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At the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007, Garth Jennings unveiled the world premiere of Son of Rambow, a film he wrote and directed inspired by his childhood as an aspiring filmmaker. After it screened for the Park City crowd, Jennings exited the stage only to be tapped on the shoulder and informed that a special guest was in the audience.
“Bono would like a word, do you have a minute?” he was asked. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Is he here?’ I went over and there you were. You were really nice and complimentary and I was so thrilled. [The screening] had already done well, but that was the cherry on the cake.”
Jennings shared the anecdote during a panel discussion on Wednesday night that featured the rock star alongside U2 bandmate the Edge, Jennings and moderator Spike Jonze. The conversation and special screening, held at the London West Hollywood, included details of their chance Sundance encounter through to their current creative collaboration on Jennings’ latest film, the animated Sing 2 from Illumination and Universal, which features a character voiced by Bono, a new original U2 song in “Your Song Saved My Life” as well as a cover of the band’s classic “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
The sequel features the voice talents of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, Pharrell Williams, Halsey, Bobby Cannavale, Letitia Wright, Eric André and Chelsea Peretti. The story follows Buster Moon (McConaughey) and a cast of performers as they prepare to launch a dazzling stage show in Redshore City with only a tentative outline. In doing so, they attempt to persuade the world’s most reclusive rock star, Clay Calloway, voiced by Bono, to join the act as they evade the wrath of Jimmy Crystal, a white wolf media mogul who runs Crystal Entertainment.
There’s more to Clay Calloway’s storyline, and Bono referenced it as he detailed a call he received from Jennings while walking around the reservoir in Los Angeles. “I didn’t know Garth really,” Bono explained of his Sundance acquaintance. “He wanted to talk about the nature of singing and what would dry up a person’s voice. Why would you stop singing? I said that I thought grief can either open a voice up, which it did to me, or it can close a voice. The idea of a muse is something I understand. [Clay] losing his reason to sing is something I understand. If you love somebody and that’s the reason that you sing, and they’re gone, there’s no amount of encouragement that’s going to get you back out onstage.”
Bono said he connected in many ways with Jennings’ script, so much so that he agreed to sign on for the part and contribute an original song. It was such a generous offer that Jennings didn’t believe it at first. “I thought you were being nice,” Jennings said with a smile, adding that he assumed Bono was offering the same way Hollywood insiders say, “Let’s have lunch” and never follow up. But then after they recorded Bono’s first pass at Clay Calloway dialogue, he literally pulled the song out of his pocket. “You pulled out your phone and played the song that’s [now] at the end of the film. I was flabbergasted,” Jennings said.
Jonze then asked Jennings if he cried when he heard it. “I did get a bit emotional,” he said to his friend of more than 20 years. Then Bono quipped, “He knew how much it would cost.” Though he didn’t reveal the final price tag, Jennings did say the gift Bono gave came with an added bonus. “This is the whole end of the film you’re handing me on a plate,” he added. “I was trying to hold it together in front of you. It’s quite moving. It’s a seriously amazing gesture and an amazing song — it’s a double whammy for me.”
The song is one of more than 40 that are featured in the film, which Bono described as “so fast-paced and so quick and smart.” Jennings described his creative process as it pertains to song selection as playful. “There’s no science to it,” he said. “If you think a song is going to work, you try it … and you’re constantly moving them around.”
Speaking of songs, Bono noted that about 10 years ago, he and the Edge began experimenting with creative pursuits and expanding their résumés in a way that seemingly led them to Sing 2. “Edge and myself have become students of songwriting,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we’re excited about trying different things, to go places we wouldn’t normally go.” He then mentioned the passing of legendary lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died at 91 on Nov. 26. “You look at his lyrics and you see it comes from a completely different world than where we came from, but I’m suddenly interested in a way that I wasn’t [before].”
Bono also provided his own footnote to the compliment by recalling how Sondheim sued U2 in the 1980s after they included a sample of “Send in the Clowns” in a live show. The lawsuit forced them to destroy “about 70,000 albums, literally, because we didn’t have permission which, of course, was not correct [to do].” Bono added that Sondheim was “clearly an extraordinary writer.”
Jennings also playfully dropped a bit of news during the panel about the moderator, Jonze. revealing that one of the characters in the film, the hard-working cat assistant of Jimmy Crystal, is an uncredited role voiced by his filmmaker friend. “I was both scared of and in love with my boss,” Jonze said about his character’s affections for the tyrant.
Also during the panel, it was confirmed that the Sing 2 partnership isn’t the only shared piece of professional history: Jennings and Jonze both pitched music video concepts to U2 only to be passed over. Both Bono and the Edge agreed that it was wrong to pass on Jonze’s concept for the video for an unidentified track. The Edge recalled how Jonze pitched it to the band on a call and the concept centered on a concert in a forest. “People are going to be going through the forest and it’s going to be like a big party, rock video thing,” Edge said, quoting Jonze. “As we find our way through the forest to this stage with a full-on rock show in the middle of a forest. It’s going to be amazing. Then we’ll cut to [Larry Mullen] and Larry will be playing the drums and we cut to [Adam Clayton] and then we cut to you and you’re playing guitar and then we cut to the lead singer and it’s Jim Carrey.”
The reveal got some laughs from the audience, and the Edge quickly made it clear that they regretted not approving that concept. They likely won’t have the same feelings about Sing 2. After receiving a compliment from one of the kids in the audience (who professed her love for Calloway), Bono returned the favor. “Calloway needs people more than he realizes,” said the rock icon, who also got laughs for saying that he initially wanted to play the lion as a Jack Nicholson-type. “He sings ‘Your Song Saved My Life’ but sometimes I think it’s the people who hear the songs who save the performer’s life, really. You give us a special life and we’re so grateful. People like you save my life.”
Sing 2 opens Dec. 22.
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