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When brothers Mychael and Jeff Danna were approached by director Dan Scanlon to compose the music for Pixar’s Onward — which follows teenage elf brothers Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland), who embark on a mystical quest to reunite with their late father — the duo immediately felt as if fate had brought the project their way.
The two composers didn’t know anything about the project before their meeting with Scanlon and the Onward team. “As [Dan Scanlon is] pitching this story, the hairs on the back of our necks are just going up,” Mychael tells THR. “Because this is really familiar personal territory for us.” The Oscar winner, who earned a statuette for his solo work on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, describes their 1970s upbringing in the suburbs of Toronto as a place “where everybody was reading Tolkien at least once a year. And the music we were listening to — progressive rock, basically — lived in that world of elves and fairies and magic.”
Mychael and Jeff were in a band together as teenagers (playing keyboard and guitar, respectively), so they were excited to tackle the diverse elements of rock, fantasy and an elvish choir. “As we worked our way through those scenes, we realized that it would be great to lay the seeds of the themes for the film, the orchestral themes, into these rock tunes,” Jeff says. The score expertly combines diegetic and nondiegetic sound as music from Barley’s van flows seamlessly into Ian’s call-to-adventure theme.
Onward wasn’t like the other films the pair has worked on. “It’s a pretty uncommon request in our business to do a ’70s prog-rock-wizard combination for a masterful film — a Pixar film,” Jeff says. “We had a lot of fun starting there and put together a great band.”
Beyond the music that recalls the pop tunes from their youth, the Danna brothers had a personal connection to the film. “We had this tragedy of our father dying when Jeff was 13 and I was 19,” Mychael says. “[Barley and Ian’s] father is an accountant, our father was an accountant.” The stars aligned in almost every way possible. “It was just one of those moments where you feel like the hand of fate,” he adds. “And you’re filled with this feeling of incredible excitement and destiny.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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Sterling K. Brown