The Disney Channel is making a leap of faith with its first hip-hop/gospel-themed movie musical, a step toward drawing in new audiences and developing teen musical stars.
"Let It Shine," which premieres June 15, is a launch pad for Coco Jones, a 14-year-old African-American singer/actress who Disney discovered through its Next Big Thing competition and has since appeared in the series "So Random!" and performed at festivals and malls. Hollywood Records signed her to an exclusive recording and publishing deal in May.
It's Disney's first original movie since last year's "Lemonade Mouth," which delivered the No. 1 soundtrack of 2011, selling 379,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Lemonade Mouth" was a ratings success as well, pulling 5.7 million viewers for its April 15, 2011, debut, according to Nielsen, which made it the No. 1 TV movie at the time.
Disney scrapped plans for a sequel and has instead moved down a path that "Lemonade Mouth" opened up with a rock soundtrack harder and heavier than standard Disney Channel fare. Like "Lemonade Mouth," "Let It Shine" and Disney Channel's 2013 original movie "Teen Beach Musical" focus on new musical styles and new characters.
Disney's first venture into the R&B/hip-hop music marketplace was the 2007 double-dutch jump rope film "Jump In." "Let It Shine" goes a step further, tackling not just new a musical style, but also incorporating a plot that involves the music industry.
"The challenge was to get in the studio and create hip-hop that feels legitimate - be real life and still be lyrically Disney," Disney Channel VP of music and soundtracks Steven Vincent says. "We walk the line by doing a positive spin.
"We also give kids a picture of what it means to be an artist and what happens when you have to make [artistic] choices. It's a nice opportunity to do a little education, which is not a dirty word. It's a nice chance to explain a little bit about how you develop a track."
Vincent brought in David Banner and In-Q to write raps for the principal characters, played by Tyler James Williams, Trevor Jackson and Brandon Mychal Smith, as they navigate a story modeled on "Cyrano de Bergerac" with hints of "Joyful Noise" and "8 Mile." Another 17 writers contributed to the film's soundtrack (among them Toby Gad), which Walt Disney Records released June 12.
As is the case with all Disney Channel movies, prerelease marketing efforts rely heavily on Radio Disney. The radio network's website prominently featured two music videos from the film: Jones' "What I Said" is a production number from the film, while "Guardian Angel" features Williams rapping and Jones singing but doesn't contain any footage or scenery from the movie.
Part of Disney's plan with "Let It Shine" and "Teen Beach Musical" is to reach a slightly older audience, more boys and parents. Key to that is creating story lines that appeal to mothers and fathers and drawing on musical styles from different generations.
"Movies like 'Lemonade Mouth' and 'Let It Shine' gave us a chance to explore some classic stories - 'Breakfast Club,' 'Cyrano de Bergerac' - and put our own contemporary, musical spin on them," Disney Channels Worldwide president/chief creative officer Gary Marsh writes in an email. "As for 'Teen Beach Musical,' we wanted to take the elements we loved from 'High School Musical' and reinvent them by way of 'Beach Blanket Bingo' and 'Back to the Future.' What we ended up with was something that felt novel and accessible simultaneously, and we knew that Ross Lynch, the star of [Disney Channel's] 'Austin & Ally,' would be perfect for the lead role."
"Teen Beach Musical," which will premiere in spring 2013, taps the classic surf-movie premise of bikers vs. surfers and features 10 original songs by Antonina Armato and Tim James, Jeannie Lurie, Aris Archontis, Chen Neeman, David Lawrence and Faye Greenberg, Ali Dee, Mitch Allan and Jason Evigan.
Surf rock, Motown, rockabilly and '60s pop with a comedic twist shape the soundtrack that Vincent says contains Disney's "first real villain song."
It has different choreography than the other films, the camera moves and the wardrobe, too," Vincent adds. "'Teen Beach Musical' is multigenerational - we want the whole family to watch. It feels like 'Grease' in that [the film] appealed to an audience that hadn't heard that [style of] music. It's an opportunity to surprise our audience with music styles they may not know."