My favorite new podcast is “Crazy Good Turns,” stories of kindness and generosity. Episodes so far include a program to send military veterans to the world’s disaster zones, a preacher who was “conned by God“ to provide inspiration and support in a troubled city, a sort of Johnny Appleseed of children’s playgrounds, and a family who created a program to help first responders in memory of a brother who died on 9/11. They do a good deed of their own by including music from emerging and innovative performers in the podcast. It is available on iTunes and Stitcher, and you can suggest your own good deeds or music groups for future episodes.
Jake Monaco is a multi-talented composer who has worked on a variety of projects for film and television. His music will be featured in Fox’s highly-anticipated action comedy “Keeping Up With the Joneses,” starring Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot, Isla Fisher, and Zach Galifianakis. He is also currently scoring three family-favorite animated series, “The Stinky and Dirty Show,” Netflix’s “Dinotrux,” and Warner Bros. Animation’s “Be Cool Scooby Doo.” As a producer and composer of additional music for Christophe Beck, Monaco has contributed to the animated magic of “Frozen,” the record-breaking laughs of the “Hangover” trilogy, the furry hijinks of “The Muppets,” and the award-winning documentary “Waiting for Superman.” What he loves about composing for movies and television is creating music that tells the story. He took time from his busy schedule to answer my questions.
What was the first instrument you learned to play?
I started taking guitar lessons when I was 6, but after a year of not wanting to practice, my parents let up. Then my freshman year of high school, my family moved, which left me with a lot of free time. I started getting more into music in general at this point and so I found that same guitar from when I was 6 and started teaching myself. I think it’s still in my attic actually… I should go and get it at some point 🙂
When did you first realize, watching a movie, that someone composed a score that helped tell the story?
My favorite movie as a child was Ghostbusters and although I didn’t know anything about Elmer Bernstein at the time, I remember the music being an integral part of the story.
What was the first composing job you got paid for?
I was accepted into the USC film scoring program 2006-2007. My first paid gig was with a director named Zeus Quijano on the short “Point of Entry”. A few years later he turned this 5 min short documentary into a 20 min version, which I was also lucky enough to work with him on. He is hoping to turn it into a feature eventually. Fingers crossed!
At what stage do you usually come into a project? Before or after filming has been completed?
It completely depends on the project. Some smaller projects, I have started working on themes or sound palettes prior to shooting, or in the case of animation, during the storyboard phase. Although on the last two features, I’ve been brought on only a few weeks before completion. I had two and a half weeks for “Absolutely Fabulous” and five weeks for “Keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s kind of exhilarating to be under that sort of deadline; adrenaline gets you through!
If you could go back in time and score any movie, what one would you pick?
Probably any James Bond film. I love them all (even the bad ones). 🙂
When you work on a film that mixes genres, like the action comedy “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” how is that reflected in the music?
I try to make the action sequences as fun as possible. While there are still stakes in the film, the music doesn’t have to play them so seriously, it’s ok to have fun! There’s a long, exciting chase sequence in the middle of “Joneses” that, while it has a driving beat and action elements, has a funk horn section and some crazy EDM synth interjections. The comedy is really all about timing; when is the perfect moment to drop out. A lot of the time, a joke plays funnier when the music pauses for it as opposed to commenting on it.
Did you incorporate any unusual instruments?
Without giving away too much, there is a running theme through the movie about the Joneses going to this little café in Marrakech in Morocco. So I did a little research and found some instruments native to that region that are sprinkled throughout the score. The two most interesting being the Sintir (or Gimbri), which is a 3 stringed mid/low register plucked instrument that has camel skin stretched over the body and the kemenche which is a bowed instrument that rests on the players knee and has a very distinct, almost nasal, tone to it.
Just about every movie released these days includes bad language, violence, and crude sexual material. And it is very rarely necessary for the story. Network television shows the “airplane versions,” edited to remove offensive content. On a recent airplane trip, I watched the very R-rated “Keanu,” with substitute language like “mother-father.”
VidAngel has a service that will let you get edited versions of Hollywood films.
Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand follow the established formula for action films. The first ten minutes make us fall in love with the hero, his adoring wife, and adorable child. That’s not hard to do. The hero is Mike Williams, Mark Wahlberg, his wife is Felicia (Kate Hudson), and their daughter happens to be working on a report for school about Daddy’s job, which gives us a chance to find out about some very technical stuff in very simple terms. Daddy works on an oil rig out in the middle of the Gulf that pumps up oil from under the ocean. “That oil is a monster like the dinosaurs it used to be. My daddy tames the dinosaurs.” And Mommy will miss him very much when he goes. Got it.
The next scene introduces us to hero number 2, the weary veteran who is all about competence and integrity, Captain Jimmy Harrell, superbly played by Hudson’s real-life dad, Kurt Russell. And then there are the guys in suits, who are all about making their numbers and therefore cutting the corners that the veterans knows are not there for show but are actually necessary. There’s a lot of jargon, but basically all you need to know is that the good guys understand that there may be a problem and the bad guys do not want to take the steps necessary to find or prevent it. And the good guys are really endearing, and therefore it all matters a lot.
And then it all starts to blow up, and we get to the real reason for the movie, which is the “who will get out of this and how will they do it?” part. This is where Berg’s strengths really show, as each of the set-pieces are thrillingly staged. He has an exceptional clarity in conveying a three-dimensional space on screen — actually, several of them in different locations — and balancing the urgency of the action with genuine emotion. We see how the people on board think through the problems, from the logistics and the mechanics to the choices based in morality and courage. Wahlberg is, as ever, just right to play the guy you’d like to have next door, a decent, hard-working, family-loving man with enormous capability and integrity. Here, as in their previous collaboration, “Lone Survivor,” Berg keeps the focus on the challenges faced by individuals who have little control over the monumental, life-or-death tasks they are assigned by people far away with little understanding of the consequences of their orders. That worked better in the earlier film, as the story of the soldier far from command has existential implications that are inherent and instantly recognized. Here, the action is disconnected from the consequences that a brief text coda before the credits cannot make up for.
Parents should know that the movie includes extensive peril and violence, with some disturbing images and characters injured and killed, some strong language, and sexual references and a situation.
Family discussion: Why do the people on the rig use the term “Mr.”? Who could have prevented the explosion?
If you like this, try: “The 33” and the documentary about Deepwater Horizon, “The Great Invisible”