Oscar Songs: Bret McKenzie Discovers the Secret of Muppet Music

“Flight of the Conchords” star wrote Muppet songs before heading back to Middle-earth for “The Hobbit”

On Thursday, members of the Academy's music branch will meet to view clips of the 39 eligible songs in this year's Oscar race, and to score those songs to determine this year's nominees. In anticipation of that event, TheWrap is devoting a series of stories to the Best Original Song category.    

Bret McKenzie had a simple approach to a gig that led to some of the year's most delightful onscreen musical numbers. "I took the job very seriously," he said, "even though it's also a very silly job."

Bret McKenzieThe New Zealand-based singer, songwriter and actor was talking about his role writing songs for "The Muppets." But he could have used the same words to describe the project for which he original became known in the United States, the HBO series "Flight of the Conchords."

(Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images)

In that series, which ran for two seasons, McKenzie was one half of the hapless but brilliantly endearing folk-pop duo from which the show took its name. The show, interspersed with marvelously funny and low-rent videos, followed the travails of McKenzie and bandmate Jemaine Clement as they tried to launch a career in New York City.

Call it a 21st Century version of "The Monkees" – but instead of turning McKenzie and Clement into teen idols, it made them cult figures. And when the show's creator Jason Bobin, was hired to direct "The Muppets," it put McKenzie in line to put his mark on a franchise he'd seen as a kid growing up halfway around the world. 

"One of the strange things about growing up in New Zealand is that Hollywood and America felt not only far away, it felt like another universe," McKenzie told TheWrap from his home country. "It wasn't like you'd grow up with a dream of going to Hollywood. That was not an option. So it was very surreal to find myself working with the Muppets."

Also read: Oscar Songs: Zooey Deschanel Finds Music a (Pooh) Bear Necessity

Bobin had already invited a number of songwriters to submit demos for the film, but he hadn’t found an appropriate opening number. So he asked McKenzie to write "a song that was incredibly positive and catchy."

McKenzie came up with "Life's a Happy Song," which serves as the basis for a large-scale production number involving Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Segel's Muppet "brother" Walter, and the entire population of the small town in which they live. 

"It came very quickly," said McKenzie of the song, which he performs with Kermit the Frog in the video below. "I was in a very good mood at the time. And I'm not an accomplished piano player, so it's all on the white keys."

When that song was well-received, Bobin asked McKenzie to tackle another of the film's songs, a ballad that would come midway through the film. McKenzie wrote "Man or Muppet," a very earnest and very funny song of yearning and confused identity that McKenzie admits is "the most Conchordian song" in the film.

"That was a slightly more complex track," he said, deadpan. "I used a few black notes."

Looking to write a power ballad, McKenzie listened to the work of Harry Nilsson ("Without You") and Eric Carmen ("All by Myself") before writing the song.

"There's nothing funnier to me than a power ballad, with all the high drama and the high stakes," he said. "And the aim of that song was just to make it as dramatic as I possibly could."

The result, he said, is his favorite musical sequence from the film. (I'd go further and say it is the best musical number from any film in 2011.) "The song and the visuals really connect on that one," he said. "The song felt cohesive, if I can say so myself. Jason and Peter Linz, who plays Walter, did incredible vocal recordings. And James did an amazing job making sure that the music and the visuals really connected."

The official video version of the song uses much of that sequence:

McKenzie's work on the film also included co-writing the Amy Adams/Miss Piggy tune "Me Party" and Chris Cooper's bad-guy rap "Let's Talk About Me." He was then hired to serve as the movie's musical supervisor – which, he said, consisted mostly of "overseeing all the songs to make sure they all sounded like they would fit into the world of the Muppets."

And what does it take for a song to fit into that world, which in the past produced songs like Paul Williams' Oscar-nominated "The Rainbow Connection"? "We listened to a lot of the original Muppets music, and there were some key ingredients," he said. "They usually feature banjo, baritone sax and the tack piano, which is a piano with thumbtacks on all the hammers, so that when the strings hit they have that twinkle."

He also kept in mind something that Muppets creator Jim Henson used to say: "If the music sounds too good, it's not right." 

McKenzie recorded all the songs before the movie began shooting – a process, he said, that led to a number of surreal moments when he had to supervise a group of grownups singing in funny voices. 

He also found that in the world of the Muppets, there are certain lines you can't cross – not even for a joke. In one song, a line for one Muppet to sing – "I remember when I was a little piece of felt" – was immediately killed.'

"You're not allowed to say that," he said, "because the Muppets are real."

He paused. "Actually, the Muppets are a lot like Santa Claus. They're real until you're old enough to know that they're not real, and then you don't talk about it."

Since "The Muppets," McKenzie has acted in the comedy "Austenland," a romantic-comedy spoof directed by Jerusha Hess, the co-writer of "Napoleon Dynamite." He's also planning to work on new Flight of the Conchords songs with Clement ("it just requires us being in the same town for a while, which hasn't happened lately"), and do some tour dates in 2012.

And he wants to make another Hollywood musical. "On HBO, they let us do whatever we want," he said. "So it was a new experience having to deal with executives and a big studio. But I'm excited about doing another big-studio musical – because once you have those budgets, it's really fun doing large-scale musical numbers."

Before he does that, though, McKenzie will appear onscreen in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit." In "The Fellowship of the Ring," the first of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films, his three-second appearance as an elf somehow ignited a furor online, where fans dubbed his character Figwit (an acronym for "Frodo is grea … who is THAT?").

This time around, though, the expectations are higher. "I'm playing an elf again," said McKenzie. "But I'm hoping for ten seconds this time."

(Tuesday: Soundgarden's Chris Cornell channels Woody Guthrie for "Machine Gun Preacher.")