Bringing the Dead to Life: The Music of Coco

By Etan Rosenbloom with Mike Todd  •  November 22, 2017

For a movie that has so much to say about our relationship with the dead, Pixar’s animated feature film Coco is brimming with life. Miguel, Ernesto de la Cruz and the rest of the film’s unforgettable cast of characters come alive (though many of them are actually dead) through emotionally nuanced writing and the film’s vibrant colors, which burst from the screen like the flowers adorning a Mexican Day of the Dead ofrenda.

Music - and more specifically, the music of Mexico - has a huge part to play in Coco. Pixar brought on board Germaine Franco to collaborate with screenwriter/co-director Adrian Molina on a set of authentic-sounding original songs, and co-orchestrate Michael Giacchino’s vivid score. Just a few days after Coco officially became the biggest box office hit of all time in Mexico, we spoke with Franco and Molina about their incredible work on the film.

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Coco is all about the power of music and remembrance. So I wanted to start by asking for a memory of your own that speaks to that theme.

Molina: I always remember when I was growing up. My dad would play guitar for us in the living room. There’s a special rag that he used to play, and all the kids would dance to, and every time I’d hear it, I think of him and I think of that moment. And it’s this ecstatic joy, this child-like joy, because it’s a tune I’ve only ever heard him play. I think what that speaks to is the beauty of the power of music, not necessarily for performance’s sake, but connection’s sake. It can really inspire a memory and a feeling and a moment of communication that no other language has the power to do.

Franco: Well I think from my own life, is the first day of coming home [age] 8 to 10, having seen all the orchestral instruments shown to me by one of my teachers and just having this idea that I want to play drums, and me being very insistent that I wouldn’t play anything else, and then eventually getting to do that and seeing that how happy that made me.

Starting with drums, and then sitting at the piano and spending thousands of hours - no one asking me to practice piano or practice percussion, just wanting to do it. I don’t know why that happened. Nobody in my family is a musician. I was just drawn to it. But music was so powerful that once I started playing it, I couldn’t stop. ::laughs:: 

Did those early years playing percussion inform what you do now as a composer?

Franco: It gave me a sense of rhythm and time. I also think playing keyboards was also another important development. At that time I never knew I would be a composer, but I’m thankful that I wound up here. 

Adrian, this was your first time writing songs for a film. Did you delve right into it all by yourself? Or did you consult with anyone - or do any research - before you started writing lyrics? 

Molina: For the lyrics, a lot of it was just inspired by just storytelling. I wanted to create songs that felt like they would come from the characters who were singing them and creating them in the story. But part of doing that was knowing that it came from Mexico, and researching all of the different styles and the tune and the history. And I had a wonderful partner in Germaine Franco in exploring the styles that would lend themselves to these different moments in the film.

Germaine, your work on Coco encompasses way more than just songwriting, of course. All the orchestration, arrangements and production, directing entire bands...what was the most rewarding part about working on this movie?

Franco: I think the most rewarding part was being able to work with Adrian Molina as a songwriter, to find a way to make these songs work within the story. That was so exciting. To see a song working with this fantastic animation was really great. The second most rewarding - oh it was equally rewarding - was having this cultural conversation with 50 mexican musicians in four days. It was like an international cultural exchange. It was all going on in Spanish. We were all communicating through music, which is its own language. And I was just amazed at how fluid it was, because you know, it’s hard sitting in a room with someone you don’t know and all of a sudden come up with some real good music. 

The players were fantastic. They were so kind and open to trying new things. And they really showed the power of Mexican music. Those moments, sitting there in a group and showing them, “Okay here’s the scene. Here’s a source piece that Michael Giacchino wrote. Now let’s see how we can add to it.” 

There were a lot arrangements of traditional songs like “La Llorona,” “La Sandunga,” songs that you hear in Mexico. And [the musicians] all have their different versions. and we all just collaborated together, including Camilo Lara [from Mexican Institute of Sound], who found all these great musicians. 

Did those 50 musicians gather so that you could learn from them, or did you actually record them for the film?

Franco: That was not a research trip, that was a production trip. There were three different parts of music we took down there. We took original songs like “Un Poco Loco” and “Remember Me.” This one called “Much Needed Advice” - a montage. “La Llorona.” And we gave them the songs and said, “Okay we’re ready to record.” I had all the charts and scores and I know exactly what we were going to record on each song, but then what we learned from them was on some of the traditional songs, they would had a different way that they would like to suggest. “Let’s change the arrangements a little. Let’s add this at the end.” Or “Let’s not have so many violins.” 

We already had arrangements that I had arranged and co-orchestrated with Jeff Kryka, and I had also done demos of all the songs in case some of them couldn’t read [music]. So it was a lot of music that we covered. Then there was source music that Giacchino wrote. It was so great. We had a lot of fun and we ate tacos.

Would you say your Mexican heritage played into the songs you wrote for Coco? 

Molina: Yes, in that a lot of the lyrics are Spanish-language. And there’s a particular fun and beauty and novelty in trying to figure out rhyming schemes across different languages so that was helpful. But also just the fact that being of Mexican heritage and living with my Mexican family inspired a lot of the sentiments in the song. I would say definitely, that was an influence.

Franco: It played a huge role. I had all the memories, it was already in my DNA, it was in my head. I know the songs. When they first said, “We’re gonna write some songs that sound like Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, from the ‘30s or ‘40s, I remember my grandpa watching those black and white TV shows so I knew right away what they were talking about. And I had studied and performed a lot of Latin music in college, and I come to this as a performer as well as a composer. 

I didn’t really think about it consciously. I just wanted to make it so people in Mexico would really like it. Would my ancestors say “Yes, this is coming from our roots.” I always thought about my grandfather and thought, although he is no longer with us, I wanted him to hear it and say “Yes, that sounds like Mexican music.” (Obviously he would have said it in Spanish). The other thing was that, being able to speak Spanish and go down there and have these conversations about music was really important because we didn’t have a barrier. There was nobody translating for us.

How, as a composer, can you make the music recognizably Mexican to somebody who might not have much experience with Mexican music, but still avoid musical cliches?

Franco: If we’re talking about the songs, one way is through the use of instruments. Take away the bass and put in a guitarrón. Don’t have an electric bass, just have the acoustic. Use guitars that are for that particular style. Like in [the Mexican musical style] jarocho, we use a requinto and a jarana. Writing in a certain way, arranging it. Not having a bassoon on the song that’s an ensemble that should be jarocho. Don’t just put a bunch of bongos and congas on it and call it Mexican music. Using the instruments from those specific styles.

We included multiple styles of music, and that helps. Nowadays, I think people turn on the radio, they hear banda, they might not know what it’s called, but they’ve heard a lot of these styles. Then also, using Mexican musicians, the stylistic factor is important. It’s recognizably Mexican because we use Latino musicians.

Did you have to find ways of weaving in the authentic Mexican sound with Giacchino’s score?

Franco: Yeah. I was the arranger and co-orchestrator with Jeff Kryka on the score. And one thing I did was take a melody and give it to a certain instrument. For example, I added a bass marimba on several pieces. A lot of the instruments in Mexico, they sound different than the instruments that are used in the studios here. So we made a real effort to get those instruments where possible - especially with the percussion section, we used some replicas of Aztec drums and indigenous shakers. We had this fantastic musician named Pedro Eustache, who plays all the most amazing flutes. The lead guitarist we used was Federico Ramos. He's playing all the solos that you see or most of them, and he knows the styles. We also had Enrique Martinez, who’s an accordion player...we had a violinist named Rocio Marron. There were fantastic Latin percussionists, Walter Rodriguez, Luis Conte, Alex Acuna. We had Abe Laboriel on bass. We had this trombone player named Francisco Torres who plays with Poncho Sanchez.And then we had Giovanna Clayton Moraga who’s a fantastic cello player from Mexico. Her dad was in the session. I mean we really went all out to get the best session players, and a lot of them also play with Michael anyway. So it was fun. And Michael is really open, and I just enjoyed working with him.

From a screenwriter/co-director’s perspective, what’s it like interfacing with Michael Giacchino as the composer for the score?

Molina: We’re also first and foremost storytellers, and Michael approaches it the same way: “How do I use my art to express this moment? How do I emphasize what the character is feeling? What their challenges are?” He paints with music and it adds so much to this family we love, this world we’ve created. And to see him do the exact same thing but in a medium that has so much effect on what the audience feels…[adding music is] the point in the film where it improves the most in the shortest amount of time. Because it happens at the end, and you add a whole new dimension to the storytelling that is unique and specific and will always be remembered as the voice of this film.

The song “Remember Me” by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, has something like eight different iterations throughout Coco, and Germaine, you arranged and/or produced two of them. What was it like taking the same chords, melody and lyrics and transforming it to fit the different narrative in each situation?

Franco: Oh it was fun. I can’t tell you how many different ways we tried that song to make sure it fit the way they wanted it. Basically, it was just different arrangements, different ensembles and textures, different guitar solos, different vocal parts. It was great. I mean [the Lopezes] are both great writers so there was a lot to start with. Great melody, great harmony, nice vocal arrangement, so the orchestral arrangement, I just tried to make it over the top. You see on the screen, hundreds of dancing women and lots of different ensembles. We really tried to make it into a “golden age of Mexico” film moment.

Molina: That’s gonna be one of those songs that stands the test of time. We’ve been working on the film for like six years, and we heard that song hundreds of hundreds if not thousands of times, and it still has that effect on me. ::Laughs::

Adrian Molina & Germaine Franco chatting at a red carpet event for Coco
Adrian Molina & Germaine Franco chatting at a red carpet event for Coco

Adrian, was there anything you learned about songwriting from working with Germaine?

Molina: Leaving flexibility for the specific circumstances. This is something that I also bring with me from the filmmaking process. I think as I was writing, it was interesting to be thinking about, whether we’re writing this for a particular voice or for a particular duo. Or if two people are going to be singing it, who’s taking the harmony, who’s taking the melody?

These are all things that it was really fun from a storyteller’s perspective to approach - not only what are the lyrics, but who’s singing them, and what do they have to say about it. And as the lyrics started to be put to music and we started to temp in singers and doing the demos and ultimately getting the actors, the fact that the story of the song can take on new life, depending on who’s performing it, and what it means if we give this lyric to this character, not that character. Those are all things that, as a storyteller, really is a whole new palette of colors to work with. 

Germaine, tell me about working with Adrian. In addition to being your lyricist, he was also a co-director. So I’m guessing he had a lot to say from a sort of an overall perspective for the music. 

Franco: It was such a nice partnership. He’s so deep into the story that he provided such a context for the songs and explained it quite well. He was very clear with his descriptions, and we would have long conversations with him and [Coco co-director] Lee [Unkrich] and [Coco producer] Darla [Anderson], and then Adrian would bring the lyrics to me and we would go back and forth. I did give him multiple versions of one song and he would say what he liked about it. Sometimes he would allow me to expand the song by repeating a lyric. He was very open and flexible, and we somehow had a very natural way of working without thinking about it too hard. We also had the same connection because he’s also Mexican-American. He would give me ideas like say, “I like this type of music. Let’s try and write something in this style.” And he did a lot of research. I was already given a lot to work with. 

Did any of the songs evolve during the production process?

Molina: For the songs that we wrote, we tried to craft them for specific stories and moments. Often times it was a very quick process from beginning to end. And within the course of three months we would have a version to put into the screening to see if it worked for the story. 

I’d say the song that probably went through the most evolution is “Proud Corazon.” That was a really fun one to write because writing lyrics that summed up this feeling when you’re spending time with your family and learning the value of that, came only from having gone through this journey of telling this story and making this film. All of a sudden, we needed to have a melody that expressed this journey that Miguel had gone on. I think that was one of the most beautiful processes, because instead of just creating a song to express a single moment of the film, this is a song that we got to go through the whole journey of the movie all over again, and distill those emotions into one big finale.

This was your first major studio production as a primary member of the music team. What did that help you to do that you may not have done otherwise for a smaller project?

Franco: I’ve been working on big projects, but not as a primary member. So having the resources to add a whole orchestra to a song - that’s fantastic. Having the resources to go to Mexico and record the musicians you want. We also had more time. A lot of the independent projects, you’re lucky if you have a couple of months. Working on this for four years, you actually have time to develop the pieces that you’re working on. And also having this incredible creative process at Disney and Pixar - you’re on a team, you’re not just out there by yourself, and there’s all these different components that work together. Being being able to go up to Pixar and see how that works, and learn from other people...it was a wonderful experience. I’m really thrilled and grateful to be able to have worked on it. 

Was there anything about the actual animation itself that inspired your music? 

Franco: Yes. One thing that was quite different in the film was the attention to detail of the musicians’ hands. The animation of the musicians playing. They would videotape all the performances with multiple angles, so we would see how incredible the artists at Pixar are at creating the animations of the musicians. Whenever we were working, we would make sure that that was covered, so when you would see it on screen, you think “Oh my God. It really looks like he’s playing that chord that way, correctly.” 

The other thing was the beautiful colors and the lighting and the artwork were so inspirational. I saw the first rough cut that was animatics, and even that looked so fantastic. It was so beautiful from the beginning, the way it looked, it really made me want to do a great job for them. Not to mention the story. I always loved getting my call from them saying, “Now, can you do this?”

Germaine, the ASCAP Film & TV department has followed your career for years. Can you talk about how ASCAP has impacted your scoring career? 

Franco: I first met [ASCAP’s] Mike Todd, from working alongside [ASCAP composer] John Powell. I would go to events and see how you guys worked with composers, and I just felt like that seemed very personal to me, so I became an ASCAP writer and publisher. A couple times going to Sundance, I was supported by ASCAP. They included me in their “ASCAP at Sundance” feature on your website. Also, Loretta Muñoz is one of my mentors at Women in Film, and she’s really helped not just me, but female composers. I felt like ASCAP was more of a family. Your whole staff. I’ve made some personal connections and that makes a difference when you’re coming up and you need help.  Every composer has lots of roles to play, and having that support is really great.

After just a few weeks in theaters, Coco has become the biggest film of all time in Mexico. How did you react when you heard the news?

Franco: I was so happy. Well to start, Tom McDougall - who is the musical executive - sent us a note and said, “The soundtrack is #1.” And it’s just gone from there. It makes me feel happy because I’m of Mexican heritage. I feel very proud of the work Pixar and Disney has done to create such a beautiful film. 

Molina: We were honored and humbled. We had never taken for granted the fact of how this film would be received, and to hear that news and to hear the effect it’s had has made us very glad and touched our hearts.

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Coco arrived in theaters November 22. Find out more and get tickets at movies.disney.com/coco. 

Visit Germaine Franco online: www.germainefranco.com

Follow Adrian Molina on Twitter: twitter.com/AdrianTheMolina