Music is one of the overlooked innovations used in film. It is a major tool at the filmmaker’s disposal. Music can be used to set the tone of a scene and to draw emotions and tug on the audience’s heartstrings depending on what the filmmakers want the audience to take away from the film. Music can also serve to connect the audience with a setting either by utilizing music from a certain time period to let us know when the movie takes place or by drawing from different cultures and utilizing regional songs in order to inform the audience as to where the film is located.
This was the case with Disney/Pixar’s Coco. The music of Coco is such an essential part of the storytelling of the film that one can’t imagine Coco without its musical influence. All anyone has to do is look at the main character Miguel’s character motivation. The main character Miguel is purely driven by his desire to be a musician. He channels his emotions into his music while looking up to his idol Ernesto de la Cruz, who was considered to be the greatest musician in Mexico. When he finds out that he might have a connection to Ernesto de la Cruz, Miguel rebels against his family and goes out to prove that music is not the great evil his family thinks it is. As a result, he takes the musical path set out before him.
In order to show the audience this natural progression for Miguel, a lot of research and planning had to go into the music in order to make Miguel’s desire to become a musician read as more authentic. Camilo Lara, one of the music consultants used on Disney/Pixar’s Coco, explained at a press conference what the main goal of the music team was in tackling the music utilized throughout the film:
“I think the main goal was to create this universe and to make it as if it was music in the street in Mexico in a town like Santa Cecilia. So it was a big challenge because of the landscaping in a place, in a town, in a plaza, everywhere in Mexico you keep hearing non-stop music and all kinds of music. So we went with a wide range of genres to trio to mariachi to banda to son [jarocho], so we did some sessions in Mexico with some really amazing, very talented musicians and I think the result, you can hear it. The whole idea was to make music to have a sonic landscape that smells like Mexico.”
Throughout the course of the film you can hear traditional Mexican songs that, if you had grown up in Mexico or grew up in an area that frequently played Mexican music, would sound familiar to you if you listened closely. Well known songs like La Llorona, La Petenera, and La Paloma can be heard throughout the course of the movie. However, the original songs created for the film also provide a feeling of familiarity and nostalgia to listeners. The main signature song of the film ‘Remember Me’ can be heard in a variety of different ways throughout the course of the film, but is done in such a way that makes viewers feel like they are taken back to Mexico and to the Land of the Dead.
When it came to the musical themes for characters, the approach was slightly different. Composer Michael Giacchino explained to us his process for tackling his composing. After watching the film, he ran back and had started to figure out what he wanted to focus on. This led to him fixating on Miguel and that feeling of childlike whimsy and positivity:
“And for the film, the first thing I wanted to think about was, of course, the main character Miguel. You know, here we have a kid, not unlike us when you are kids you have these dreams that you want to do, and I remember that joyous buoyancy as a kid because there are no obstacles for you at that age. You’re just going to do it and that’s it and even when you do come across obstacles, you just joyously hop over them. So I wanted that feeling, that joyous feeling, for this character.”
Giacchino also went on to explain how he developed the theme for the character of Hector, who reminded him very much of a traveling salesman. When we first meet Hector in the film, we get the sense that he is very opportunistic and, upon realizing that Miguel has something that he wants, he starts to try to navigate around getting that particular thing that he wants. As a result, Giacchino created a waltz melody to be used whenever Hector made an appearance. The themes created were flexible enough to be used whenever the filmmakers needed to shift the focus on a certain character development in the story. It also served to connect the audience with the characters through the feeling that was evoked from the individual music themes.
Music in film serves multiple purposes and this was definitely the case in Disney/Pixar’s Coco. Not only was there a need to provide influences for the character of Miguel to draw from and inspire him as his desire to become a musician grew, but there was a need to provide the anchor to solidify to audiences that the story took place in Mexico. By filling the town of Santa Cecilia with music and playing familiar Mexican songs, the filmmakers and music team behind Disney/Pixar’s Coco were able to do just that.
When it came time to create musical themes for characters and concepts that the team wanted to convey to the audience, composer Michael Giacchino was able to draw inspiration from the film based off of his initial feelings of the characters. By creating flexible melodies for the characters, he was able to utilize the themes to take the audience through each individual character’s journey throughout the film.
The purpose of music is to generate a response from the listener. Combine it with film and it can be argued that the music then serves the purpose of guiding us towards a certain mindset and feeling. The music of Disney/Pixar’s Coco serves to take us to places both familiar and new, tell us what characters are feeling and experiencing throughout the course of the film, and – ultimately – make us connect and feel powerful emotions. Without the music, Disney/Pixar’s Coco would not have been able to tell the story it did in such a powerful, heart wrenching way.
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