Interview: Joby Talbot, Composer for “Sing”

Posted on December 19, 2016 at 3:20 pm

When a movie is called “Sing” and it centers on an “American Idol”-type amateur singing competition — with animal characters — it presents something of a challenge for its composer, who has to figure out a way to tie together a wildly and often hilariously disparate bunch of songs and singers. So it was a lot of fun to talk to composer Joby Talbot about how he managed to create a lively and engaging score that meshed with a bunch of iconic tunes from many different genres.

“The film is directed and written by my old friend Garth Jennings,” he told me. “I wrote the music for both of his other films, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambow, and when he asked me to do it I completely leapt to the chance to work with him and with Illumination, one of the absolute greats in this golden days of animation that we’re living through at the moment. I love “Despicable Me’ and ‘Lorax,’ and all those other movies they have made. Garth explained what it was and he said that they made the decision early on they were going to keep the whole score and song elements quite separate. They do overlap occasionally but Harvey Mason Jr. and his team were in charge of the songs and I was in charge of the score. We realized very early on that the score was going to have a lot of work to do. It’s really important that in this film it is necessarily broken up by some numbers but there’s something that’s really a central kernel, and impetus of the film that really takes you through it. The score really helps you leap between the different storylines or the different characters but most importantly really helps you identify with the characters, helps gets across their kind of emotional journey and who they are and helps you really care for them and fall in love with them. That’s what I was setting out to do with the music. The music cues in the score, even though sometimes they are quite short when they fall in between songs just taking you from one to another, that doesn’t mean they are small or not important. They’re doing so much work all the time. The themes being developed and a whole number of different emotions being thrown at you — that is the work of the score, so it’s actually a huge challenge but I really enjoyed it.”

Talbot met the director in the 90’s, when he was playing in a rock band and Jennings was doing music videos. “I used to play in a band called Divine Comedy way in the 90’s in England and he was one half of Hammer and Tongs who made their name doing promo videos for pop songs. He’s one of the really famous directors in the golden days of the pop videos back in the day when there were enormous budgets and MTV ruled the world. Garth was one of the main guys and we met through our mutual friend Nigel Godrich, the producer of Radiohead and Beck, he’s got great, amazing talent, and Garth was directing actually a commercial for British telecom, the big telecommunications company in Britain and it was supposed to be like a sort of 90 second mini disaster movie with all kinds of objects falling out of the sky. Nigel suggested me for the music and although I hadn’t met Garth I actually knew his wife quite well. She had been in charge of the clothes we wore on a particular pop video that we did.

Copyright 2016 Illumination
Copyright 2016 Illumination
And we met and instantly we got on really, really well. Garth had never worked with a composer actually scoring in any of the films he had made and I felt incredibly lucky to be the guy who got that gig because and his approach as a director is inspired by people like Billy Wilder. He likes that kind of old-school moviemaking and he was adamant he wanted an orchestral score and he wanted it to function in a way those great orchestral scores of yesteryear worked. With my background in classical music that absolutely chimed for me and we just hit it off and never looked back really. Working with him is always a complete joy. I have a couple of collaborators in different fields who I really, really love working with and Garth is one of the best. He such a thrill to work with. We just get each other; it’s great.”

This film has animal characters that include a pig who is a housewife and mother, a shy teenage elephant, and the ape son of a crime boss. There are dramatic incidents which could be quite intense in another kind of film like a robbery, a parent in prison, and a fire. Talbot spoke about finding a way to musically reassure people that it’s exciting not too tense or scary. “There was one cue where they go to the visiting room at the prison and they were aware that that might be rather scary and alarming sequence for a little kids, so that was the one cue where they said, ‘If you could try and reassure us with the music rather than amping up the scariness but everything else, that would be great.’ I just was going with my feeling as to what the emotion of the scene was meant to be. The big robbery sequences were really kind of full contemporary action. So we brought in some really fantastic guitar and drum and bass players and overlaid it with big, bombastic orchestra. But those sequences don’t last that long, so you are just like catapulted into that world and then you are spat out the other end and you get on with the rest of the film. One thing I’ve learned pretty quickly, there was no putting any kind of intro into anything, it is just like, blam! We’re into the cue, here we go. The film actually lives or dies on whether or not you believe in these characters, believe in their motivations and care what happens to them and really root for them. The music has a huge role to play in that. For example, Meena the elephant is so paralyzed with shyness. It isn’t until later in the film that she sings and so the music really has to tell you what she’s failing to tell the world until finally of course in the end she has the opportunity to tell the world that she’s absolutely great. Tori Kelly has amazing vocal power. She’s incredible.”

The movie has a sensational collection of great songs, from “My Way” to “Shake It Off” to “Baby Got Back” and even “Bad Romance.” I was able to persuade Talbot to confess which is his favorite: “I am a big Steve Wonder fan, so ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” But he adds, “The things that’s really nice about it is that you might go there knowing full well that you don’t like some song or kind of music and then you find yourself with a big smile on your face tapping your foot.”

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