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COCO – Michael Giacchino

November 14, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Coco is a beautiful animated film from Disney and Pixar centered around the traditional Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The story centers around a young boy named Miguel Rivera, an aspiring musician who idolizes Ernesto de la Cruz, a popular singer/songwriter and film star, who died years previously. Unfortunately, Miguel’s family despises music because his great-great grandfather abandoned his family to achieve his musical dreams. On the Day of the Dead, Miguel plans to enter a talent contest in order to convince his family of his love of music, but things go awry, and circumstances contrive in such a way that Miguel finds himself ‘crossed over’ from the land of the living to the spirit world – not dead, but unable to return home without help. After reuniting with long-deceased members of his family, and meeting with an insouciant rogue named Hector who agrees to be his guide, Miguel embarks on an epic adventure in the Land of the Dead in a desperate attempt to cross back to the human world before time runs out and he is stuck in the afterlife forever. The film is a wonderful amalgam of music, emotion, humor, excitement, and staggeringly beautiful visuals; it’s directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, and features the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, and Benjamin Bratt.

Music is a massively important part of Coco. The entire character arc of the lead character, Miguel, is driven by his love of music, while the songs performed on-screen by the fictional matinee idol Ernesto de la Cruz are not just there for dressing, but are integral to the plot, how it unfolds, and how its secrets are revealed. To this end, Disney took a three-pronged approach, whereby Frozen songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez would write the main song “Remember Me,” the other songs would be co-written by composer/songwriter Germaine Franco and co-director/lyricist Adrian Molina, and the score would be by Michael Giacchino, who actively campaigned to score the film.

Throughout Coco’s entire musical development process, authenticity was key. The whole film is a celebration of the spiritual culture and musical heritage of Mexico, and so Franco – a Mexican-American composer originally from Texas, who many will remember from her time as an orchestrator for John Powell – was tapped to ensure that the music was correct from a historical point of view. She went to great pains to write music that was culturally appropriate; she specifically incorporated music from the Mexican states of Michoacán and Oaxaca, where many of the Día de Muertos traditions originated, into her songs, while also drawing from the mariachi, banda, norteño, and chilena styles, among many others. This in turn influenced the style and orchestration of Giacchino’s score, ensuring a stylistically coherent sound across the whole thing.

The heart of the score is the song “Remember Me,” which as I mentioned was written by Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, who wrote the songs for Frozen as well as the Broadway musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. At first glance the song appears to be nothing more than a fairly inoffensive ballad, but the application of the song in context is what makes it a work of genius. It appears several times in the film, performed in character by Benjamin Bratt as De La Cruz, by Gael García Bernal as Hector, and by Anthony Gonzalez as Miguel himself, but in each new iteration there are subtle differences in musical style and delivery, which in turn subtly changes the meaning of the lyrics.
The film, at its core, is about the different ways people can be remembered, and how important that is: “Remember Me” speaks directly to that, linking several generations of Miguel’s family together, and healing old wounds. The Ernesto de la Cruz version is festive and upbeat, full of self-confidence, with flashy guitar solos and howling grito cries. Conversely, the stripped-down Lullaby is full of longing and paternal affection, and the Reunion version is heartbreakingly emotional. When you understand what is happening on screen at the time each version of the song is performed, and understand why the song is being performed in that way at that time, the intellectual point of the song becomes clear. The final Dúo version is a radio-friendly pop version for the end credits, performed in both English and Spanish by Mexican pop stars Miguel and Natalia Lafourcade.

The songs written by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina are generally lighter in tone, with more humorous lyrics, but ironically are much more authentic-sounding, often featuring the strumming guitars and bold, open trumpets associated with traditional mariachi music. Three of them – “Un Poco Loco,” “The World Es Mi Familia,” and “Proud Corazón” – are performed by 12-year old Anthony Gonzalez, whose voice is raw and untrained but enthusiastic and earnest, and he somehow manages to cope with all the rolls and trills this music demands (although the melody of “Un Poco Loco” is distractingly similar to the 1970s Europop song “Una Paloma Blanca”). “Everyone Knows Juanita” is a saucy, but somehow moving song about unrequited love, while “La Llorona” – the Crying Woman – is performed by actress Alanna Ubach in character as Miguel’s deceased great-great-grandmother Imelda, and has an Edith Piaf-esque flair for the dramatic. “Jálale” is a contemporary instrumental dance written by Mexican composer (and Coco musical consultant) Camilo Lara, performed by musicians from the Mexican Institute of Sound.

Giacchino’s score builds upon this authentic sound created by Franco – who also orchestrated – and becomes a bold, flavorful celebration of Mexican heritage, filled with various spicy instrumental solos ranging from guitars and vihuelas to trumpets, pan flutes, solo violins, and marimbas, all backed up by a large symphony orchestra. Giacchino says there are numerous individual themes throughout the score, representing Miguel, Hector, and several of the film’s more abstract conceptual ideas, but only one really stands out, and that’s the theme for the Rivera family. This theme is the emotional cornerstone of the score, as it represents Miguel’s impetus in all things: what he initially hates, what he longs for from others, what he needs to find while lost in the City of the Dead, and what eventually leads him home. The theme first appears at 0:23 of the first cue, “Will He Shoemaker?,” which offers a quick lesson in Mexican musical history and introduces most of the recurring instrumental and textural ideas in the score.

Further statements of the Rivera Family theme abound. “Taking Sides” features an especially prominent performance of the theme on solo violin accompanied by strumming guitars, while in the second half of “A Blessing and a Fessing” the theme takes on a desperately sad aspect, as Miguel realizes the error of his actions. “Reunión Familiar de Rivera” is built around several variations of the Family Theme, including a florid and emotional statement for guitar and marimba, and even an action version to accompany the spectacular scene of Miguel and Hector flying across the skies of the City of the Dead. “A Family Dysfunction” gives the Family Theme a nostalgic, soulful sound, with an especially longing version for ethnic woodwinds in the cue’s second half. The finale of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” gives the Family Theme a bittersweet twist, underlining the fact that Miguel has mixed feelings at receiving his family’s Aztec marigold blessing to return home. The finale, in “A Run for the Ages,” presents a helter-skelter version of the Family Theme as Miguel races home through the streets of his village to fulfill his destiny, and ends with a heartbreaking final statement for tragedy-laden guitars and cellos.

Giacchino fans will be pleased to note that there are some moments of action, and even a few hints of horror, the latter capturing the sense of trepidation Miguel feels when first encountering his calavera relatives. In “It’s All Relative” Giacchino uses the Mexican orchestrations in harsh, dissonant, aggressive ways, and builds them into a sequence of frantic chase music which is a little mickey mousey in places, but is nevertheless effective. Later, both “The Skeleton Key to Escape” and “Family Doubtings” combine bold orchestral strokes with highlighted moments for pan flutes, trumpets, and marimbas; the former includes an unusual interlude for drunkenly slurred guitars, and also introduces a flashy brass fanfare motif for the alebrije, the colorful feline spirit guide that Imelda uses to track Miguel. “Grabbing a Photo Opportunity” is highly rhythmic, a sort of combination of Elfmanesque percussive quirkiness blended with Horneresque Zorro-style action brass fanfares. The alebrije motif appears again in the score’s finale, first surrounded by frantic, stabbing action material in “The Show Must Go On,” and then as a glorious hero moment in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Other important cues include the wondrous, magical “Crossing the Marigold Bridge,” which accompanies Miguel’s first view of the City of the Dead with enormous orchestral crescendos and bright fanfares for trumpets and guitars. “Dept. of Family Reunions” is upbeat, playful, and full of movement, with especially lively guitar solos, and some moments of brass-led comedy. Conversely, “Adiós Chicharrón” is soft and spiritual, with quiet guitars and the haunting whisper of an Aztec death whistle (Google it) making the scene one of the film’s most touching moments; the Morricone-esque crescendo of sweeping trumpets and tolling bells in the conclusion is quite superb. Later, both “I Have a Great Great Grandson” and the first part of “A Blessing and a Fessing” feature a typically Giacchino-esque warm theme for strings representing the relationship between Miguel and Ernesto de la Cruz.

There are also several cues of upbeat fiesta source music, vibrant and celebratory instrumentals for trumpets and guitars. Cues such as “The Newbie Skeleton Walk,” “Plaza de la Cruz,” and “Fiesta Espectacular” are bold and rich – foie gras for the ears, if you will – while “Fiesta Con de la Cruz” features some especially effervescent writing for solo pan flute.

Everything comes together in the final cue, “Coco – Día de los Muerte Suite,” in which Giacchino reprises the Family Theme in several variations, including one for solo guitar, one for sweeping strings and contrapuntal mariachi trumpets, and one for delicate pan flutes and ethnic percussion. Interestingly, there is absolutely no overlap between the songs and the score whatsoever – the theme from “Remember Me” does not appear anywhere in the score, nor does the Family Theme form the basis of a song – which creates a curious disconnect between the two. The same thing happened on Frozen, when none of the Lopez’s song melodies featured in Christophe Beck’s score, and vice versa, and it’s not a big problem in any way, but my personal taste is for there to be at least some relationship between them, and it would have been fun to see what Giacchino could do with the “Remember Me” chorus.

However, the one thing you must be able to do to appreciate Coco in any way is have a tolerance for traditional Mexican music. The heritage and stylistics of the culture are completely ingrained into every aspect of the score, from the orchestrations to the rhythmic ideas, and if your idea of hell is the sound of the bad Mariachi band that haunts your local cantina on a Saturday night when you’re simply trying to eat your chimichanga in peace, then Coco might not be the score for you. The trumpets, the guitars, and the violins are everywhere, and they persist from the first bar to the last. Personally, however, I found the whole score to be utterly charming, fun, exciting, and emotionally strong, anchored by a lyrical and memorable main theme. I also learned a lot about the musical culture of Mexico, its instruments, and the regional differences between the north and the south (although I probably got some of the terminology wrong in this review, and for that I apologize). The influence of Germaine Franco on the score cannot be overstated – her diligent research, insistence on authenticity, accurate orchestrations, and deep love for the project is clear.

Looking at the bigger picture, Coco is also further indicative of just how much Michael Giacchino has grown as a composer over the years – I don’t think he could have written a score like this until fairly recently, at least not without making it sound like bad Mexican pastiche. It’s yet another indicator of why Giacchino is now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the most important composers in Hollywood right now. With this score, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, he’s having one hell of a year.

Buy the Coco soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Remember Me – Ernesto de la Cruz (written by Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, performed by Benjamin Bratt) (1:49)
  • Much Needed Advice (written by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina, performed by Benjamin Bratt) (1:46)
  • Everyone Knows Juanita (written by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina, performed by Gael García Bernal with Edward James Olmos) (1:15)
  • Un Poco Loco (written by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina, performed by Anthony Gonzalez and Gael García Bernal) (1:52)
  • Jálale (written by Camilo Lara, performed by Mexican Institute of Sound) (2:55)
  • The World Es Mi Familia (written by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina, performed by Anthony Gonzalez) (0:51)
  • Remember Me – Lullaby (written by Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, performed by Gael García Bernal with Gabriella Flores and Libertad García Fonzi) (1:10)
  • La Llorona (written by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina, performed by Alanna Ubach) (2:46)
  • Remember Me – Reunion (written by Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, performed by Anthony Gonzalez with Ana Ofelia Murguía) (1:14)
  • Proud Corazón (written by Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina, performed by Anthony Gonzalez) (2:04)
  • Remember Me – Dúo (written by Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez, performed by Miguel feat. Natalia Lafourcade) (2:44)
  • Will He Shoemaker? (3:18)
  • Shrine and Dash (1:24)
  • Miguel’s Got an Axe to Find (1:17)
  • The Strum of Destiny (1:10)
  • It’s All Relative (2:38)
  • Crossing the Marigold Bridge (1:49)
  • Dept. of Family Reunions (2:44)
  • The Skeleton Key to Escape (3:04)
  • The Newbie Skeleton Walk (1:08)
  • Adiós Chicharrón (1:45)
  • Plaza de la Cruz (0:21)
  • Family Doubtings (2:24)
  • Taking Sides (0:56)
  • Fiesta Espectacular (0:56)
  • Fiesta Con de la Cruz (2:33)
  • I Have a Great Great Grandson (1:15)
  • A Blessing and a Fessing (4:45)
  • Cave Dwelling on the Past (2:22)
  • Somos Familia (2:21)
  • Reunión Familiar de Rivera (3:04)
  • A Family Dysfunction (2:00)
  • Grabbing a Photo Opportunity (1:47)
  • The Show Must Go On (2:32)
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls (2:02)
  • A Run for the Ages (1:50)
  • One Year Later (1:00)
  • Coco – Día de los Muertos Suite (5:47)

Running Time: 78 minutes 37 seconds

Walt Disney (2017)

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Tim Simonec. Orchestrations by Germaine Franco and Jeff Kryka. Features musical soloists Federico Ramos, George Doering and Pedro Eustache. Recorded and mixed by Joel Iwataki. Edited by Stephen M. Davis. Album produced by Michael Giacchino, Germaine Franco and Adrian Molina.

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