The swift ascension of the small, yellow henchmen from Universal Pictures’ animated film franchise, Despicable Me, known as Minions into cultural omnipresence has been a gradual but definitive process – more on that here, for those as of yet unfamiliar with the piece preceding this one.
Anyone who has attended so much as a single marketing class can see the dollar signs practically emanating from the huggable creatures, who conveniently lend themselves to endless configurations and permutations for repeat sales of everything from costumes to waffle makers – seriously.
While Stuart, Bob, and Kevin remain the most recognizable and most utilized iterations of the concept, there are apparently 10,400 total Minions under Gru’s command in the Despicable Me lore. This alone presents endless merchandising opportunities, as the establishment of multiple characters based primarily upon a single template through the implementation of slight variations of the same design and concept has long been seen as a golden ticket of sorts in the industry – think the Mortal Kombat, Power Rangers, and Iron Man franchises.
With the recent release of Minions: The Rise of Gru, it would appear that the powers that be have chosen to test this marketability in the realm of recreational listening.
The Minions: The Rise of Gru soundtrack is a star-studded affair boasting credits which are bound to tickle the fancy of any contemporary music enthusiast. This isn’t the first foray of the franchise into the musical world, however – far from it.
The second film in the Despicable Me franchise, Despicable Me 2, brought on singer, rapper, and producer, Pharrell Williams to contribute a chunk of material for the soundtrack album. The resulting album, while primarily made up of original compositions from film score composer Heitor Pereira, featured one very notable deviation from the formula.
That, of course, would be the Williams’-penned, omnipresent nightmare of a jingle known as “Happy,” which blared from every speaker in every public establishment in the country for what had to have been half a decade.
The inescapable platitudes of the number weighed heavy on the general population, as many had grown tired of the tune within the first weeks of its explosion in popularity.
Just as has been the case with the Minions themselves, however, a large sector of the listening public – much of which was comprised of children – were insatiable in their consumption of the song, providing endless demand and consequently invoking what seemed to be an endless supply.
If this wasn’t enough of an incentive to dive headlong into the soundtrack world, the remarkable success of Disney’s Encanto – brought about in no small part by the film’s spirited, Lin-Manuel Miranda-penned original motion picture soundtrack – no doubt nullified any remaining reservations.
The production budget for a project like Minions: The Rise of Gru (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) was undoubtedly elaborate, with superstar appearances from artists such as Jack Antonoff – who is all over this thing – Diana Ross, and Phoebe Bridgers commanding what one could only plausibly estimate to be a staggering dollar amount.
And that is before considering the wealth of renowned – and very much copyrighted – material from which the performers draw in the execution of these recordings, including songs by Earth, Wind & Fire, Paul Simon, and John Lennon, just to name a few.
The project is one of several from over the past few years to be heralded by blockbuster producer Jack Antonoff, who one might recognize from his work with the likes of Lorde, Taylor Swift, and any number of other heavy-hitters on the contemporary pop scene.
If the resonation of soundtrack material akin to the aforementioned Encanto was what project-runners were aiming for with this release, however, disappointment almost undoubtedly waits in the wings.
What one will notice first when taking the plunge into this collection is the distinct dearth of original material, despite the affair being marketed as an original motion picture soundtrack. The tracklist primarily features modern takes on contemporary hits from the 1970s to coincide with the period in which the prequel film from which it takes its name is based.
Thus, the downward trajectory is established before a note of music is even played, and there are two (likely more, actually) reasons for this.
One: the foundation of a creative endeavor being constituted almost exclusively of established, well-loved pieces of art sets an impossibly high bar, not to mention the charm of the original recordings being indubitably sacrificed in the transition to modern-day, hyper-compressed bastardizations of what in most cases likely came about as simple, nuanced ideas.
Two: superimposing attractive young stars onto the revered work of established icons and funneling the subsequent vocal takes through ten flangers and an auto tune patch will not only fail to evoke the emotional resonance of something with genuine melodic interest like “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” it may very well leave listeners feeling empty and longing for the organic touch of the originals.
It is also worth noting that “Funky Town” wasn’t written with the Despicable Me film franchise in mind, as the two entities are decades removed from one another. Unlike the music for Encanto – or other timeless soundtracks for animated films such as Tarzan and The Lion King – these compositional works were manifested with consideration to none of the film’s spirit, as in most cases the film was a good 40+ away from even being conceived of.
Nonetheless, Antonoff and company manage to dutifully cobble something together from the assemblage of parts at hand. But star power notwithstanding, one struggles to imagine this album being something that members of the listening public will be scrambling to incorporate into their regular listening rotations.
Is this to say that the project is without its redeemable qualities? Not necessarily. Phoebe Bridgers turns in a solid take on the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love,” and a head-scratching instrumental contribution from Wu Tang Clan mastermind RZA in the form of “Kung Fu Suite” hints at the approach of something musically interesting, but evaporates after just a minute and a half before anything can get off the ground.
Antonoff himself takes centerstage in Bleachers’ rendition of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma,” in a performance which might be laughable were it not so insulting to its source material.
Tracks like this, Caroline Polachek’s passable but bland take on “Bang Bang,” and St. Vincent’s cringe-inducing decapitation of “Funky Town” are representative of how overblown and bombastically hollow the entire affair is.
These arrangements generally act as garish, sugary, backdrops for tepid, uninspired vocal takes from stars with little to no connection to the proceedings at hand – many of whom are clearly showing up for the undoubtedly sizable Universal Pictures paycheck.
Should these productions be taken with a grain of salt? Yes. One can’t reasonably expect several of the biggest pop stars in America to be deeply, emotionally invested in the plight of little yellow creatures from a children’s film franchise. But if one is committed to going to through the trouble of participating, is feigning interest too much to ask?
Jack Antonoff is undoubtedly a talented collaborator. His work with artists like Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey has produced some of the best output of their respective – and already highly impressive – careers. But if Antonoff’s omnipresence in the pop sphere over the past few years has revealed anything, it’s the man’s own musical limitations.
This should be received not as a demonization of Antonoff or his abilities, and his career will certainly not be lagging in the wake of this soundtrack release. But, in the unlikely case the star producer is seeking counsel from a person completely unqualified to give it, this writer might suggest he focus his energy into the realization of quality projects as opposed to as many projects as possible at any given time.
As far as film soundtracks as content are concerned, one would do well to commit to the artistic work of a creative endeavor should they intend for it to be received as such. Otherwise, the Guardians of the Galaxy format of essentially compiling a mix CD of classic, original tunes works just fine.