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Actors Take On Expanded Vocal Duties In Movie 'Sing'


One of the big holiday movies out in theaters this week is a little bit unexpected. The new movie "Sing" is a star-studded animated flick that features animals battling it out in a giant music competition, kind of like "American Idol." The movie has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, best animated feature film and for best original song. It's called "Faith."


STEVIE WONDER AND ARIANA GRANDE: (Singing) I've got faith in you, baby. I've got faith in you now. And you've been such a, such a good friend to me, know that I love you somehow - love you somehow.

AUBREY: In the movie, Matthew McConaughey plays an optimistic, theater-loving koala bear who owns a rundown theater. In a last-ditch effort to save it and restore it to its former glory, he stages a singing competition. Contestants include a middle-aged mother pig played by Reese Witherspoon, an arrogant, bluesy mouse played by Seth MacFarlane and a teenaged porcupine played by Scarlett Johansson, among others. And it turns out they all have pretty amazing singing voices. The maestro behind all this music is "Sing's" executive music producer Harvey Mason Jr. He's the six-time Grammy award-winning music producer who's worked with Elton John, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.

Hi there, Harvey.

HARVEY MASON JR: Hi, how are you?


Also joining us is Jennifer Hudson. She's a Grammy Award-winning singer and an Academy Award-winning actress. She's also in "Sing," a movie that marks ten years since her last big collaboration with Harvey Mason Jr. with her breakout performance in the movie "Dreamgirls."

Thank you both for joining us.

JENNIFER HUDSON: Thank you for having me.

MASON: Of course.

AUBREY: So Harvey, I want to start with you. Were you surprised by the musical talent? I mean, it comes off sounding pretty doggone good. It's pretty impressive.

MASON: Yeah, I was really impressed. Reese and Taron and Scarlett - everybody that I wasn't expecting to sing as well as they did was a huge surprise but a pleasant surprise. When I go into the studio, I'm usually thinking - OK, what do we have to do to get this person to sound good? And with them, I really had to do very little.

Of course, Jennifer, Tori and Seth are, you know, like, pretty much amazing singers in and of themselves, so I didn't have to do anything with that. But working with the cast is just a matter of, you know, getting the right setting, getting them the right energy and giving them the best opportunity to succeed - kind of making sure the songs are in the right key and then just giving them small production notes, little things here and there. But they were great to work with.

AUBREY: You know, in the movie, I was really drawn to the porcupine character voiced by Scarlett Johansson. When we meet her at the audition, she's sort of under her boyfriend's wing. They're performing punk rock. But then when the boyfriend gets cut, she tries her hand at pop songs. By the end, she's performing in this very soulful original song, "Set It All Free."


SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Ash, singing) This is my kiss goodbye. You can stand alone and watch me fly 'cause nothing's keeping me down, going to let it all out, come on and say it right now.

MASON: Scarlett was super cool to work with. She came in the studio - she's got that husky voice. And once she starts singing, it just really kind of comes out. But I was impressed with her vocal ability. And again, she was tenacious. She just wanted to keep working, keep trying until she got it right. The original song was, I think, fit in really well with all the other records. And I think it really went a long ways to saying who she was as a character and really conveying her emotional kind of journey from the beginning to the end of the movie. So I thought it worked well.

AUBREY: And I'm imagining that as the musical director, that it must be really gratifying when it's the music itself that tells the story of a character's turnaround, as it does with with this porcupine character.

MASON: Yeah, of course. You know, I'm greedy. So...


MASON: I want everything to be music. But I loved the fact that there was so much music, and the music told so much of the story. I mean, it starts off with Jennifer's performance with "Golden Slumber," and I think that sets the tone for the whole movie. Once you hear that first vocal performance and that delivery, I think it puts you in a certain space right away.


HUDSON: (As Young Nana, singing) Golden slumbers fill your eyes. Smiles awake you when you rise. Sleep, pretty darling. Do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby.

AUBREY: So Jennifer, I want to go to you now. We hear your voice then. It's the beginning of the film. You're playing this younger version of one of the main characters in the film, a young Nana Noodleman, a sheep who happens to be this retired theater diva. Is that right?

HUDSON: (Laughter) She's definitely a diva.

MASON: Just like J-Hud...


MASON: ...A retired theater diva (laughter).

HUDSON: I was like - what are they trying to say about me? But for me, it's a dream to be able to deliver a song like that in a animated film. And it's been a dream of mine for the longest, so I still can't believe it. And then the character is definitely fitting, I think. But she is just so much more diva than I am, I must say.

MASON: No, no...

HUDSON: (Laughter).

MASON: ...Not true (laughter).

HUDSON: She really is.

AUBREY: I want to ask both of you. Ever since "Frozen," I think we're seeing more of these animated films with a strong musical element. It kind of harkens back to the '90s. I'm thinking of Disney films like "Lion King," "The Little Mermaid." Why do you think these animated musicals are making a comeback?

MASON: I think they tell great stories, and I think they're crazy entertaining. I think the music combined with the ability to do anything you want visually - the colors, the excitement, the energy...

HUDSON: It's just inspiring.

MASON: Yeah. You can do anything.

HUDSON: It really is.

MASON: It feels good, and you can tell great stories. And music is such a part of our culture and our society, I think. So...

HUDSON: It's powerful.

MASON: ...Having the music involved in an animated film, which most animated films have - I think that helps get people excited about them and gets people passionate about the films.

AUBREY: That's Harvey Mason Jr., award-winning music producer, and Jennifer Hudson, the award-winning singer and actress, talking to us from his studio in Hollywood about their latest movie "Sing." It's out in theaters now.

Thanks so much to both of you.

MASON: Thank you.

HUDSON: Thank you.


TORI KELLY: (As Meena, singing) Don't you worry 'bout a thing, don't you worry 'bout a thing, mama because I'll be standing on the side when you check it out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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