Editors Note: This story originally ran on December 8, 2016.
If you happen to have come within earshot of a speaker over the last six months, there’s a fair chance you’ll have heard Justin Timberlake’s joyous summer song, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”, which must surely be one of the most regularly-played tracks of the year. It’s the flagship anthem on the soundtrack to DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls, in which Timberlake plays Branch, a curmudgeonly paranoiac for whom the upbeat happiness of his fellow Trolls is anathema. Timberlake is also the movie’s executive music producer, responsible for leading a multi-hyphenated cast, including Anna Kendrick and Gwen Stefani, in new renditions of classic hits like “True Colors” and “The Sound of Silence”.
Trolls is a film that preaches happiness and inclusivity above all else. A tonic for our times?
It’s something that’s come up recently with the filmmakers at a couple of Q&As I’ve done. It’s sort of what we were trying to accomplish, but we didn’t know it was going to be so prescient. It’s ironic the movie’s called Trolls, because those are angry, weird people who sit behind computers, nowadays.
What struck you about it?
I’d be withholding the whole truth if I didn’t say that having my own child has made me look at the world completely differently. I liked the movie’s message, that you don’t need all these things to be happy.
As well as my son, I have two goddaughters, and so it felt nice to have a female hero that didn’t represent the status quo for what young females growing up so often feel like they need to look like. She’s oddly-shaped, bright pink and short. So many girls grow up with their own body dysmorphia, and shame that they may not look a certain way.
DreamWorks has also always cornered the animated market in taking something retro and making it feel modern. And there are always things there for adults, too. One of the things that became very valuable to me was the music, and the ability we had to introduce a whole new generation to these classic songs.
Were you always prepared to be so heavily involved with the music? You’ve played voices in animated movies before, but this level of involvement was more than a few days in a vocal booth.
My relationship with Jeffrey Katzenberg dates back to Shrek the Third and he always said, “We’ve got to find an animated movie that you can do the music for.” He’s always had that in my brain, so it got me thinking differently about it. And I don’t know if it was planned this way, but this movie has become a swansong for him at DreamWorks. He called my manager and was like, “I got it. I got the thing; come in and get the pitch; and there’s a character as well.”
How did the job wind up working?
You get to take so much time because it’s not live action, and you can pitch all these ideas, so I found the whole thing really advantageous. I would go to the DreamWorks campus and do a day of voice work for the character, and then two days later I would have studio time lined up to start working on the arrangements. Some were already in place, but I would beef them up, add thicker drums, and then work on the main task, which was “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”.
The advantageous thing was, I was seeing and feeling the whole world while I was working on the character. I’ve been asked to work on music for movies before, and you always feel a little removed because you only get so much of a sense of what the movie is, and what that makes it sound like. There were so many different kinds of songs as well, so to find a way to help them live on their own, but also sound cohesive by bringing in the same players to work on them, that helped.
Amongst all these classics, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” fits right in at the heart of the movie. It’s such a spirited ode to the power of music.
It really all sprung out of that final scene. My manager had said, “That version of ‘True Colors’ that you do with Anna; if that came out before the movie, and I didn’t have a relationship with the movie, it would still be intriguing to me.” It got me thinking about the soundtracks that I love. Saturday Night Fever was something I kept talking about with the directors. This is a trippy movie, and it felt to me like watching an ABBA video under the influence of something crazy. It got me thinking about disco again, which I think is a highly underrated genre of music.
That’s what really spawned “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”. It was that scene where it’s like, there’s one thing that we can all find relative, and that can make us feel things. Music has always been referred to as a universal language, and it is. I felt like, why don’t we write a song about music making you feel good? It’s something pure, that you can always count on. With that scene at the end of the movie, everyone had to come together to capture that feeling. Everyone kept talking about the “feeling” of it, and so I was like, “Well, clearly there’s something sitting right in front of us that we can’t deny.”
Then Max [Martin] and [Karl] Johan [Schuster] and I just started from there. We were referencing songs that just made you feel good. Bee Gees records, Bill Withers; things like that. And it was important to be able to say that there’s nothing wrong with that feeling.
It’s got such an unabashed energy to it and I remember playing it for my friends and everybody was like, “Put this out now.” We just thought it would be a fun exercise for the movie. So we did two different versions: the version in the movie, and then the version we released as a record. But it wasn’t until we were about halfway through the process of writing and recording the song that we realized we had something… that it had a little carbonation to it.
Has the process of being involved in the movie so fully changed your relationship with music?
Has it impacted the way you’ve been writing your new album? Well, I don’t know specifically. Sonically, everything I’ve been working on so far for the new record—which is always subject to change—doesn’t sound anything like “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”. But I have this thing that happens to me in the studio when I’m writing a song and it’s like I want to take a detour and write almost the antithesis of that song. You kind of keep going at it in that way. I wish I could be a little more concrete in what I’m telling you, but I just don’t know exactly what it is I have yet. I can tell you that what we’re working on doesn’t sound like “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” though. That was specific to Trolls.