Writing Music For Smurfs: Composer Christopher Lennertz

Composer Christopher Lennertz has created musical scores for movie comedies (”Bad Moms,” “Horrible Bosses,” “Sausage Party”), family movies (”Marmaduke,” “Cats and Dogs”), and cute cartoon characters (”Hop,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks”), but the new Smurfs movie gave him the opportunity to do something special, and not just because it inspired him to create a mushroom drum. In an interview, he talked about composing for “Smurfs: The Lost Village,” in theaters April 7, 2017, how his daughters inspired him, and which character is his favorite.

I grew up in the 80s so I knew the Smurfs. I watched the show and all that stuff but then 20 or 30-some years later when I went into the meeting to talk to Kelly Asbury, the director about doing the music one of the first things that he said that I thought was great was, “We want to bring back the magic and the colorfulness and the adventure of the Smurfs.” The more recent movies ended up in the human world which while interesting lost some of the magic. Kelly said, “I want to make this an adventure ride that has magic and real stakes but is also really uplifting and has a great message.
The Smurfs really were this great show there was only one girl, Smurfette, and she was different but she was special and she was powerful. Now we’re in the situation where we’ve found another girl Smurfs village. So now we have the opportunity to take everything that was good about the Smurfs and put in this girl power message and a message to children that says, not only is it okay to be different, it is great to be different.
It’s really special. What makes them able to actually defeat Gargamel at the end is this difference and the fact that by working together with everyone’s special traits they get to do something wonderful. Kelly wanted the music to be a driving force in terms of taking that power. He wanted the music to speak to their strengths, especially Smurfette and Papa. I really felt I could expand my musical language by doing that and so I was on board right away and I just let him direct me.

As soon as Lennertz saw the colorful and imaginative concept art, he knew the music had to match it.

This was not a brown and pale blue world. It was magical and filled with color. There’s dancing flowers and magical dragonflies and plants that have eyeballs and I felt like, “Wow this is a fairytale!”
I said, “We need musical instruments to join the orchestra and musical textures that are also that interesting and so what we actually ended up doing is I came up with the idea to actually build some of our own instruments based on things that are in the movie.
The girl Smurfs blow into trumpets that are basically flowers and they play on drums that are mushrooms and they have mallets that are based on toadstools and so we actually built those instruments and used them in music. So, we actually had them built and they were finished three days before we were going to London to record and we shipped all the instruments and recorded live with those instruments along with the orchestra.

The score uses instruments from all over the world.

There’s a lot of ethnicity although it’s not from any one part of the world. It’s a mishmash of these original instruments mixed with percussions from Brazil, and pipes from Argentina and then tin whistles from Ireland and there is membrane flute from China. So we really put a lot of different ethnicities altogether in the hopes of creating this vivid world that matches all of these colors that Kelly thought up. And so, my idea was not that anyone would listen to and say, “Oh, that sounds ethnic” or “I recognize that,” but more that they would hear it and say, “I don’t know what that is. I hear all these unique textures that are sort of bouncing around with the orchestra.”
And then the other thing I pitched to Kelly which he jumped on board with was the idea of using a children’s choir. Everyone remembers the La-La song that the Smurfs used to sing. Kelly didn’t want to use that particular song in the score but I said, “What if we used the idea of the children singing La-La melodies for parts of the score?” And so we ended up using this kids choir here in Los Angeles that we recorded and it was 16 adorable children who sang different melodies with La’s in order to kind of bring that to life.

The Smurf-like instruments added to the sound as well.

The mushroom mallet, which is more of a smaller toadstool, those sound kind of like a marimba but more hollow. The mushroom drum sort of looks like an upside down mushroom. In the film the girls actually jump off the tree and they bounce on it and it makes a timpani-like sound. So, it’s actually a loosely strung head on top of the mushroom shaped drum which has a real sort of hollow timpani style sound, it’s really fun.

The music helps to introduce the new characters, too, a whole village of female Smurfs.

I have two daughters, a nine-year-old and a four-year-old, who love to venture into the woods and do artillery and all that kind of stuff and that’s similar to these little girl Smurfs. They are really the warriors.
So there is a lot of percussion and there is the woodwind horn blast like a tribal chant and we actually did tribal chant with the choir. I used words like blue and toadstool translated into Dutch. They are “Braveheart”-style warrior girls. That’s why I love my daughters so much, they are so tough and I thought it was awesome to bring that to movie.

He had a lot of fun writing for the villain of the movie, Gargamel (voiced by Rainn Wilson), and his sidekick cat, Azrael.

The only person in the whole world who thinks he is the ultimate villain is Gargamel himself. So, he talks to himself in the mirror and he talks about how is going to take over the world. If you listen to the music as he becomes more effusive about his big plan, the music tends to grow at those moments based on what would be inside his head as what he thinks of himself but then it almost inevitably cuts to Azrael who looks at him and rolls his eyes and immediately the music says, “Yeah right.” Great idea because, I think Azrael is the funniest character in the whole movie. I think he is hilarious and he is always the foil who cuts Gargamel back down to size.
Anytime Gargamel got a little bit scary or a little bit big and little bit maniacal immediately the rug was pulled out by Azrael’s comments and then the music would get much smaller and say, “Yes sure, you’re going to be able to destroy the village.” He had a lot of this sort of quirky personality that Rainn gave him in the way he delivered his line and it felt almost like medieval jazz. He had this like old school wizard thing but he almost seemed like a little hipster. So what I did was I used this hammer dulcimer, which would definitely be found in old medieval music, but I played it in a swung rhythm, in almost a jazz rhythm and so it takes all the darkness out of it and it makes it kind of like dancy, and so you see when Gargamel is swinging around his lair grabbing little bits of things to put in his potions, there’s always a little dance that he is doing that bring it into a more light place. I didn’t want to get in Rainn’s way because his dialogue is so funny and over-the-top. So the score is just little hints of evil magic but without too much evil.

As the father of daughters, this film had special meaning for Lennertz.

The world has finally caught up with how tough girls really are. When you look at things like Brave and Frozen and Tangled and Moana, you’re seeing this world where just being a princess really isn’t good enough anymore. It just fun, it’s not realistic, it’s not particularly exciting, so I think at least when I watch my daughters, they don’t want to get saved, they want to pick up the bow and arrow and swing across the mud pit.
Smurfette was always very smart and tough but there was only one of her and she obviously had to live in this world of guys. So when Kelly he said, “Here is the big surprise — we have this whole world of girl Smurfs who by the way are way tougher than the guys and they are led by Julia Roberts,” I said, “This is great; this is exactly what the Smurfs needed.”
The thing I really loved about it is it never felt like it was a surprise that they were tough. It was never made a big issue it was just, “Look, that’s who they are.” That’s a real tribute to Kelly and our writers, Stacey Harman and Pamela Ribon, who were really fantastic. They didn’t pander to any kind of gender stereotypes. They just said, “These are our characters, they happen to be girls, and they happen to kick ass, and that’s it.” I think that’s what makes it such a great piece for young kids to watch and say, “You can do anything you want. It does not matter what color you are, what ethnicity you are, what gender you are; you can swing from trees just like anybody else and save the day,” and I think that’s really cool.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on April 4, 2017.

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