'UglyDolls' Composer Christopher Lennertz on Making a Modern-Day Pop Star Musical
When Christopher Lennertz first caught wind of the in-the-works animated film UglyDolls, it was designed to be a fun movie with a single song. "I was working on the Bad Moms franchise at the time," says Lennertz, a prolific comedy film composer whose resume includes the aforementioned 2016 film and its sequel A Bad Moms Christmas, as well as Horrible Bosses and Pitch Perfect 3. "At the time, UglyDolls wasn't supposed to be a musical, so I wrote the song 'Couldn't Be Better' to maybe open the movie. Everyone loved it and within a week or two they hired a new director (Kelly Asbury) who immediately said, 'This song is great; we need to make the whole movie a musical.' So they came back to us and we kept going."
Lennertz and co-writer Glenn Slater's (Tangled, Broadway's School of Rock) resulting effort is being billed as a rare modern-day pop star musical with an original soundtrack of songs sung by the film's cast, including Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monae and Blake Shelton. "A lot of times they cast actors who don't sing and then it's really painful," says Lennertz of the idea of having a cast full of recording stars. "For us, we thought it'd be a great situation if we started with people who had amazing voices. Kelly was number one from the very beginning."
Based on the popular line of plush toys, Clarkson plays Moxy, a doll who lives in a town called Uglyville who discovers a nearby community called Perfection where Uglydolls are spruced up in order to gain the love of a future child owner. As the story progresses, the dolls eventually realize that (spoiler alert!) being different is better than being perfect. "A lot of the time, we'd show who we wanted to cast little bits of the movie and some songs, and they'd respond really, really well," says Lennertz of the casting process, who notes he got everyone on his dream casting list. "This is a whole movie for kids about not worrying what other people think. So it has a great message and I think that's what got us this amazing cast."
Lennertz, who was always keen to work on a musical, notes that the film's message is an overarching one found in many animated classics. "The character of Moxy wants something more, which is the key to all animated musicals, whether Beauty and the Beast or Little Mermaid." From there, his main goal when concocting its soundtrack was to craft songs that showcased each character's personality while remaining upbeat and catchy. That included working closely with Clarkson and kicking things up a notch once she signed on. "Some songs were already written before she joined the cast, so then we went about making what we already had edgier to make sure she can show off," he says. "When we did our first session with her, there are a couple spots where we had written the melody to go up to a certain level and she was like, 'Hey, do you want me to go higher than that?' And as a composer we're like, 'Can you?' Because most people can't. But she'd take it to a whole different level."
The soundtrack, which was released last week, is anchored by Clarkson's "Broken & Beautiful," which was produced by Marshmello and Steve Mac and co-written by P!nk. Other tracks include cuts courtesy the Atlantic Records boyband Why Don't We, a new Bebe Rexha anthem dubbed "Girl in the Mirror," and an acapella cover of the 1980 Hall & Oates classic "You Make My Dreams" from Pentatonix. When it came to Nick Jonas, who plays the film's nefariously 'perfect' villain Lou, Lennertz and his team wanted his musical voice to be melodically charming. "You get he's a villain, but he also needed to be sort of lovable," Lennertz says. "So with Nick, we gave him early '80s influenced tracks that harken back to Prince, complete with some '70s funk horns." (Oddly enough, Lennertz is friendly with legendary drummer and Prince associate Sheila E. from when the two were on the Grammy board of governors. "She hasn't heard the songs, but I'm sending them to her as soon as they come out. I hope she approves.")
The recording process doubled as a trip around the world, with Clarkson and Shelton recording in Los Angeles and Nashville, Jonas recording in New York and Monae recording in New York and Atlanta. The strings and the score were then cut at AIR Lyndhurst Hall in Hampstead, London. "We saw it all put together about four weeks ago and it just jumps off the screen," says Lennertz of his initial reaction to the final product. "Kelly showed it to her kids, and she said she was trying to talk to them about something but couldn't get them to pay attention since they were so into the movie."
Overall, Lennertz emphasizes that building everything from scratch was a composer's paradise. "There's not a lot of musicals that get made outside of Disney," he notes. "I think people are going to love it and hopefully they'll be singing the songs for a long time. For me, it ended up turning into a dream come true."