Duets : Behind The Music

Movie PosterLong before the art department had begun building their sets, the filmmakers had begun to tackle pre-production of the musical elements of the film-which, in a movie about Karaoke, was no mean feat. Paltrow, along with producer Kevin Jones and music supervisors Richard Rudolph and Maya Rudolph, spent numerous hours laboring over what songs would be included and how the music track would be produced over the course of filming.

Paltrow admits that the prospect was initially very daunting. "I was terrified about the music, because there were so many technical things about it. I knew I couldn't do it myself."

Jones recalls, "Coordinating the musical performances was the most challenging aspect of the production. The original screenplay had songs identified in it, and there were so many factors that determined what songs were used."

Paltrow called upon his long-time friend Richard Rudolph to serve as music supervisor for the film. Richard brought in his daughter Maya to help. Says Richard Rudolph, "There are about thirty songs in the film, and we had to work out everything up front (the technical aspects and the legal clearances) so we could pre-record them. We ended up getting a lot of songs for a relatively small budget. We really had to go out to all the different publishers and songwriters and explain to them what we were trying to do."

Jones continues, "Each song had to fit a sort of genetic coding for the character. Whenever we had a meeting to discuss the music, we had to ask, 'Would this character sing this song?' because there's an infinite number of songs to choose from."

To produce the music tracks, the filmmakers solicited the talents of Grammy Award-winning record producer Larry Klein, who has worked with numerous artists including Joni Mitchell and Shawn Colvin. Klein did the arrangements and brought in musicians to record tracks that would maximize the vocal talents of the cast and the emotional impact of the scene.

Of the five principal cast members who perform songs in Duets (2000), only Huey Lewis had prior professional experience, but director Bruce Paltrow used his knowledge of his daughter's singing talent to enhance her role in the script.

Paltrow explains, "In the early drafts of the script, Gwyneth's character didn't sing at all. I felt it was essential to create a connective thread between her and her father. Gwyneth is as gifted a singer as she is an actress. She has sung with her mother for years. They used to sing together and harmonize and rock the house."

The filmmakers had selected two songs for Gwyneth Paltrow to perform, "Bette Davis Eyes," and finally, a duet with Huey Lewis of the Smokey Robinson classic "Cruisin'."

Huey Lewis recalls being blown away by the actress' singing talent. "Without ever having met Gwyneth, I did an arrangement of the song where I mainly sing harmony with her and really kind of support her. Well, we're in the control room, and they played the track. We sang it acoustically to the track for the first time, and it was amazing. She's not just a good singer, she a great singer."

Says Rudolph, "When we got Gwyneth in the studio and she started singing, it was instantly apparent to myself and to Larry Klein that she's one of those extraordinarily rare people who is a great singer as well as a recording artist. She's got a beautiful voice, but she also has incredible phrasing-a real natural way of connecting with the material."

Lewis adds with a smile, "Our blend is really compelling-I call it 'Beauty and the Beast.'"

The actress recalls, "I've always loved singing, and it was so much fun to pretend for the day that I was a professional singer-especially to sing a duet with Huey."

Her vocal gifts notwithstanding, the actress has few thoughts of making a career change. "It's nice to be able sing a little bit for acting, if you're doing a musical or a film that has music in it. But I think for right now, I'll just stick with my day job," she laughs.

The prospect of singing in a film was slightly more intimidating for the other cast members. Producer Jones recalls, "When we hired Paul Giamatti, he didn't think he could sing. We started with a professional singer to be his voice. But in recording the songs, they were so polished that it kind of ran contrary to his character. So we asked Paul to come in and play with it a little. He gave it a level of authenticity-a real sense of Todd's emerging soul being released through singing."

Giamatti says, "I think I sang in a movie once, but it was supposed to be bad. This was really kind of frightening, but it turned out to be the most fun thing I've done in a long time. And singing with Andre was really great."

Adds Rudolph, "Paul really captured the essence of his character's persona, a guy who has never sung on stage. It's the joy of self-discovery that everybody responds to."

Actress Maria Bello had a similar experience, she recalls, "I never sang before, and I was terrified to sing. So I took singing lessons for three months and then went in the studio to record these songs. It was so much fun, but it was such hard work. I didn't know that singing could be that hard."

For Andre Braugher's character, Reggie Kane, the actor and filmmakers were faced with a special challenge. Says Jones, "From day one, Reggie has been described as a person whose voice defies human ability. To find an actor who had that kind of singing talent was next to impossible. To find a professional singer who had that ability was more probable but we didn't want to risk losing the acting performance. We felt that based on technology, the priority was to find the right actor for the role and then make him sound great.

"We were very fortunate to cast Andre, who came to the role with an amazing enthusiasm. He threw himself into singing lessons and worked with a vocal coach on the songs that we had chosen for his character," Jones continues

The music team recorded vocal tracks with professional singer Arnold McCuller, a talented vocalist who has provided background vocals for artists including James Taylor and Phil Collins. The rest Braugher explains, is technology. "They fill in my voice with his on the notes that I can't hit and the parts that are too tricky for me. Basically, it's a blend of Andre and Arnold, which is much more convincing than me singing alone, or just Arnold singing over me."

The music team also devised some innovative techniques to capture fully the true Karaoke ambiance. Says Jones, "Even though we are making a musical film, we didn't want it to be in the traditional sense where the character is talking and sounding normal in the room, and then when he starts singing, it's suddenly a perfect soundtrack, where everything is flawlessly produced. We wanted to create the sense that the character you saw talking is now singing in the same room, with the same voice and imperfections-the same chance of a flaw that makes a live performance special."

Music editor Carl Kaller, whose numerous credits include Doors, The (1991) Blade (1998) and City of Angels (1998) was brought in to ensure that the performances had a realistic flavor. Through a rather complicated technique that Kaller had devised for Doors, The (1991) the actors' pre-recorded vocals are painstakingly synchronized in post-production with their live recorded performances.

Jones adds, "The playback served as a guide track for the actor, so we could maintain continuity during the different takes and camera angles. But at the end of the day, we take both voices-the live and the playback-and marry them together so you get the benefit of both."

For director Bruce Paltrow, what was initially a terrifying leap into the unknown proved to be an exciting challenge. "This was a whole new area for me, and as my confidence with the musical aspect grew, I began to figure out the best way to shoot it. The difficult task in filming staged performances is to organically find a way to break the proscenium plane. To get inside the performance and then to find variations of that so each performance looks different than the others."

The film provided an opportunity for the cast members to embrace the Karaoke scene. Gwyneth Paltrow recalls, "Once we knew we were going to make this movie, we started having parties and going to Karaoke bars and getting really involved. It's a lot of fun."

Some of the cast members took advantage of the local Vancouver Karaoke scene, says Huey Lewis, "On an off-night, Gwyneth, Scott, Maria and I went to a Karaoke bar, and it was the first time I'd spent a whole evening in one. It was really eye opening because it was all about the singing. Period." First performing incognito as his character Ricky Dean, Lewis then treated the crowd to a couple of performances of his own songs, straight from the Karaoke playlist.

The filmmakers also cast several Karaoke aficionados, both professional and amateur, to perform in the various Karaoke bars. Among the contestants at the final Karaoke competition were two regular Las Vegas performers, retro singer (and Vancouver local) Michael Bublé, and comedian John Pinette, who performed the unforgettably rollicking version of "Copacabana."

Scott Speedman was very relieved to discover that he was the only principal cast member who would not be required to sing. He says, "All I know about Karaoke is that I never want to do it. I'll go and have fun watching everybody, but I am the worst singer. While I was reading the script, I remember calling my agent to make sure I didn't have to sing."

Long before his daughter had become an Academy Award®-winning actress, Bruce Paltrow had been looking forward to a collaborative effort. For the rest of the cast and crew, the familial environment was appreciated by all.

Says Maria Bello, "Bruce is a real family man, but having Gwyneth and their whole family around, it really created a family atmosphere on set. And as an actor, you feel freer to do your work and screw up and to try things."

Paul Giamatti adds, "Bruce takes the work totally seriously, but has a good time. He gives you a lot of freedom, and yet you feel that somebody is steering the boat."

Movie PosterGwyneth Paltrow greatly enjoyed the experience of working with her father. "This is my first movie with my dad," she says. "The anticipation has been so great that I sometimes can't believe that we're actually doing it. It's really not something you get to do very often, work with people you love, so it's been wonderful. We've had so much fun."