In person or conducting, Christopher Lennertz has a boyishly enthusiastic personality that could easily make you imagine he was a member of The Goonies just a few decades before. So it’s no surprise that he’s becoming a go-to composer for funny animal kids’ movies are increasingly playing a part on a diverse resume with the likes of “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Hop,” “Marmaduke” and “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.” It’s a merry melody orchestral style that sings with colorful brightness and adventure. Yet in R-rating land, Lennertz is having just as much fun getting down and dirty for adult comedies, which hit new MPAA extremes of naughty words and raunchy sex with no small help from “The Hangover.” Ever since, Lennertz has been rocking and rolling with attitude-filled musical jams of his scores to two “Horrible Bosses” pictures and “The Boss” herself (though don’t think that Lennertz doesn’t have an utterly sweet PG13 side as well with his stuff for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2”).
Now Lennertz likely has his best laugh as both ratings merge with “Sausage Party” and “Bad Moms.” The latter group will doubtlessly end up taking their kids to the first movie by horrific mistake, while otherwise going in packs to attend the other picture for vicarious laughs. But that’s part of the wink-wink come-on joke of “Sausage Party,” whose delightfully gloved, kid-friendly foodstuffs are not-so subtle stand in’s for horndogs and the buns they want to get inside of as they try to find their place in “The Great Beyond” that lies outside of the grocery store. While “Party” immediately announces itself as a full-on Seth Rogen and friends’ vehicle with a barrage of naughty words, dope smoking and sex jokes, Lennertz, along with his “Galavant” collaborator Alan Menken deliver the typical toon-adventure sound with truly fresh vitality. You’d even think this score would be accompanying a Mickey Mouse adventure if said rodent was on some brave knightly quest in a misbegotten DV sequel to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” However, if Walt say what the guy who made Disney toons a habitual Best Score and Song winner was really up to, he’d likely spin more than a few times in his grave with the gleeful musical take-down that Menken and a deliciously errant Lennertz are truly up to. The result is exhilaratingly symphonic, expected PG CG toon music that’s accompanying anything but the sort.
Equally on note for a title that promises exactly what it delivers, “Bad Moms” is an often hilariously telltale film from “Hangover” co-writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who apply their foul-mouthed, drunken and sex-upped shenanigans in the service of girl power. Where Lennertz delivered a raw, rocking rhythm and blues guy’s night out sound for his two “Horrible Bosses” scores, the composer is perhaps just a little bit more sympathetically feminine in band sound as drives these desperate housewives and their bratty kids about town to take on the snooty PTA. While guitar and rock rhythms are abundant here, Lennertz’s ensemble also gets such feminine touches as a ukulele and women’s chorus, with strings providing a more emotional touch, showing that ladies can musically rough house with the guys while keeping their melodic dignity intact. It’s all part of the exuberant, comic course as Christopher Lennertz provides two of the summer’s most enjoyable comedy scores, one of which demands to chowed down with hot dog in gloved hand.
What do you think it is about your work that’s made your particularly busy composer when it comes to comedy?
Well, first and foremost, I think I get comedy. I grew up with things like “Stripes,” “Caddyshack” and “Ghostbusters,” and then ended up studying with Elmer Bernstein, who I consider to be the king of that kind of scoring. I also have a background in rock and jazz as a guitar player, so I think that eclecticism helps in terms of keeping things current stylistically. I think the most important thing though, is that I tend to be pretty big in terms of attitude, both with orchestra as well as other styles, which is really important when the music is playing the straight man. Whether it’s full on rock swagger like in “Horrible Bosses” or save the world type heroics here in “Sausage Party,” my instinct is always to have the music represent who the characters themselves think they are as opposed to what an audience might think they are.
How did working with Alan on the song-filled comedy series “Galavant,” help set you up for “Sausage Party?”
Two years on “Galavant” helped Alan and I develop a shorthand with each other. It also allowed me to learn a lot about his approach, which I’ve always been such a fan of. At the same time, I think he got so see and hear what I really do well in terms of action and how I deal with orchestra. By the time the opportunity came up, I think it made a lot of sense for us to work together.
Animation goes through a lot of “re-writing” as it were, and I can only imagine the challenge of “Sausage Party” on that end. How did the development process of the film affect your score?
Things definitely changed though out the process, but the great part was that our concept never changed. We all spoke at the very beginning about making this feel and sound like a huge epic Pixar styled adventure and we never wavered from that approach. Seth said on day one that he didn’t want comedic music, we knew we had to make Frank the hero and have the audience really root for him and cheer on the love story. The key to making this work was to make the audience care for the characters no matter how crazy the dialogue and animation became.
Have you always longed to screw with the Disney musical formula, let alone its animated clichés from back in the Menken days? And as the man who helped pioneer it, do you think Alan had as much fun messing with the style he helped put on the map?
I’m a huge Disney fan, so I have so much respect for all of those classics that defined a genre. More importantly, Alan’s work on things like “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” are some of the reasons I wanted to score movies! The best comedies are often those that attack the classics head on using their approach. Elmer scoring “Stripes” like Jerry Goldsmith’s “Patton,” or Elmer approaching “Three Amigos!” in the same way he scored “The Magnificent Seven” makes everything more hilarious in the most respectful sense. And yes, Alan had a ton of fun. This may have been his first R rated film, but he’s actually a very R rated person!
On the other hand, how “straight” did you want “Sausage Party” to be the kind of scoring you’d expect from kid-friendly movies, especially as you’ve scored no small number of them yourself?
“Sausage Party” is as straight as can be. We didn’t want any family clichés for the most part. The only part that we approached in a family way was when the food first came home with the shopper before the ultimate truth was revealed to them. At that point, we tried to misdirect for as long as possible, so when the slaughter happens, it’s really shocking.
How did the opening song “The Great Beyond” spin itself into the score?
“The Great Beyond” was the first thing that Alan and Glenn Slater wrote for the movie. It was definitely supposed to be a huge production number that sets up the whole story, a la Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Little Mermaid’s Ariel in “Under the Sea.” The cool part was taking the initial motive from the song and weaving throughout the score in all different variations. It can be found set heroically, romantically, with a flamenco bent, as a horror motif…it’s incredibly effective and really becomes the main theme of the whole story. There are probably 8-10 character themes that we wrote as well, but it really is leitmotivic in a very classic way.
What was it like working with Seth Rogen? And did you get a contact high?
Seth was very involved from day one and had an amazing vision for what the music should do in this movie. He’s so smart and has great instincts, but he was also so supportive and enthusiastic throughout the process. Even at Abbey Road during the sessions, I’d see him laughing and clapping in the booth, then on breaks, he’d come out in the room and ask the musicians about their instruments, see if they were enjoying themselves, even hang about for a few pics. He’s a great spirit and really fun leader. And yes, I got a few decent contact highs, but I’m still holding out hope for a really great hang…hopefully if the movie’s a hit, maybe we can all celebrate for real!
How did the vocal performances inspire your work? And did you have a particular favorite character?
Whenever you have an amazing cast like this, it’s very easy to be inspired. Especially with characters like Selma Hayek’s sexy taco and the evil Jersey Shore vibe of the big baddie, Douche voiced by the amazing Nick Kroll. I used their inflections and delivery to influence both instrumentation and melody. Hard to pick…I think my favorite character would either be Theresa Taco, Firewater, or Ed Norton as Sammy Bagel Jr.
You’ve made very good use of all the ethnic food styles the score could turn into. Was that a big appeal of the score to you?
I love inside jokes within a musical score – especially hiding melodies normally heard in serious moments within source cues. The real fun in this one was also translating lyrics from the song into Spanish, Hindi, and Farsi. I even got my friend Asdru Sierra, lead singer of Ozomatli to sing the version of “Great Beyond” in Spanish for a mariachi version inside the cantina when The Douche becomes El Douche.
Is it a particular challenge to have music both humanize, and make you feel sorry for food?
Actually no. I think in general, I always score all the characters regardless of whether they are animated as I would any characters. When Ariel falls in love or Chip the teacup is sad, the score plays the emotions, not the characters. I think we do the same thing here. The thing that I hope will stand out the most, especially as it relates to the music, is how much this movie feels like a broad epic adventure tale. There’s a love story, a bad guy, a ragtag band of unexpected friends…we all wanted to make sure that regardless of the shocking dialogue and over the top images, the music’s job was to sell the emotions and the story.
You’re definitely right about that heroic, “quest”-like feel to the score that could easily mistake for a family-friendly score about knights. Was this always the intention?
Absolutely, Conrad Vernon, one of our directors, said, “Let’s make this the “Star Wars” or “Braveheart” of vulgar animated talking sausage movies!” As soon as I heard that, I was sold. Much like “Lord of the Rings” or something like that, our heroes are thrown together from different aisles/backgrounds and in the end, they learn to work together and become friends who in essence save their entire world and figure out the truth of the their universe. That’s Huge!
Tell us about your excitingly “Omen”-esque approach to the “Food Massacre”
That score is one of the greatest ever written and it was obviously the inspiration for that pivotal moment in the film. I was just thrilled to be able to write something in that style and be able to achieve it with such a great orchestra and choir. The most fun part was translating my poem about sausages and bread being slaughtered in hellfire and a river of blood. Where else could I possibly get away with that?
There’s surprising food for thought to “Sausage Party.” Beyond playing the obvious surface of animated scoring, did you want to hit the subtext of “the gods” and the meaning of existence as well?
Yes of course. I think everyone will be very surprised at all of the social commentary that Seth and the gang sneak into this one. There’s the struggle with the afterlife, all kinds of commentary on race and class, strong support of the rights to love and marry whomever you choose, and we even find common ground that could lead to love and peace in the Middle East! There’s a lot more under the surface than I think anyone is expecting.
“Sausage Party” has a terrifically lush and epic orchestral sound. How did you achieve that?
The Philharmonia Orchestra of London played their hearts out in studio 1 at Abbey Road. They got what we were going for right away and were amazing to work with. Our choir was the same. Really fantastic…and it was funny when they all saw “Canis Calidus” and started cracking up.
Having done a “macho” rock band approach for the “Horrible Bosses” films, what was it like getting into a more feminine mindset with that approach for “Bad Mom,” especially with unusual instruments for that ensemble like the ukulele?
First off, while “Bad Moms” is pretty raunchy at times, the directors wanted me to play more of the emotions. Co-director Scott Moore is actually from Hawaii and he suggested the ukulele. When I first wrote the family theme, I used it and they loved it. I think it’s a great and simple representation of the bond between a Mom and her children. Even though we wanted to connect with Moms, we needed to feel authentic, so that’s when I reached out to KT Tunstall, who I met last year and am a huge fan of. I really wanted her voice to bring the score to life so it sounded more like a record than just underscore.
Do you think there are instruments that are friendlier to women than most, and do you think making this score more emotional would make the ruder humor play better?
Maybe, I don’t know. I think it has a lot less to do with things being friendlier to women than it does with representing family and mothers with their kids. What we did do was listen to a lot of the best female pop artists and try to get some of that feeling and attitude. Everything from KT of course, to Feist and Liz Phair, even a hint of Courtney Love and Rihanna. Not literally per se, but definitely as inspiration.
In general, why do you think the “band” approach is the rage for raunchy comedies these days? And why do you think you have a particular talent for that?
I actually think that comedies, especially ones that are set in a more “realistic” setting (rather than genre stuff like “Ghostbusters” or “Sausage Party”) have always been the first to incorporate popular music stylistically. Henry Mancini did it with Jazz, Disco in the 70’s, Harold Faltermeyer in the 80’s. Comedies that want to take audiences along for a ride tend to need music that sets a mood and gives the audience permission to laugh rather than telling them when to laugh as an orchestral score might. As for any particular talent, I’d say it has more to do with my ADD than anything else. I love so many different kinds of music and the thought of incorporating different elements and styles keeps it interesting for me.
Did seeing what your wife goes through influence your score at all?
Of course. My wife and her friends would fit right in to this film. There’s so much pressure to be perfect Moms It’s natural to want to fight back and get back to what’s important: Loving your kids and doing the best that you can.
I really loved your work on “Agent Carter,” and am sorry to see the show go. Could you tell us about your experience through her saga, and how it opened up a nostalgic, jazz-tinted world of comic book scoring for you?
I loved “Agent Carter” from the very beginning. I’m a huge Cap fan and I was honored to take Peggy’s story, especially under the direction of Louis D’Esposito. Peggy was the ultimate assignment for me: 1940’s noir meets WWII military action mixed with the epic backdrop of the Marvel Universe. I had such a great time with her whole story. We were able to record with amazing musicians every week and even got to do an old fashioned MGM musical number that I co-wrote with David Zippel. It was an honor to be a part of it and I’m sad to see it go.
Would you hope for more adventures in the Marvel Universe, and is there a particular character you think you’d be well suited for?
Absolutely. I’m ready to go whenever! I have a great relationship with them and would definitely pour my heart and soul into any of their stories. It would be a dream come true. For me, right now, I think Spider Man would be the perfect fit. I could do something bold and thematic with heroism and grandeur. Plus he’s truly one of my all time favorites. I think I’d really nail that one.
You’ve done quite a bit of charity, and humanitarian work as a film composer. What inspired this, and how do you think music helps get an altruistic message across?
One of the quotes we often use is that music succeeds when words fail. I find that to be so true, especially in this highly charged climate of fear and division, where cultures don’t really understand each other. Music can bring people together, inspire emotion and empathy between those who do not share a language, and give purpose to young people at the most crucial times in their lives. Both of my parents were teachers, so I think my desire to promote education stems from this, but I also feel very blessed to have the life I do and if we all try to use our talents to give back to others, the world could be a much better place for our children and future generations.
You recently conduct a concert of Basil Poledouris’ music in Spain. What kind of influence was he on your career?
Basil was my hero, my mentor, and my friend. It was an honor for me to produce this concert with his daughters this summer. Truly unforgettable. Not only did I learn so many things from him, but his support and guidance really gave me so many opportunities. Beyond that, the love and support I got from his family was so amazing. “Conan” is still one of my favorite scores ever written and I hope that some of Basil’s passion for melody and power shows through in my writing from time to time.
Next up you’ll be scoring a satiric big screen riff on the already funny TV class “Baywatch.” What can we expect?
I’m still waiting to see a cut, but if I the director know Seth Gordon will make it very big and ballsy. It’ll probably a ton of fun and have great action sequences. I’m sure there will be a mix of a few different musical styles thrown in there and you can bet it will be huge. Can’t wait to get started.
Knowing that a bunch of under-17 kids are going to do their best to sneak into “Sausage Party,” how do you think they’ll appreciate your score?
I’m not sure if they’ll notice it, but subliminally, they’ll wonder where all these emotions came from in the middle of this raunchy movie they snuck into. That said, I’m sure Alan and I would be thrilled to see YouTube videos of kids playing the Douche theme on electric guitar or a middle school show choir doing a bleeped out version of “The Great Beyond!”
If you had to make a choice between scoring truly kid-friendly comedy, and way more seditious sex and drug humor-filled movies like “Sausage Party” and “Bad Moms,” what would it be?
Luckily, I don’t because the answer would be BOTH…and then some! As I said, being ADD and having a pretty eclectic musical taste, I tend to look for projects that contrast both with each other and with what I’ve been doing. I love following up “Agent Carter” with “Galavant” and “Thanks For Sharing” with “Sausage Party.” There’s nothing like taking stylistic and dramatic left turns for avoiding writers block and getting inspired. So if only I could follow up “Sausage Party” and “Baywatch” with some kind of Merchant-Ivory style drama, I’d be all set!
“Sausage Party” opens in theaters August 12th, with Christopher Lennertz and Alan Menken’s score available HERE.
Visit Christopher Lennertz’s web page HERE