How Illumination Keep the Motion Picture Soundtrack Tradition Fresh

In the realm of cinema, nothing is more engaging than a movie that’s complemented with a good soundtrack. Not the album for a movie’s score, but the quintessential motion picture soundtrack; music curated for a movie, composed of tunes new and/or old. The movie itself may be absolute trash, but even then, a silver lining can come in the form of a stacked album (i.e., Space Jam, Batman Forever, Suicide Squad). During the late ’90s/early 2000s, it seemed as if nearly every major studio blockbuster had a soundtrack to coincide with its release. Society was so desensitized to this that we had some of the weirdest collaborations, such as P. Diddy and Jimmy Page’s “Come With Me” for Godzilla (1998).

Today, the chances for a studio movie to receive a full-on soundtrack are pretty slim, especially if it’s not a Disney movie, a musical adaptation of a Broadway play, or a YA novel movie adaptation. Though movie soundtracks are a rarity, one of the few film studios keeping the tradition alive is Illumination. The Chris Meledandri-spearheaded animation studio known best for creating those inescapable Minions has made consistent bangers since Pharrell’s contribution to the first Despicable Me installment in 2010. With Minions: The Rise of Gru nabbing the likes of trendy music producer Jack Antonoff of Bleachers fame as the music supervisor for the ’70s-set prequel, it’s clear that music has become a core component of the studio’s identity.

When Meledandri founded Illumination and their inaugural feature Despicable Me was put into production in 2008, he enlisted Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. to write original tunes and help compose the score alongside film composers Hans Zimmer and Heitor Pereira. In a 2010 press release, Meledandri stated, “Pharrell is one of the most important contemporary songwriters, Hans is one of the truly great film composers and Heitor is the next generation of Hans’ protégés. This is an extraordinary teaming of talent. With every note they write, our film is being enriched.” It was the Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and producer’s first venture into composing for film, and it elevated the quality of the movie.

In an interview with CNN, Pharrell said, “In a film, the music assists the illustration of the story. What I’ve discovered is that there’s a serious art in the mastery of telling the story.” His non-diegetic, upbeat dance-pop-meets-hip-hop songs, from the happy-go-lucky “Fun, Fun, Fun’’ to the laid-back titular theme, enhanced the mood of the movie, making each song stand out. Accompanied by a soundtrack he produced with Zimmer, and featuring a variety of musicians from Robin Thicke to Lupe Fiasco, Pharrell’s Despicable Me soundtrack was the start of a beautiful relationship for the studio. Even after Despicable Me, it launched Pharrell’s career in film, leading to him making albums for multiple movies, from Spongebob: Sponge Out of Water with N.E.R.D to Hidden Figures, another collaboration with Zimmer (and Benjamin Wallfisch).

The commercial success of Despicable Me and its accompanying soundtrack was so effective, Meledandri began using that model for the majority of Illumination’s projects. With each feature, he nabbed some of the most talented and experienced music producers of our time, such as Harvey Mason Jr. (Sing 1 & 2, The Secret Life of Pets 2) and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart (The Lorax)—who recently produced Beyonce’s song of the summer, “Break My Soul”—to contribute to their movies. It’s mind-blowing to know that the producer of several Mariah Carey, Beyonce and Rihanna songs contributed to The Lorax, of all movies. And I’m still thinking about how Tyler, The Creator was asked to produce Illumination’s The Grinch soundtrack, which implemented his distinct style of horn-filled hip-hop throughout.

The variety of artists and producers who spearhead these soundtracks go the extra mile, challenging themselves to explore whichever genre is the perfect fit for the movie they’re working on. Universal Pictures president of music Mike Knobloch, who has overseen music supervision for several Illumination projects, recently told Billboard, “We’ve worked with Illumination since [its] beginning a dozen years ago to curate a unique musical identity for their films, which is a little bit of a left of center.”

Due to the close relationship Pharrell and Meledandri shared while working on the first Despicable Me, it has become tradition for Pharrell to write new music for each mainline Despicable Me follow-up. Given that each entry thus far has been released just in time for the summer, the poppy music Pharrell crafts encapsulates the freeing, high-spirited, upbeat nature of the season. Tunes like “Happy” (Despicable Me 2) and “There’s Something Special” (Despicable Me 3) illustrate joy in a carefree and soulful manner. The uptempo beats of most of Pharrell’s tracks, alongside his falsetto voice, trigger a pleasant sense of excitement, which are about the same emotions kids feel when they’re off school and a new Despicable Me movie awaits them—and their parent’s wallets—at the theater. The same is applicable to the Secret Life of Pets flicks, which had similar release windows, and nabbed Antonoff and LunchMoney Lewis to deliver contemporary covers of Paul Simon’s “Me & Julio Down By the Schoolyard” and Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day,” respectively, for the soundtracks.

The music from Despicable Me 2’s soundtrack has retained its longevity to this very day, with songs including the Grammy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated “Happy,” and the breezy, upbeat “Just a Cloud Away,” which recently became a viral TikTok sensation, resulting in Pharrell releasing the song as a single nine years after its initial release.

When the internet was flabbergasted by Antonoff’s music supervisory role for the Minions: The Rise of Gru soundtrack, that confusion was laid to rest, because it was once again a bop. This is the same studio that had the likes of Pharrell and South Park’s Trey Parker duetting on a funky pop song for Despicable Me 3 that was way better than it had any business being. Similar to the tracks on The Secret Life of Pets 2, The Rise of Gru’s soundtrack features fresh, futuristic covers of ’70s classics by some of today’s hottest contemporary artists, including St. Vincent, Phoebe Bridgers, Brockhampton and Tame Impala, to match the movie’s 1976 setting. Antonoff got Diana freaking Ross, out of nowhere, to do an upbeat original funk song called “Turn Up the Sunshine,” which feels right out of the ’70s, and it put her on the Billboard charts for the first time since 2006.

Whether it be a jukebox musical like the Sing movies or a short, silly Minions movie, the people at Illumination know how to get the right tunes for their features and make feel-good, joyous music that goes beyond the films they’re featured for. From Pharrell with Despicable Me and Tyler, The Creator with The Grinch to, now, Antonoff with Minions, the animation studio has kept the motion picture soundtrack tradition fresh and unique with each project they create.

Rendy Jones is a film and television journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. They are the owner of self-published outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics Choice Association, and a film graduate of Brooklyn College. They have been featured in Vulture, The Daily Beast, AV Club and CBC News.