Chris Meledandri had jack antonoff at hello. When the Illumination founder first met with the multi-Grammy Award-winning producer to enlist him to helm the soundtrack Minions: The Rise of Gruhe hit Antonoff’s sweet spot.
“It wasn’t about getting the 10 biggest streaming artists right now. There weren’t any of those cops that could exist around those things,” says Antonoff, best known for producing Taylor Swift, Lorde, P!nk and St. Vincent. Since the film is set in the ’70s, the idea was instead “to take modern artists who are really kind of in the tradition of the great music of the time and then record them with this half-modern, half-super-analog technology. Animation in children’s movies is pretty freaky, so you can get away with a hell of a lot.”
The film, the fifth in the Minions universe, serves as the origin story for the Gru character as his teenage self realizes his twisted vision of becoming a supervillain – with the help of his yellow, jean-loving, pill-shaped Minion sidekicks.
Fusing his favorite contemporary artists with his favorite tunes from before he was born, Antonoff, 38, has created the feel-good soundtrack of the summer, out tomorrow (July 1) on Decca/Verve. From Brittany Howard’s inescapably groovy remake of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” (featuring EW&F bassist Verdine White) to St. Vincent’s spacey rendition of Lipps Inc.’s “Funky Town,” HER’s layered percussive version of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” and Gary Clark’s slapping rendition of Ides of March’s “Vehicle,” the Antonoff-curated time capsule feels delightfully retro and downright futuristic at the same time.
The 19-track set also includes such nuggets as Phoebe Bridgers’ resigned, horn-filled cover of The Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love,” Weyes Blood’s faithful rendition of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good,” and Jackson Wang’s leaky rendition of “Born.” to Be Alive” by Patrick Hernandez (sung in English and Mandarin). Antonoff’s band Bleachers contributes a violin and string-filled variation of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.”
While the album primarily features covers, the album is also headlined by the bubbly single “Turn Up the Sunshine,” performed by Diana Ross with Tame Impala. The song, written by Antonoff, Patrik Berger and Kevin Parker of Tame Impala, charted at number 21 billboard‘s Adult Contemporary chart this week (dated July 2), making it Ross’ first hit ever billboard Airplay charts since 2006, and her first as a lead artist since 1999. (Verve sister label Republic tops advertising spend on pop radio.)
After signing his contract, Antonoff would discuss ideas weekly with Universal Pictures’ music president. Mike Knobloch (who originally brought in Antonoff and connected him to Meledandri) and his team, including Rachel LevyExecutive Vice President of Motion Picture Music at Universal Pictures.
Knobloch knew the sum of all elements to create something special. “We have been working with Illumination ever since [its] started curating a really unique musical identity for their films a dozen years ago, which is a bit left of center,” he says. “When you lay that all out – Illumination’s identity, the ’70s setting, Jack at the helm and the ability to invite the kind of artists Jack would love to work with – it all added up to something quite unique and exciting .”
They cast the soundtrack together. “I’d have a list of people I love, and we’d just go through all of those things,” says Antonoff, adding that his initial song list was about 40 songs. “It was kind of an enigma in that way. I thought about the people who are making music right now that I love and respect the most – some I knew, some I didn’t – and then my favorite music from that time. And then we just slowly put it together.”
The film and soundtrack were originally slated for release in 2020, well ahead of 2021 ThanksRoss’ first album since 2006. “And then because of the pandemic, I think there were about 10 other versions of schedules and plans,” he says Laura MonksCo-President of Decca.
Ross played a role in landing the soundtrack on Decca. In 2019 Knobloch visited London marc robinson, President of Globe, Universal Music UK’s creation and commercial partnerships division, when Robinson introduced him Sam Muford, A&R Manager at Decca UK. Mumford courted Ross to bring her to Decca.
“That was the birth of the idea that led to, ‘if you get into business with Diana Ross and she becomes more active, why don’t we talk about an opportunity with her minions Film that focuses on the 70s,” Knobloch recalls. “Rachel and I went to Bel Air and had the opportunity to sit face to face with Miss Ross and tell her about the project and ask her to do a song – and then we started.”
“Mike really made that possible,” says Antonoff. “We talked about it so much. It was such a dream and he got in touch and she liked the song.”
Ross’ pairing with Tame Impala was a “big swing,” Knobloch says, comparing it to Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande’s partnership To sing Soundtrack. “What can you do to cut through and grab people by the shoulders and get their attention and get them to say ‘holy shit’?”
Working with Ross was exciting, says Antonoff. “We sent her the song and we started talking about it and making some changes. She’s very specific and brilliant at what she does and doesn’t want to do and how she wants to do it.”
When it came time to start recording, Ross brought her own sunshine. “The first session we book, she shows up with all these grandkids, there’s literally all these kids around,” says Antonoff. “And you can hear that on the record. In the beginning, that voice that says, “Turn up the sun,” that’s one of her grandchildren. We’re in the studio and she’s singing the song in the big booth and she was surrounded by all these kids dancing and singing with her. It almost sounds artificial because it was so beautiful.” (Antonoff and Ross hit it off so well that he ended up producing and playing “I Still Believe” for them Thanks Album.)
“Turn Up the Sunshine” plays in the film and over the credits. A song’s role in the film often dictated whether the original version was used and how far Antonoff could go with the remake. “Which songs were true to the original and which were more fun is a film thing,” says Antonoff. “[With a] song, which only plays for a brief second in the film, we can really let off steam with what we’re doing with it.”
“Our main task in making these films is to meet the demands of the film,” adds Knobloch. “There’s a scene in the movie where you see a young Gru recording ‘You’re No Good’ in a ’70s record store and dropping the needle on it. We didn’t want to fictionalize that, even though we’re talking about an animated film – so that’s Linda Ronstadt in the film and Weyes Blood on the soundtrack,” says Knobloch. “Whereas with other songs, whether they’re playing in a montage sequence or coming off a radio, we would have this conversation from a movie perspective: ‘Do we have an opportunity here to cover this song, or do we want to continue with the original recording?’ We’re introducing a lot of these songs to younger audiences, so they won’t know the difference between a cover and an original of a ’70s song – but older people who see the film will.”
Despite the pandemic, Antonoff said he’s been able to record “about 80% in person” with the artists, which helped create magical moments. “I remember Tierra Whack coming down. We just started messing around with drum machines and samples and she does this kind of percussive whisper and we built this version of ‘Black Magic Woman’ that just happened in the room,” he says. “Same deal with HER. She came to Electric Lady [Studio]. We didn’t have much and I started playing the drums, she started playing the drums. In this drum take, we both play drums on different parts.”
Antonoff announced the album on his Instagram in May after a worldwide poster campaign sparked tremendous curiosity about the project. Bright, psychedelic ’70s-inspired pop-art posters were plastered across London, Tokyo, Australia and Brazil, with Ross and Tame Impala being the biggest and the rest of the artists featured on the soundtrack as if they were all playing a festival would. The film was not mentioned, although there were a few minions hidden in the artwork.
“The reception was incredible – mainly the pictures that went around the world were the posters that hung in the streets of London,” says Monks. “We knew there was a lot of power from the unique cast on the record, we knew this was going to be something that would grab people’s attention… We knew this piece of art would appeal to multiple generations. I think it’s so brilliant that it was a physical poster in real life that caught people’s attention when everything is always so digital these days.”
Monks says she worked so closely with Universal Pictures that she joked that she spoke to Knobloch and his team “more than I have spoken to some of my own relatives” as they worked together to create the imaging and messages for the soundtrack’s diverse audience to do right. In addition to the children and their parents who see the film, they also believe that there is a natural audience among Antonoff’s followers. “Jack is obviously very proud of this project and really committed to it. I think that’s where he gives the music fans that kind of credibility and authority to pick it up,” says Monk.
Because Minions collectibles are in high demand, Decca ensures the soundtrack is available in multiple formats, including cassette, picture disc, and vinyl.
Antonoff hopes so Minions: The Rise of Gru Soundtrack introduces these songs to a new generation but believes their place in history is secure no matter what. “I think there are certain songs that live in the moment and there are certain songs that live forever,” he says. “I think the songs I chose, regardless of this project, live forever. So this can only be another point in the long story of all the songs that will reach far into the future of mankind.”