Music was a huge part of making Moana great, and none of that would have been accomplished without the collaboration of Grammy-award winner Opetaia Foa’i, Disney alum Mark Mancina, and (soon to be) EGOT Lin-Manuel Miranda. Each one of them brought in their own personalities to the film, with Foa’i bringing the music of the Polynesian culture, Mancina with his Disney experience, and Miranda, who really needs no reference unless you haven’t heard of the Tony Award-winning Hamilton. The songs are a celebration of culture and finding one’s identity, and they are so much fun that they don’t feel overly preachy.
We were recently invited to sit down with our fellow journalists to talk to Miranda and Foa’i about the music of Disney Moana, their inspiration, working together, and discovering Dwayne Johnson’s vocal range. Check out all of that below.
Given that the film has music unlike anything we’ve heard before, Miranda and Foa’i talked about their approach to the music and what it was like to work with the directors on the very first day. “I got the job the week before and with my job offer came a plane ticket to New Zealand where everyone was already there and you know the Pacifica Music Festival is islands and choirs from all the different islands in the Pacific,” said Miranda. “We sort of immersed ourselves in this world and then Opetaia, Mark, and I jumped into a studio and just started banging on drums and started really trying to find, find the pulse of this thing in a way that honored the unique musical heritage and incredible rhythms that come out of this part of the world.”
He added, “I love those movies and you want to maintain the best of the Disney traditions. At the same time, we’re telling this very unique story from this very unique part of the world.” Though he wasn’t afraid to admit his creative frustrations often lead back to a familiar Frozen song. “I will admit the first time I sat down at my piano to work on something this I remember thinking, don’t think about ‘Let it Go,’ don’t think about ‘Let it Go,’ don’t think about ‘Let it Go.'” He did say that getting into the character’s head’s helped him solve some of those creative problems. “The way Moana feels the call of the sea is the way I felt about writing music and making movies and singing songs and I was 16 years old and living on 200th Street in Manhattan and thinking, the distance between where I am and where I want to be seems impossibly large and so I got myself into that mindset to write her songs.”
While I was quick to criticize Johnson’s lack of vocal range in a preview of the song a few weeks ago, his song “You’re Welcome,” eventually warms up to even the coldest of critics. It’s fun and jazzy, and it’ll be hard not to hum to it after the movie. Miranda said Johnson was actually excited to sing, and to find out what he was capable of, he looked at videos on YouTube to see the actor’s singing talents. “I went to YouTube where the answers always lie,” laughed Miranda. “I’m a big fan of his wrestling days and there was a time during your heel turn era where he would pull out a guitar and taunt whatever town he was in.” He added, “So I got a really good sense of his vocal range from that 10-minute supercut and then the rest of it was just writing lyrics that embody the spirit of Maui, who is this amazing demi-god, trickster god and once I had the title, “You’re Welcome,” which only Dwayne can pull off and still have you love him and root for him, we were off to the races.”
Dwayne Johnson said it was an opportunity for him to challenge himself. “By the time I got the song, it was in my comfortable range as well and then also parts of the song which pushed me a little bit,” said Johnson. “I appreciate because that’s what I needed vocally as well and I had, honestly, I had such a great time, one of the best times I’ve ever had in my career was actually working on this project and certainly working on that song because also like we all love challenges and this was a challenge that the bar is set so incredibly high in a Disney film to sing.”
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker both praised Johnson for his singing talents, with Clements calling the actor the new Angela Lansbury (who voiced Mrs. Potts in Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast).
There’s no doubt that Miranda’s work on Hamilton has helped inspire many to never stop creating and never stop writing. When asked if he was aware if he was creating history and what his advice would be to keep writing like you’re running out of time, the Tony Award-winner said, “Keep writing. Don’t stop writing. When you start writing you’re turning on a faucet. When you turn on a faucet the water’s brown and it’s full of whatever’s just been clogged up in there and waiting to come out and then you just keep writing and writing until the water’s clear and that’s when you find your own voice.”
Foa’i considers himself to be lucky to be asked to work on a Disney project and is still shocked that he got to work with such a talented group. “I had to struggle throughout my whole career,” said Foa’i. “Throughout my whole career, my parents kept saying, ‘Get a job.’ They wanted me to be a doctor, a teacher, and just fighting against all those things all the way through.” He added, “To find myself here in a big city and Disney like this, it’s just beyond my dreams, you know. I’m just thrilled to be part of this amazing group of people, you know. My mouth is still open. I’ll just sit here and look at these guys. I am in awe.”
It’s hard to imagine that a busy Miranda would have time to work on creating new music. He revealed that he worked on Moana for two years, and he only knows this because his son turned two and he got the job to work on Moana almost two years to that date. “I’ve been working on this since before Hamilton opened, concurrently with Hamilton as we went through previews and then through Hamilton since we opened,” said Miranda. But when it comes to balancing all of that work, “I ask the same question when I see the Rock’s Instagrams at 5:00 in the morning,” joked Miranda. But for him, Moana was a nice break in between the times that he worked on Hamilton. “If I was sick of the founders rapping I would go sail across the sea with Maui and Moana,” said Miranda. “It actually was the opposing muscle group and the counterweight to the Hamilton phenomenon. A sort of an island of peace when the Hamilton stuff started getting crazy in terms of crowds and in terms of attention, so I, you know, I’m really grateful for Moana, because it kept
me grounded and it kept me writing at a time when, you know, the world was really paying attention.”
He then revealed that Hamilton‘s Phillipa Soo (who performed as Elizabeth Shuler) and Chris Jackson (who performed as George Washington) provided the scratch voices for some of the demos. Something that got producer Osnat Shurer excited, as they got to hear the stars of Hamilton do early versions of the song. Clements added that they don’t normally do demos like that, but thought that Jackson matched Tim Morrison‘s voice, so they thought it would be perfect for him to sing the village song, “Where You Are.”
Shurer explained how she brought in Foa’i after listening to his music. Recalling how she called him and his wife to visit her and play some music, Foa’i said he gave her a scare because of the surprising chants he did. Seeing as the chanting is a part of the culture and music, Clements said how that played a huge part in the film as they envisioned pairing Opetaia with someone as talented as Miranda. In fact, Miranda gets a kick out of the fact that they discovered him before his Hamilton fame. “We discovered him,” joked Clements. “I mean, he had already won but we still discovered him, didn’t we?”
Moana opens in theaters on November 23, 2016.