astray.

“The last film was a walk down memory lane,” says McKenzie, “this one is a little edgier and the songs are more self-aware and less nostalgic.” Case in point, the film’s opening number We’re doing a Sequel (“The studio wants more / While they wait for Tom Hanks to make Toy Story 4”).

For a funny man with a guitar, McKenzie takes his music very seriously. He talks earnestly about the challenges of writing for Miss Piggy’s limited range (she is played by a man) and the thrill of masterminding her duet with Celine Dion. When I watched the film, Dion’s cameo was met with guffaws, not least thanks to the wry Eighties music video references (all smoke machines and split-screens) that accompany it.

But for McKenzie it’s no laughing matter. “I work on these songs for months and do all of the demos,” he tells me, “and then often the puppets and the actors make them sound worse. It’s always a bit depressing because they kind of go backwards. Miss Piggy is brilliant but Celine takes it through the roof. That was really exciting for me as a songwriter.”

Dion wasn’t the only big name to take on one of McKenzie’s babies. The film includes cameos by everyone from Lady Gaga to Tony Bennett – as well as big numbers for Tina Fey, who plays a gulag guard, and Ricky Gervais, as Constantine’s henchman. “A lot of actors think they’re better singers than they are,” says McKenzie. “It’s a matter of balancing their ego and their skill.”

So what of Gervais, the man with the seemingly indestructible ego and the Eighties New Wave pop career behind him? “I’m actually a huge fan of his,” says McKenzie. “I remember the night we were doing Conchords at the Edinburgh Festival, and Ricky Gervais came to watch the show. It was such a big deal. But we didn’t get to spend too much time together in the recording studio because he’s such a good singer. Most actors take a few times but he did it all in half a day.”

Meeting his heroes is something McKenzie is doing a lot more of these days – an Oscar win will do that for you – but he remains as fame-averse as ever. He still lives in Wellington with his childhood sweetheart wife, and their two young children. And he has no intention of uprooting them for a life in Los Angeles. “LA is a very unbalanced city. A lot of people are on a mission to make movies or become famous and it’s easy to forget about the other side of life.”

For a time, even Wellington couldn’t provide a safe haven for McKenzie. “It did go kind of crazy after the Oscars,” he tells me. “I came back to New Zealand and it was such big news. Suddenly, everyone on the street was shouting out at me. I’m lucky that people who recognise me like what I do.”

New offers of work also followed but McKenzie’s desire for balance prevailed. “I was sort of already, kind of… busy,” he demurs, warming noticeably as he goes on to describe family life as “far more controlled” than his Conchords days. “That was such a great time but such a different time of life,” he says. “Now, I have a studio at home and I potter away writing songs and then the kids come crashing in and start playing drums.”

Does he test out any of his material on them? “They’re a pretty tough crowd,” he says with a laugh. “But they don’t challenge me on the characters’ authenticity. They wouldn’t stop me and say, ‘Kermit wouldn’t say that.’ ”

Next on McKenzie’s carefully curated agenda is tidying up his scripts for an animated television series about a remote Nasa outpost, and a live-action musical fairy-tale film. “That will be more like working with The Muppets but with new characters,” he tells me. “I’m working on the songs as we go.” He and Clement have also (very loosely) discussed a Flight of the Conchords film and tour of Japan. And if the right acting role came up, he wouldn’t say no, a decision that will no doubt delight his ever-growing legion of female fans. (A fleeting appearance as an elf in the first Lord of the Rings film sparked a tidal wave of internet lust, with fans dubbing him Figwit – ‘Frodo is great… who is that?!') But for now, writing is keeping him busy enough.

As for his continuing love affair with The Muppets, he has one more idea up his sleeve: “I really hope Celine and Miss Piggy do some sort of Las Vegas diva-off,” he explains through a torrent of gruff giggles. “Miss Piggy and Celine Dion: one night only.”

Muppets Most Wanted is released on March 28

The Telegraph
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by emira » Fri Apr 11, 2014 3:05 pm

‘Muppets Most Wanted’s’ Bret McKenzie Talks Songwriting and Sequel Pressures
Monday, March 24th, 2014 by Todd Gilchrist

With an acclaimed television series, blockbuster film and Academy Award to his credit, Bret McKenzie faces a lot of pressure to top himself – which may be why in his opening song for Disney’s Muppets Most Wanted, he openly acknowledges that sequels are never quite as good.

But McKenzie accomplishes the considerable task of at least maintaining the same quality with his music for director James Bobin’s highly anticipated follow-up, which finds Kermit & Co. shuffling through a series of European destinations – and musical genres – as they’re unwittingly embroiled in a series of robberies.

McKenzie, who introduced his songwriting talents to audiences in Flight of the Conchords before scoring an Oscar for “Man or a Muppet” from 2011’s The Muppets, spoke with Spinoff Online at the recent Los Angeles press day for Muppets Most Wanted. In addition to talking about the pressure he faced in following up the first film’s mammoth success, he explored the challenges of meta-songwriting, be it self-aware or even openly bad, creating tunes that stand on their own, and finding his own voice while trying to evoke (or even imitate) styles and songs by other artists.

Spinoff Online: When the first song in the movie says, “Sequels can never be as good as the film that came before them,” does that take the pressure off or does it put more on?

Bret McKenzie: I think it does both at the same time. But it definitely takes the pressure off because at least the audience knows that we’re aware that this is a sequel and it’s probably not going to be as good, which is what the audience is already thinking when they go into the theater. So at least it kind of acknowledges the problem or the challenge. But despite that we still have the challenge of trying to make it better or as good as the last one. And there’s something weird about sequels that that whole song’s about, that is the audience cannot help if they saw the last one but compare it. The first thing people are going to say when they come out was, oh, I liked it more, or I liked the first one more. That’s just going to happen. That’s unavoidable. But I love that the Muppets can do that. That we could talk about what we’re doing. And it reminds me a little bit of the Team America/South Park song, the montage song, which I love that song, just the self-awareness and the being aware of being in a movie.

How far can you go in deconstructing storytelling tropes in general without potentially undermining something that is meaningful to an audience?

I’ve seen that problem. I think that’s a problem that our generation of filmmakers has because we are quite an ironic creative generation and very self-aware of all stories. And just the world is so media savvy and story savvy that you only need a few seconds and people get the idea. And I think storytelling wise it’s a very tricky line because if you do an ironic plot move it can collapse the whole film. This is quite boring. An ironic plot tends to floor a movie I think. But I think the way to do it, and the Muppets – I love the way Muppets can do this, it’s more theatrical in a way. It’s like they can turn to the audience like the way a cabaret show might. They can turn into the crowd and say has everybody got a drink and then go back into the scene. They can drop out of character and drop again, break that fourth wall. And that I think is OK. That works. And you can see in the movie I think that works really well.

What are the challenges of creating performance and even writing components of songs that sort of have to be bad? The idea is their show is not great in this because it’s so unrefined, but you can’t actually write a bad song, because audiences will be like, “That’s a terrible song,” as opposed to, “I’m watching these people perform poorly and it’s really entertaining.”

Yeah. That’s always a tricky one and it’s a funny thing when you do sessions with musicians. You’re like, “Can you play this song as though you don’t know how to play it?” And they really struggle to do that. They just naturally fall into a groove. Yeah, that’s a tricky thing to do because you’re exactly right, if you have a bad show on screen then you risk that thing of it just being a bad part of the film. And you have the same problem in films where this person has a boring life, well we don’t want to watch that. Let’s get to the bit where it’s an interesting life. So I guess the fun thing of that is, and James [Bobin] does a great job of that, is keeping short glimpses of so you don’t see that much of them singing “The Macarena,” you get a glimpse of that. Yeah, you don’t want too much of that stuff.

What’s the secret for you in writing a song that not only works in the movie but stands on its own? I was thinking about the Oscars this year, and even though I loved Frozen, comparing “Let It Go” to “Happy,” “Happy” is a song that can exist very easily outside of Despicable Me, whereas “Let It Go” I don’t think I would ever hear on the radio because it is so —

Specific to the story.

Yeah. How careful do you have to be, and how do you pull it off?

I think that’s one of the challenges is trying to create a song that addresses character and story needs but access as a song itself. And that’s a very tricky thing to do. And in a film the story is the most important thing. So if you can manage to make it feel like a complete song as well, it’s a bonus. But it will get cut if it’s not. I’ve developed a technique of making quite sort of bulletproof songs so that they can’t be edited. Because I’ve done it for long enough now I can tell what might get cut so I cut it already. I just make them as strong as I possibly can to get through the testing process of filming and recording and to try and make the song survive throughout the process, because they can get ruined in the edit. But it’s a funny one – I know what you mean because “Happy” is a brilliant song. [But] if “Happy” could have told a story at the same time, legendary – if “Happy” the verses move the story forward, then that is the dream song. And you get to things like — you go back to “The Bare Necessities,” from Jungle Book. They managed to do that. They’ve got a chorus that just connects with the character, but the verses move things forward. It’s a skill that not many people have now, because it’s not used very often.

Not to be to self-congratulatory, but which of the songs in this do you feel like were maybe most successful in that regard?

I think the opening song is really successful in the film. I like how it turned out. I never know how they’re going to turn out because they go off to film with the Muppets and they come back and I see what they’ve done. It’s like, well, what did you film? I just like the way that kicks the movie off – it has a great energy and video. I like the way that gets the film going. I think the ballad with Miss Piggy and Celine Dion was a highlight for me, partly because it was a real thrill to get Celine Dion on a song I’d written. But that also has a nice mixture of comedy and emotion. And within that song this ridiculous moment Celine and Piggy having a diva off. And there’s this sort of quite strangely heartwarming moment seeing Piggy and Kermit age and having these green and pink babies. Yeah, I really like that one. That was one of those moments when I wrote a lyric describing the pink, a little pink frog and a little green piggy, and then when the footage came back I was pleasantly surprised how the idea translated into a video.

At this point, how much do you feel like, because you have to adapt to so many different styles, this really is sort of your own sort of creative process, your own songwriting as opposed to maybe sort of aping a different style that would be necessary for a component of the plot or to resemble a certain kind of song you might need to have in the film? The Constantine song, for example, almost feels like a Jamiroquai song or something like that.

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you mean. “I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu).” That’s great. I think this is true of all songwriters, is you’re trying to ape something or you’re trying to copy something and it ends up being different just because. Like, I heard Michael Jackson was trying to do a rock song when he wrote “Beat It,” and it’s like, that’s a rock song? That’s his version of a rock song. It’s like you take the idea and then you put yourself in it and it’s always going to end up some way different.

Muppets Most Wanted is in theaters now.

Spinoff
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by blondesnotbombs » Wed Apr 30, 2014 1:16 pm

I don't think anyone has mentioned that Bret's version of Cockatoo in Malibu is for sale as a single on iTunes.

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#excited2# It's the version used in the Funny Or Die video, which is slightly different from the demo on the Muppets Most Wanted soundtrack.
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by blondesnotbombs » Wed May 21, 2014 2:48 pm

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Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment today announced the Blu-ray and Disney Movies Anywhere release of Muppets Most Wanted: Unnecessarily Extended Edition on August 12, 2014. The home edition of the Muppets comedy will feature three different cuts: the Original Theatrical Cut, the Statler and Waldorf Cut and The Unnecessarily Extended Cut, featuring 12 minutes of exclusive scenes not shown in theaters.

Additional bonus material includes: the laugh-out-loud gag reel, ‘The Longer, Longest Blooper Reel in Muppets History;’ ‘Rizzo’s Biggest Fan’ featurette; and the music video for ‘I Can Give You What You Want’ performed by Bret McKenzie.

Starring Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, The Great Gonzo, Animal, Ricky Gervais (“The Office”) as Dominic Badguy, Ty Burrell (“Modern Family”) as Jean Pierre Napoleon and Tina Fey (“30 Rock”) as Nadya the Prison Guard, “Muppets Most Wanted” also features very special guest appearances by Tony Bennett, Sean Combs, Rob Corddry, Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Salma Hayek, Ray Liotta, Ross Lynch, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christoph Waltz, and more!


#cheer#
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by emira » Fri May 23, 2014 12:53 pm

#cheer# #cheer#
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by emira » Sun Jun 15, 2014 1:21 pm

I don't know if it's been posted before, but I got this google alert with this old interview with Bret, but extended cut:

Bret McKenzie: A Very Manly Muppet [Extended Cut] : NPR
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