How One ‘Barbie’ Dance Song Turned Into a Giant Job for Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt

TheWrap magazine: “Everything influenced everything else,” Mark Ronson says of the film’s mixture of songs, score and dance numbers

Barbie I'm Just Ken
Warner Bros.

It started as a song and turned into a whole movie. Greta Gerwig originally asked Mark Ronson to help out with a song as rehearsals were about to begin for the big dance sequence that takes place early in “Barbie” — but before his work on the film was done, he’d recruited his friend and colleague Andrew Wyatt, and they’d written a couple of songs, helped compile a couple of soundtrack albums and cowritten the film’s score.

“It was trial and error for hours and days and weeks,” Wyatt said. “We were trying to serve the picture, drawing on the sum total of all our knowledge about harmony and tempo and drama and emotion, and trying to put it all into these idiosyncratic moments that the director has created. You hope you can speak the same emotional language with music.”

Ronson and Wyatt, who won the 2018 Oscar for cowriting “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” with Lady Gaga and Anthony Rossomando, started with the song “Dance the Night,” which Ronson originally envisioned as a Euro-pop confection along the lines of the 1997 Aqua hit “Barbie Girl.”

“But Greta said the song should be Barbie’s best dance song of her best day and should be kind of muscular,” Ronson said. “And I realized that you remember a Bee Gees song like “Stayin’ Alive” as being quite poppy, but when you hear it, it’s got the nastiest drum loop ever. It’s got grit.” He and Wyatt finished the song with Dua Lipa and Caroline Ailin, then wrote Ryan Gosling’s signature number, “I’m Just Ken.” 

Mark Ronson, BARBIE
Mark Ronson (Photo by Jeff Vespa)

They wrote those two songs after getting a PDF full of hints and maxims from Gerwig and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach. Barbie’s thoughts to keep in mind included “Life is wonderful and I feel as good as I look,” “Dancing makes me happy and happiness makes me dance” and “Circles are good,” while Ken’s included “I am more important than a car or a house or a pair of shoes, but Barbie has only ever treated me like an object and not even the most important object. I’m pretty sure she’d choose the car over me.”

Ronson soon realized that Ken was perfect for a big, dramatic and slightly tongue-in-cheek power ballad. “Reading the script and getting this sense of the character, I immediately fell for Ken,” he said. “He’s the tragic figure of the movie, the only person who doesn’t really get what he wants. As a songwriter, that’s a good place to come at a song from. We can all empathize with somebody like that.”

Before long, “I’m Just Ken” was expanded with a mid-song battle scene, so Ronson and Wyatt wrote additional music to make it longer and score the fight. “That was where we found some of the language, the guitar solos and different themes that worked their way into the movie later,” Ronson said. “And then it kind of grew from there.”

As they wrote the rest of the score, their touchstones included Elmer Bernstein’s “Ghostbusters” score and Dave Grusin’s music for “Goonies” —but “Barbie” was also full of songs, and the composers had to figure out how to make the score work within that framework.

“Greta was really concerned about how we segue in and out of those songs,” Ronson said. “One of the most important scenes emotionally is the last scene where Barbie is with Ruth (Rhea Perlman). We had to set up the Billie Eilish song, but also the emotion of that movie was on our shoulders musically. And Greta was always like, ‘I need people to be feeling it so much right here.’ Everything influenced everything else.”

“It was a process of learning how to bring a cohesive element to the music throughout the film,” Wyatt said. “Those lessons were hard won, I think because we hadn’t done it before, but Greta creates a real sense of freedom and experimentation. Also, Noah (Baumbach) was kind of a musical angel on our shoulders through the process. And Suzana (Peric), our music editor, too. They made those moments surmountable where I think they would be not have been if we hadn’t had that team.”

A version of this story is part of the “Barbie” cover story in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read the rest of the “Barbie” below-the-line stories here.

Read more from the Below-the-Line issue here.  

Greta Gerwig and Barbie below-the-line team
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

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