And the Oscar goes to… our Bret McKenzie! The boys from Flight of the Conchords are used to receiving high accolades, and deservedly so. Few Kiwis get to put NZ music so prominently on the map and their output is of such a consistently high standard and now, with an Oscar statuette in the collection, they have surpassed the benchmarks set by Don’t Dream It’s Over and How Bizarre.
The Conchords’ TV series was directed by James Bobin who, when attached to the Muppets movie, approached Bret McKenzie to submit songs. I have read that the writing process was challenging as songwriters were constrained in what they could have the Muppets sing – no allusion to puppetry, and off-colour humour was off the cards also.
Still, Bret delivered his usual witty, and touchingly quirky musical mannerisms within the parameters granted, and it is my delight to highlight some for you.
Duets tend to offer insight into both characters points of view and often play on this scenario, switching perspectives and uniting after some perceived difference of opinion. Man or Muppet seizes on this formula and in a disarmingly charming way discusses the concept of duality of the self. Our two protagonists realise they exhibit personality traits of both man and Muppet, and set up an ongoing narrative that plays with circular logic and eventually concludes that it’s fine and dandy to be a bit of both.
They arrive at this happy decision after a suitably epic ‘Animal’ drum fill in the last chorus which has been appropriately modulated up a tone from Bb to C to really emphasise their shared eureka moment. But to get there, we have to start at the start…
Fittingly the song begins in the relative minor. The human character Gary has been asked to decide if he is a man or a Muppet, sadly he “Reflects on my reflection”, (such a ‘punningly’ fabulous opening line) that sets the tone for alliteration and word pairing throughout the song.
This verse melody outlines Gmin beginning on the min3rd and oscillating between the 2nd before reaching briefly for the 5th. Colour is added with the harmonic accompaniment moving chromatically down in minims, Gmin, F#+, Bb/F, Eø.
It’s a classic progression and although Bret’s lyrics are so ‘Conchord’ distinctive, that melody and chord progression could easily be vintage Elton or Newman, it’s that appropriate!
Eb6 and F 6/9 semibreves round off the pre, creating a IV – V launch pad to bring us to the uplift chorus in home key Bb major. Here Gary spans the biggest sung interval so far, leaping up a Major 6th to D from F. “Am I a man?” “Or am I a Muppet?” This second self-questioning phrase falls on an F/A chord and pushes the melody incrementally up through an Eb. The next measure extends our singing range to the highest point so far hitting an F on “If I’m a Muppet” over an Fm6, before concluding, “Then I’m a very manly Muppet,” over the IV chord Eb.
It’s a tasty chorus that when repeated, reverses the question and subsequent reasoning of our protagonist. The linking post chorus cadence switches our satisfying Eb IV chord over to its parallel minor iv counterpart Ebmin6 (classic Beatles). This chord injects a tritone tension and necessitates a resolution, which is granted by rising through an F bass to (instead of Bb like it did in the chorus) the Gmin of verse two.
Note how the chorus bass line falls chromatically down Bb-A-Ab-G under the chords, mirroring the same chromatic movement of the verse. Its a nice touch and ties the two sections together marvellously.
Walter Muppet sings a truncated second verse along similar self-analytical lines before we hit chorus two. Nothing new happens until the bridge where our characters sing together over a rousing Dm7 – Gsus11 eventually realising, “I think I’ve made up my mind, now I understand who I am…”
That last line falls on a shift back to the IV, (Eb6) followed by a new chord flavour, the ever suspenseful F13sus, ideally suited to take us back home to Bb, but cleverly doesn’t! F13sus can be thought of as an Eb∆/F and therefore has a G note in it. Gary pivots on this and like the choruses before leaps up a Major 6th to E, straight into the new (modulated) key of C.
Our man and Muppet conclude, “I’m a man, I’m a Muppet” respectively and that they are also, “A Muppet of a man” and “A very manly Muppet”. And it’s cool that they are at peace with themselves.
Beyond Bret Mckenzie’s ultra-stylish harmony and melody he really delivers on distinctively charming lyrics. It’s cutesy-quirky yet meaningful and obviously perfectly fitting to (beat out any other submissions and) be showcased at the pivotal moment in the movie. I met Bret once, briefly… before he was famous.
Godfrey de Grut is a former Silver Scroll co-winner with Che Fu. Now a freelance writer, arranger and producer he lectures in popular music studies at the University of Auckland.