Why Justin Timberlake’s Strong “Feeling” Can’t Stop
By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor • January 9, 2017
#1 in over a dozen countries and with multiple award nominations, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is one of 2016’s biggest success stories
DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls is a smart comedy about the search for happiness. It also presents a case study in how a song written for a film can leap from the screen into the outside world and become a smash hit beloved by millions. Justin Timberlake, who provides the voice of Branch in the story, was asked to oversee the music for the film, which features five original songs as well as a number of classic hits from the ‘60s to the ‘80s. When he set out to write a song, "Can't Stop the Feeling!," for one of the film’s signature music numbers, little did he know that he would create a new classic of his own, and one that would shoot to #1 in over a dozen countries, become 2016’s biggest-selling digital download, with 2.49 million sold, and be nominated for a Grammy, a Golden Globe and three iHeartRadio Music Awards.
Timberlake recently talked to ASCAP about co-writing the song with fellow ASCAP members Max Martin and Shellback, how he was inspired by disco and how he just wanted to create something that made people feel good. Mission accomplished.
When you signed on as the voice of Branch, did you already know that you were going to be the Executive Music Producer?
This is the last film that Jeffrey Katzenberg did at DreamWorks before he sold the company, so it was presented to me as a one-two punch, so to speak, to be involved not just voicing the character, but being in charge of all the music.
So it didn’t take a lot of convincing.
What’s interesting, they pitch you, but the way these animated films are made, they’re creating a whole world before they even cast the movie. They go into all the testing for all the animation to find out what it’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like. When they did this pitch, I went to the DreamWorks campus, and I was able to see in a theater about 30 seconds to a minute of what the finished animation would look like. It’s what happens when you watch any of these animated films, you know? You turn into a kid again. They’re always so well done. So that’s really what sent me over the edge.
Also, I remember when I was in school, all the girls had the troll pencil-toppers that they would put over their erasers. So I just remember it from being a kid. Yeah, it was a pretty easy sell. They also got me at a really good time, too. Because, obviously, I just had a son.
You talked about seeing some of the animation first before you started working on the music. When you’re watching “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” in the film, there are all these great little details where the music and animation combine - like how Bridget throws a cooking spoon at Chef, and it hits her head right on the downbeat. Did you have to adjust anything musically yourself so it could synchronize so perfectly with what’s onscreen?
No no no. The animation was all done after we had gotten the song. Basically the way it happens is they storyboard the song, so you’re sort of writing to storyboard. You kind of know what needs to happen in a general way, but all those specifics are done by the animators and the directors and the writers when they have the song done, and they’re starting to finish the animation. But yeah, it’s really clever how they put everything on beat.
I was tickled to discover that it was just over 20 years ago that ‘N Sync recorded its very first single, “I Want You Back,” which was co-written by Max Martin. And you’re collaborating again, two decades later on Trolls. What was it like to work with Max again?
When I first worked with Max, I wasn’t really a songwriter at that point - or a producer. That’s something I feel like I grew into. I was 16 years old when we recorded that song, so we didn’t have to find any new ground, because so much time had passed and our dynamic was completely different. But also, I’m sure you can vouch for the fact that your experiences when you’re 16 vs. what they are right now, if you were to run into somebody, you’d start from zero, you know? But yeah, we had a laugh about it. It’s a testament to Max, really, that he’s been making as many hits as he has for all these different artists for that long.
(Above, l-r) Journalist Jon Burlingame, ASCAP’s Maura Duval, "Can't Stop the Feeling!" co-writers Shellback, Max Martin & Justin Timberlake and ASCAP’s Rachel Perkins at The Society of Composers & Lyricists screening of Trolls
On “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” the way it sounds is just as important as the lyrics and melody that you wrote. Talk about the process - did you sketch out the song before the beats and synths came in? Or did it all happen at the same time?
It was all kinda happening at the same time. The movie’s playfulness felt very ‘70s to me, very psychedelic in a way. I knew that we were covering so many genres of music, the one that we really hadn’t covered was disco. I knew the song needed to be upbeat, I knew it needed to be rhythmic, and I felt like the only genre we hadn’t covered is disco, so let’s write a modern version of a disco record. Any by the way, I think disco’s a very underappreciated genre. Some of those ABBA songs are unbelievable, classic songs.
So yeah, that’s really where we started with it. It was funny, because we were having trouble figuring out “What do we actually say?” We were trying to get this idea of happiness across. We started talking about how music was a universal language, and how you could be in a really terrible mood but one of your favorite songs can come on, and that can completely change your mood. Then we were looking at these characters, who love to sing and dance. Why don’t we make the whole song about how jovial it can be to just sing or dance to your favorite song? It felt like it was right in front of us. It’s kinda funny - for a second there, we were caught up in trying to shoot a long-range jump shot when a layup was right in front of our faces, you know?
Part of your job as Executive Music Producer was to coach the actors on their singing parts. What’s it like telling Zooey Deschanel or Gwen Stefani what to do? These are musical people to begin with.
Luckily, our cast of actors all had great voices. It wasn’t really that hard. It’s like anything, treating it like I’ve had directors treat me in a scene, where you’re being specific about the performances. The only thing I really had to make suggestions on was just rhythmic inflection. It would be something they would respond to immediately…they’re all so talented.
(Above, l-r) Justin Timberlake coaches Anna Kendrick during the recording sessions for Trolls, as co-directors Walt Dohrn (left) and Mike Mitchell (right) look on
So there were no late-night sessions doing 30 takes with James Corden?
Oh, no no no. Anna [Kendrick; Princess Poppy in Trolls] had to do the heaviest lifting as far as all the singing, so a lot of times we would cut a verse four times, and I would just comp it together, pick my favorite pieces of it, and let her listen to it. There would be times, too, where she would go “You know what, I think I can do that one line better.” And I’d go “Great! Go back in and let’s do it.” I felt like I had star athletes to work with, so it was easy to coach them.
You’ve worked on a couple family films before - Yogi Bear, Shrek the Third. Now that you’re a dad, did working on Trolls feel especially meaningful to you?
Oh, totally. Absolutely. It changes everything. You have a ton of surreal moments, where you go “Oh my gosh, I get to share this with my son one day.” And also too, he was really young when we were starting to write the music for it, but you start to see their personality develop, and it brought me closer to the writing of “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” for sure.
I would have never written a song like this if it weren’t for those two factors: him and the movie. Something inside of me became so unabashed about the whole thing that I feel like I lost all of my cynicism. We all have a level of it that we carry around with us - I felt like I lost any cynicism and just got out of the way. It definitely changed the experience of writing the song.
It’s been a crazy year, too, to see how people have responded to it, even outside of the movie. But then going to the premiere, and seeing them see it in the movie, them having that recognition, it’s been amazing. And it’s basically all my son’s fault.
Do you have any sense of why it’s reached this incredible level of chart success, and been such a success at award shows?
No, I don’t. I’m very grateful for it, thankful for it, but I don’t know. I feel like every once in a while, you hear a song that kinda makes you feel good. That’s what I’m noticing the most, and that’s what I’m happiest about. It just makes people feel good. It’s a nice thing to share with people as an artist.
Hair is so important in Trolls. Looking back at your many hairdos, is there one that stands out above all others for you?
As what? Good or bad?
It could be that, or it could be the most useful hairdo you ever had. In Trolls, their hair is actually practical.
I don’t know man. I made it through the late ‘90s in front of the whole world. I’ll answer it like this: it’s important, in life, to know what not to do. I’ll leave it at that.
Trolls is now in theaters. Find out more at www.dreamworks.com/trolls
Visit Justin Timberlake on the web at www.justintimberlake.com