One of the most widely publicized family activities over this past Thanksgiving holiday was seeing Jason Segel's "The Muppets". The musical and comedic film was a comeback for Jim Henson's original characters, which were first introduced in 1954. The latest movie featured familiar Muppets in a modern setting trying to save the Muppet Theatre from demolition. Numerous celebrities were featured in this journey to reconnect the Muppet squad.
"The Muppets" (2011) was cute, energetic, and colorful, but overly cheesy at moments- particularly during Amy Adam's emotional musical numbers. Other scenes were meanwhile perfectly executed in comparison, leaving regret for lack of consistency in natural-seeming quality. The feel-good musical production opens with the upbeat, "Life's a Happy Song", a catchy show tune placed in what's clearly a Hollywood set neighborhood. Kermit the Frog later sings "Pictures in My Head", a sweet and reflective piece. The 80's dance-party inspiring "We Built This City" by Starship is also played during a prominent scene. Old characters are brought back to life throughout the film with accurate representation and are collectively celebrated as a beloved group. Moreover, the Muppets characters seem to transition well from their 1990's backdrops to present-day Hollywood scenes.
The film concludes with a remake of the popular "Mah na mah na" song. Despite apparent fame, I had not remembered the song as well as "Rainbow Connection", "The Muppet Show Theme", or even the Muppet version of "She Drives Me Crazy" by the Fine Young Cannibals. Nevertheless, this song full of nonsense words immediately got stuck in my head.
In researching this piece, I was frustrated to find more results about its scandalous origins than its music composition techniques. Piero Umillani wrote "Mah Nà Mah Nà" for the 1968 Italian pseudo-documentary and "soft-core pornography", Sweden: Heaven and Hell (Svezia, Inferno E Paradiso). The original song is reported to be performed by four session musicians from a band called Marc 4 and a solo singer. However, it sounds like the piece uses some forms of early synthesizers. Further research indicates that one member of a current Marc 4 group plays electric keyboards with different sound settings. At time 1:16 of the full song, there is an instrumental solo that sounds like early computer music. Listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I48IXSbHsy8
The original piece received some recognition on the billboards, but was also recreated numerous times in future years. The 1973 rendition by Hot Butter, for example, used the Moog synthesizer! Observation of how analogue synthesizers were involved in the evolution of a mainstream "phenomahna" allows me to better appreciate the material covered in my current "Technosonics" class at the University of Virginia. "Mah na mah na" gained national attention in America when it was adopted by the Muppets in the late 1950's and early 1960's. The song was performed by a male Muppet named "Mahna Mahna" (Jim Henson himself) and two pink, female creates called "The Snouths". As years went by, contrary to what one may expect, the song adaptations seemed to include less technological performance and more jazz influence.
The 2011 movie version of the song utilizes more orchestral instruments to create a musical production feel. The base beat definitely sounds like natural percussion, but the melodic parts may be created by either a.) xylophones, kazoos, and/or trumpets or b.) some form of synthesized sound. There also seems to be hints of computerized sound effects that correspond well with the playfulness and clumsiness the Muppets characters.
The song creates a fitting curtain call for the film by switching through Muppets and featured celebrities for the "mah na mah na" chant. Viewers forgive the repetition as they engage in a guessing game of what celebrity will show up next. The greatest error produced by this collage format, however, is that many of the celebrities do not chant on beat, disrupting the flow of the tune. Nevertheless, they maintain entertaining qualities. It unfortunately appears that the on-sale movie soundtrack only includes a version of the song with Mahna Mahna and The Two Snowths, and not one with celebrity guests. Successful marketing strategy for The Muppets movie includes an interactive website where viewers can record themselves saying "mah na mah na", and their clips are incorporated into a never-ending video and song. Overall, I have been excited to match overlooked music history with a current, spirited song movement. The film has some recognizable production flaws, but the soundtrack on its own induces mass sing-alongs.