Tuesday 26 September 2017

Singing about life's lessons with stars tells a happy story

Garth Jennings's impressive creative career is based on love and is as much testimony to failure as to success, writes Aine O'Connor

Garth Jennings
Garth Jennings

His website says his default mode throughout life has been "drawing pictures, writing stories and making films" so it seems that an animated feature film was almost Garth Jennings's destiny. The notion of destiny appeals to him - he says it makes sense of the enjoyable "chaos" of recent times on the publicity trail for his film Sing, an animated musical with great tunes, big stars and a happy message.

The film took five years to make and the busy and varied career path that took him there inspires much of the sentiment in the story.

Jennings's penchant for drawing pictures, writing stories and making films took him to St Martin's College of Art in London where he met Nick Goldsmith, and after graduation in 1994 they set up Hammer & Tongs, the company that brought such iconic music videos as Blur's Coffee And TV, Supergrass's Pumping On Your Stereo and Fat Boy Slim's Right Here, Right Now.

The Epping Forest native is 45 now and says: "It's been quite a weird career. There's not been much planning involved, it's been random and it has been about falling in love with an idea and then following it and seeing where that goes." Iconic videos aside there were lots that got away, including U2 (a failed pitch for Elevation "they couldn't have been more gracious about it") and Kanye West, and in writing a film about a singing contest Jennings wanted to show that success is not simple and failure is nothing to fear.

"One of the things I was determined to put in the film was that if you're going to put the characters finding their own selves or connecting with their dreams to also be aware that there'll be pain and humiliation and destruction and suffering along the way," Jennings says.

"Obviously, we have exaggerated it for the film but I always felt close to the crashes that are inevitable." Despite the time it took to make the film that message is really timely. Simon Sinek's talk about Millennials in the workplace, essentially about the perils of telling kids that they can have anything if they just want it badly enough, not stressing the importance of hard work and generating a fear of failure has had almost 90 million views. Sing then is right on the zeitgeist.

"There's nothing wrong with failure," laughs Jennings. "I think 90pc of my career is based on failure. I'm at that age now where I can start to add it up, where I have had enough crashes to go, 'oh, this is the pattern, it's failure, failure, failure, hit. I mean personal success, I don't mean financial or critical, things that I was happy with". Which is an interesting point in itself.

This is his third feature film. He made The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambow, but did not know when he was first asked to write the story of Sing by Chris Meledandri of Illumination Entertainment, who invented Minions, that the road to an animated movie would be so long. "In doing all the press I've had the pleasure of meeting directors and realise that five years is really a minimum. Sometimes it takes seven, sometimes 10 years. When I was asked to write it I wasn't thinking I was committing to it in terms of my life, I didn't even think I was going to direct it and it was only once I started writing the script and fell in love with it that I found that I wanted to direct and it snowballed. No one ever said this is five years of your life, are you sure you want to do it? I just kept chasing the carrot as it were." It was not always a smooth journey and it involved big life changes like moving his family - wife Louise and four sons who are now aged, 13, 11, nine and almost seven to France to be near the animation studio. It was a labour of love but he says: "If anything that passion comes at a price in that it's going to hurt when it's difficult. But it has been one of the most rewarding creative experiences I have ever had."

The story revolves around a koala named Buster Moon who decides a singing competition is the way to save his theatre from financial ruin. Buster's assistant makes an error in the reward amount, offering $100,000 instead of $1,000 but Buster goes ahead anyway. The story has lots of animals and over 60 songs but focuses on five characters, each with their own journey. Jennings's wife was not initially too thrilled to be the inspiration for the pig Rosita, mother of 25 whose teenage dreams of stardom were put on hold for the sake of family. Jennings explains that Rosita was one of the first characters to emerge, "basically because I had a version of her sitting right next to me and it was nice to feel that close to it. Obviously it was an exaggeration of our life, I'm hopefully not as bad as her husband in terms of sleeping by the TV with a pie falling off my stomach and we only have four kids, but it feels like 25". Indeed the voices of the piglets is a recording of mealtimes in the Jennings's house, "that is exactly what my dinner table sounds like, just pitched up ever so slightly to be piglets!"

His wife, who made a successful return to her fashion designer career, came round to the idea, and it can't have hurt that her character is voiced by Reese Witherspoon. The cast is stellar. Matthew McConaughey plays Buster, Scarlett Johansson plays porcupine Ash.

"Reese and Scarlett were all up for having a go at recording songs and that became part of the fun for them I think. They did all the rehearsals, there was no cajoling required."

He had similar good luck with the rights for the songs, one exception was a Prince song. "That was about three years ago and now I'm really glad because I was a huge Prince fan and then we lost Prince and it would have been awful that the one thing I'd left him with was a silly joke at the expense of a song I adore."

The combination of sentiment, stars and songs is clearly winning - audience figures are huge so far for this heartfelt labour of love.

Sing is now showing nationwide

'You need to be aware that there'll be pain and humiliation'

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