“I kind of wrote two scores,” Mark Mothersbaugh admits to EW, who spoke to him about providing the music for this week’s surprise box office champion The Lego Movie. But it wasn’t indecisiveness; the former frontman of ’80s new wave icons DEVO and now prolific film and television composer knew he had to push the musical boundaries as aggressively as the animators were pushing the visuals.
“We were looking for sounds that created a universe for the LEGOs that was unique,” he said. “I started assembling a sonic palette off of old analog synths that I used with DEVO and newer circuit bent things that I got in the past three or four years and then just kind of borrowing from electronic music through the years.”
But he knew he had to rethink his approach as soon as he saw an animation test of a LEGO pirate ship cascading across a tumultuous LEGO sea. Purely electronic sounds weren’t going to cut it on their own. “You think of LEGOs as these rigid horizontal and vertical pieces. But to see them as clouds and explosions, or water running…it made me want to come up with sounds that were as interesting as the way they were making the film look.”
For Mothersbaugh, the only option was to create two scores. One electronic, and one orchestral with a 40-piece choir. This allowed writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller to layer the sounds and it gave them the freedom to emphasize whichever suited the story best. It was partially self-preservation, too. “These are the kind of guys who like to change things at the last moment,” laughed Mothersbaugh. More options are always better.
This isn’t Mothersbaugh’s first go-around with Lord and Miller. He scored 21 Jump Street and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and is about to start work on 22 Jump Street. But they had actually crossed paths years before. Mothersbaugh was composing music for the Rugrats and the corresponding movie. ‘”They said ‘yeah we got fired off of that job,'” Mothersbaugh laughed. “But they went on to find where their talent was: Taking slender properties and using them to create an amazing story.”
The great thing about working with a director more than once is that you start having reference points that make things easier and let you get places faster than starting from scratch. Music is such an abstract art form. If you’re talking about editing a film you can be very specific. For music, they’ll look at you and go ‘ok, this is the saddest thing that could possibly happen to Emmet. He realizes that none of his friends think of him as anything special. They think of him as kind of a nobody. And he never knew that before,'” he said. “The music has to reflect that. They give the composer a chance to be an artist and the chance to do what they do best, which is interpret abstract descriptions.”
As for the song that’ll be in our heads for the next six months? Mothersbaugh said that wasn’t something he could take credit for.
“That’s a song that Phil and Chris had written before they shot the movie,” he said of the infectious anthem that features the vocal stylings of Tegan and Sara, The Lonely Island and Mothersbaugh himself.
When we first hear “Everything Is Awesome,” it’s in the context of a hyper controlled, bureaucratic, personality-free world. “It sounds like mind control. It’s irritating,” he says. “But by the time you get to the end of the film, the same lyrics all of a sudden become a joyous refrain about working together and cooperation and about what it’s like when you’re part of something bigger.”
They recorded version after version of the song, which appears throughout the movie in varying contexts. He couldn’t choose a favorite version, but Mothersbaugh was certain about one thing: “The Lonely Island really made that song great.”