Chris Meledandri had Jack Antonoff at hello. When the Illumination founder first met with the multiple Grammy-Award winning producer to pitch him on helming the soundtrack for Minions: The Rise of Gru, he hit Antonoff’s sweet spot.
“It wasn’t about wanting to get the 10 biggest streaming artists right now. There was none of that bulls–t that can exist around these things,” Antonoff, best known for producing Taylor Swift, Lorde, P!nk and St. Vincent, says. Instead, since the movie takes place in the ‘70s, the idea was “to take modern artists that are really in some way in the tradition of the great music of that time and then record them with this half modern technique, half super analog technique. Animation in kids’ movies is pretty trippy, so you can f–king get away with a lot.”
The movie, the fifth in the Minions universe, serves as an origin story for the Gru character, as his adolescent self realizes his twisted vision of becoming a super villain — with help from his yellow, denim-loving, pill-shaped Minion buddies.
In marrying his favorite contemporary artists with his favorite tunes from a time before he was even 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 spacy take on Lipps Inc.’s “Funky Town,” H.E.R.’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 at once delightfully retro and completely futuristic.
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 interpretation of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good,” and Jackson Wang’s percolating rendering of Patrick Hernandez’s “Born to Be Alive” (sung in English and Mandarin). Antonoff’s band Bleachers contributes a violin and string-filled variation on John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.”
While primarily covers, the album is also led by the effervescent single “Turn Up the Sunshine,” performed by Diana Ross featuring Tame Impala. The song, written by Antonoff, Patrik Berger and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, sits at No. 21 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart this week (dated July 2), making it Ross’s first hit on any Billboard airplay chart since 2006 and her first as a lead artist since 1999. (Verve sister label Republic is leading the promotional charge at pop radio.)
Once he signed on, Antonoff discussed ideas weekly with Universal Pictures president of music, Mike Knobloch (who initially brought Antonoff in and connected him with Meledandri) and his team, including Rachel Levy, Universal Pictures’ exec vp of film music.
Knobloch knew all the elements added up to create a special offering. “We’ve worked with Illumination since [its] beginning a dozen years ago to curate a really unique musical identity for their films, which is a little bit of a left of center,” he says. “When you lay all of that out– Illumination’s identity, the ‘70s setting, Jack at the helm and an opportunity to bring in the kind of artists that Jack would be excited to work with– that all added up to something pretty unique and exciting.”
Together, they cast the soundtrack. “I’d have a list of people I love and we would just talk all this stuff through,” Antonoff says, adding his initial song list was around 40 songs. “It was kind of a puzzle that way. I was thinking about the people who were 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 kind of slowly pieced it together.”
Initially, the movie and soundtrack were supposed to come out in 2020, long before 2021’s Thank You, Ross’s first album since 2006. “And then then due to the pandemic, I think there were about another 10 versions of timelines and plans,” says Laura Monks, co-president of Decca.
Ross played a role in the soundtrack landing at Decca. In 2019, Knobloch was in London visiting Marc Robinson, president of Globe, Universal Music UK’s creation and commercial partnerships division, when Robinson introduced him to Sam Mumford, an A&R exec at Decca UK. Mumford was courting Ross to bring her to Decca.
“That was the birth of the germ of the idea that led to, ‘if you guys are getting into the Diana Ross business and she’s going to become more active, why don’t we talk about an opportunity with this Minions movie, which is ‘70s themed,’” Knobloch recalls. “Rachel and I went to Bel Air and had an 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 were off and running.”
“Mike really made that happen,” Antonoff says. “We talked about it so much. It was such a dream and he got in touch and she liked the song.”
Pairing Ross with Tame Impala was a “big swing,” Knobloch says, comparing it to partnering Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande on the Sing soundtrack. “What can you do to cut through and grab people by the shoulders and get their attention and make them go, ‘Holy s–t?’”
Working with Ross was a thrill, Antonoff says. “We sent her the song and we started talking about it and making some changes. She’s very specific and brilliant about what she does and doesn’t want to do, and how she wants to do it.”
When it came time to record, Ross brought her own sunshine. “The first session we book she shows up with all these grandkids, there’s literally all these kids around,” Antonoff says. “And you can hear that in the record. In the beginning, that voice saying ‘turn up the sunshine,’ that’s one of her grandkids. 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 fake because it was so beautiful.” (Antonoff and Ross got along so well that he ended up producing and playing on “I Still Believe” on her Thank You album.)
“Turn Up the Sunshine” plays in the film and over the end credits. A song’s role in the movie often dictated whether the original version would be used, and how far afield Antonoff could go with the remake. “Which songs were faithful and which got more f–ked with is a film thing,” Antonoff says. “[With a] song that only plays for a quick second in the film, we can really go wild in what we do with it.”
“Our primary job when we’re making these movies is to service the needs of the film,” Knobloch adds. “There’s a scene in the movie where you see a young Gru take ‘You’re No Good’ in a ‘70s record shop and drop 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 movie and Weyes Blood on the soundtrack,” Knobloch says. “Whereas other songs, whether it’s playing in a montage sequence or coming out of a radio, we would have that conversation from a film perspective of ‘Do we have an opportunity here to cover this song or do we want to go with the original recording?’ We’re introducing a lot of these songs to a younger audience, so they’re not going to know the difference between a cover and an original of a ‘70 song — but older people who see the movie will.”
Despite the pandemic, Antonoff says he was able to record “like 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’s doing this sort of percussive whisper thing, and we built this version of ‘Black Magic Woman’ that just happened in the room,” he says. “The same deal with H.E.R. She came down to Electric Lady [Studio]. We didn’t have much and I started playing drums, she started playing drums. That drum take is both of us playing drums on different parts.”
Antonoff announced the album on his Instagram in May following a global poster campaign that ignited tremendous curiosity about the project. Bright, psychedelic posters featuring ‘70s style pop art were plastered all over London, Tokyo, Australia and Brazil, with Ross and Tame Impala in the biggest type and the rest of the artists on the soundtrack listed as if they were all playing a festival. There was no mention of the movie, though there were a few Minions hidden in the artwork.
“The pickup was incredible — predominantly, the images that traveled around the world were those posters that were on the streets in London,” Monks says. “We knew there was a lot of power in the unique roster that is on the record, we knew that that that would be something that would catch people’s attention… We knew this artwork would appeal to multiple generations. I find it so brilliant that it was a physical, in real life, poster that caught people’s attention when nowadays, everything is always so digital.”
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Monks says she worked so closely with Universal Pictures, she joked that she talked to Knobloch and his team “more that some of my own relatives,” as they collaborated to get the imaging and messaging right for the soundtrack’s multiple audiences. In addition to the kids and their parents who see the film, they also think there’s a natural audience among Antonoff’s followers. “Jack is really obviously very proud of this project, and has been really leaning in, so I think that’s where he gives that kind of credibility and authority to the music fans for them to pick up on it,” Monk says.
With Minions collectibles in high demand, Decca is making sure to have the soundtrack available in multiple formats, including cassette, picture disc and vinyl.
Antonoff hopes the Minions: The Rise of Gru soundtrack introduces these songs to a new generation, but feels their place in history is secure no matter what happens. “I think there’s certain songs that live in the moment and then certain songs that kind of live forever,” he says. “I think the songs that I chose, regardless of this project, live forever. So this can just be another point in the long story of all the songs which are going to go way into the future of mankind.”