With Artists Like Will.i.am, Taio Cruz And Sergio Mendes, 'Rio' Bets Big On Music

Barely three minutes after leaving the lot of 20th Century Fox, Taio Cruz asked his manager to turn the car around.

Cruz had just screened the forthcoming movie "Rio" with the Fox music department executives, who were eager for him to contribute music to the film's soundtrack.

As his car was leaving the lot, Cruz says he suddenly remembered a melody he had been working on.

"I have a lot of half-finished songs, many of them ballads, and I realized that I already had something that would work," Cruz told Billboard prior to boarding a flight that would take him to a concert in Jakarta and the film's premiere in Brazil. "We went back into [Fox Music president] Robert Kraft's office and the head of Fox came in. Everybody loved it."

Kraft recalls that the screening started at 1:30 in the afternoon and that by 4:30-after Cruz's tune had been played for Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman/CEO Tom Rothman and other executives-they had a new song for the animated film.

"I have never been so convinced within 20 minutes of hearing a song," Kraft says.

Everyone associated with "Rio," which opens April 15 in the United States, considers Cruz's "Telling the World" a potential monster hit. But they're equally aware that the days of, say, Elton John scoring a No. 4 hit single with "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from Disney's "The Lion King," are a thing of the past.

Hit singles have little sway at the box office. And outside of Disney, DreamWorks and "Alvin and the Chipmunks," music-driven animated projects are a rarity.

But with "Rio," Fox is making an unusually heavy bet on the promotional power of pop. The soundtrack album, which Interscope will release April 12, features songs by major stars like Cruz and the Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am. The latter also appears in the movie as the voice of the red-crested cardinal Pedro, along with Grammy Award-winning artist/actors Jamie Foxx and Jemaine Clement of "Flight of the Conchords," who lend their voices to the characters Nico and Nigel, respectively. Foxx and Clement also contributed to the soundtrack, as does the hitmaking songwriting/production duo Stargate, which produced Ester Dean's "Let Me Take You to Rio."

There are other music-related marketing drivers lined up as well. A video for Cruz's midtempo ballad "Telling the World" is scheduled to premiere on Vevo March 25. Will.i.am is booked to perform his "Rio" track, "Hot Wings (I Wanna Party)," on "American Idol" March 31. And the developer of the popular game app Angry Birds will release a special "Rio!" version of the game that includes one of the sambas from the film.

Will.i.am says he hopes his "Idol" performance of "Hot Wings" will become what he calls a "viral baton" that will be passed around the Internet, adding that "the scene in the film with the song can act as a music video."

Renowned bossa nova artist Sergio Mendes, the film's executive musical director, contributed as a writer or performer to five songs on "Rio," the first time in his 50-year career that he has written music for a film. Two of the tracks appear on the soundtrack album, including a new version of his 1966 hit "Mas Que Nada."

Anthony Seyler, Interscope Geffen A&M VP of film and TV marketing and soundtracks, says he's putting his faith in movie-goers wanting a soundtrack as a souvenir.

"It's the closest thing to a musical we have seen at the label," Seyler says. "The music team [Mendes, Brazilian musician Carlinhos Brown and score composer John Powell] did such a great job making the music a character in the film."

Mendes, a Rio de Janeiro native, enlisted Brown to recruit contemporary Brazilian artists for the soundtrack, including Bebel Gilberto and Mikael Mutti. In addition, Brazilian pop star Ivette Sangalo has recorded a Portuguese version of Dean's "Let Me Take You to Rio" for the Brazilian market.

"It's such a great celebration of Carnival-the nature, the rhythms, the joy, the sensuality-that I think it will be easy for anyone [to enjoy]," Mendes says.

Seyler says the soundtrack's multigenerational appeal is a key selling point, while Kraft, who says "Rio" has potential hit songs, sees it as part of a continuum that includes the popular soundtracks to "Garden State" and "Slumdog Millionaire."

"There are not a lot of opportunities like this anymore," Kraft says. "It's the billiard shot that's lined up in front of the hole. If it doesn't work, it's a head-scratcher."

For his part, Will.i.am brought a love and knowledge of Brazilian music to the soundtrack, having co-produced Mendes' 2004 album, "Timeless," and recorded with Brown in Brazil's Bahia region.

"I think they leaned on my view of Brazil as an American," he says. "I already knew what the vibe should be. [I would] take something I would hear in a club and make it work regardless of what country [the listener is in]."