Finding the music inside ‘MOANA’ with Lin-Manuel Miranda

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Moana_FFTVCourtney Howard // Film Critic

The fact that we get that level of specificity is the joy of making something new.   

It should come as news to no one that Lin-Manuel Miranda is on a hot streak right now. Having won a slew of Tonys for both of the ethnically diverse Broadway musicals IN THE HEIGHTS and HAMILTON, he’s now applying his craft to the Silver Screen. He’s written the incredibly catchy tunes for directors Ron Clements and John Musker’s MOANA, Disney’s newest subversive animated classic about a young woman on an inspirational heroes journey.

Miranda, in front of a boatload of reporters (such as myself) at the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, mentioned he did what any of us would do when meeting our idols – quote dialogue from one of their films.

When I first interviewed for this job, I walked into a room with Ron and John, makers of my favorite Disney film of all time, and I said, ‘You’re the reason I even get to walk into this room.’ I think I probably scared them a little bit because I’d quote some obscure section of LITTLE MERMAID they had since forgotten about.

And the task was daunting as FROZEN’s success loomed over his head when he began songwriting.

I 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. 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.’ [SINGING] ‘Let it go…’ But you solve that problem by just really getting inside the heads of your characters.

My way into Moana, in particular was the way she feels the call of the sea is the way I felt about writing music, making movies and singing songs when I was 16 years old and living on 200th Street in Manhattan, thinking, the distance between where I am and where I want to be seems impossibly large. So I got myself into that mindset to write her songs.

This process included travelling to the other side of the world, plunging head first into the culture.

I got the job the week before and with my job offer came a plane ticket to New Zealand where everyone was already there at the Pacifica Music Festival – islands and choirs from all the different islands in the Pacific. We sort of immersed ourselves in this world. Then Opetaia [Foa’i], Mark [Mancina] and I jumped into a studio and just started banging on drums and started really trying to 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.

Upon his first meeting with fellow musician Opetaia Foa’i and producer Osnat Shurer on the research trip, Miranda even had enough time to participate in a dance competition – and win.

Luckily Puerto Ricans can shake their hips, too. So I won.

For Miranda, this has also been a long-gestating labor of love.

I’ve been working on this film for two years and seven and a half months. I can tell you that with confidence because my son turned two last week and I got this job the same day I found out I was going to be a father. He was born two weeks before rehearsal started for HAMILTON at the Public off-Broadway. 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. 

Writing MOANA’s songs became his “oasis of calm” amidst the chaos of running one of the most successful and critically acclaimed shows of all time.

If I was sick of the founders rapping I would go sail across the sea with Maui and Moana. It actually was the opposing muscle group. It was the counterweight to the HAMILTON phenomenon and it was also sort of an island of peace when the HAMILTON stuff started getting crazy in terms of crowds and in terms of attention. I’m really grateful for MOANA, because it kept me grounded and it kept me writing at a time when  the world was really paying attention.

The filmmakers had the greatest demos mostly thanks to the Broadway calibers singers recording the scratch vocals.

Phillipa Soo was singing my demos [as Moana], Chris Jackson was singing my demos [as Chief Tui]. Like I had the best singers as like my in-house band.  I’d say, “Come to my dressing room and sing this.”

As for how he worked to write a perfect song in the perfect pitch for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Miranda said it wasn’t difficult.

When Dwayne accepted the role he said, ‘So what are you giving me to sing?’ He was really excited for this. For me, I went to YouTube where the answers always lie. 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. I got a really good sense of his vocal range from that 10-minute super cut.

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. 

Miranda isn’t immune to how powerful the film will be for audiences.

The fun is in how it differs from anything you’ve heard before. The fact that we get that level of specificity is… is the joy of making something new.   

MOANA opens on November 23.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.