Bret McKenzie swaps Business Time for G-rated fun

GEORGE PALATHINGAL
Last updated 05:00 12/04/2014
WaltDisneyStudiosNZ

MUPPETS MOST WANTED - Trailer 2

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GLAMOUR: Kermit and Miss Piggy attend a VIP screening of Muppets Most Wanted in London.
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JASON OXENHAM/Getty
STRICTLY MUPPETS: Brett McKenzie.

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Obscene riches. Gorgeous could-be paramours falling at your feet. Collaborations with Scorsese or Spielberg - heck, why not both?

Mere mortals can only imagine the doors that winning an Oscar must open. For Bret McKenzie, the reality of winning the 2012 Academy Award for best original song - for Man or Muppet, one of several he contributed to movie reboot The Muppets - was not quite so impressive.

''The Oscar opened the door ... to a door that was probably already open,'' says the man best known as the wide-eyed space cadet from Kiwi comedy-rock duo Flight of the Conchords, with flawless comic delivery. ''Disney were very excited to get me back on board, but I think they probably would have got me back on board if I'd won an award or not.

''I do actually keep my Oscar on top of my piano at home. Sometimes I would be working away on a song and I'd glance up at the Oscar and then check myself - 'Is this one good enough? No, it's not good enough, I'll write another one.' It's a critical eye, looking down on me.''

The pressure isn't really on McKenzie to win more awards for this year's sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, but everyone involved knew they had their work cut out for them for one glaring reason ... and so they address it immediately in the film with a big opening number titled We're Doing a Sequel.

''I love that [screenwriters] James Bobin and Nick Stoller, when they gave me an early draft of the script, had this idea for a song that was about doing a sequel, and how sequels aren't that good,'' McKenzie says. ''It's like a difficult second album, I guess is the musical equivalent. That was one of my favourite parts of it - the fact that we admit it as we're going into it, and also the fact that the Muppets are one of the few sort of movie worlds where they have that beautiful ability to turn to camera and just wink at the audience.''

As fans of his work with Jemaine Clement in Flight of the Conchords and their eponymous TV show will know, McKenzie is a dab hand at musical pastiche - although he faced a new challenge with the strictly G-rated content of a Muppets movie.

''I guess, yeah, it's slightly different, isn't it?'' he says. ''I guess the themes are more family-friendly, but, y'know, it doesn't feel that different to working on Conchords. There's far less sexual references. You can't have sexual references in The Muppets!

''I think when I write the songs for a film like this they're so story-dependent that the story kind of sends me off in [the necessary] direction ... The story's not about a sexual relationship, y'know, it's about a Russian frog, ha ha ha! There are the same kinda story elements pushing me around - y'know, it needs to relate to the character or the plot - so it doesn't feel that different.

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''And then, yeah, in Flight of the Conchords we sorta genre-jumped, and that was one of the fun parts about the job. In this film I kinda knew we'd have a few Broadway Muppet show numbers - and then I started filling the gaps. I thought a doo-wop song might be good, and then I'm always a sucker for a kind of Michael McDonald/Lionel Richie [pop-soul] sound.''

Like just about everyone who had a TV in the late '70s and early '80s, McKenzie was a fan of the Muppets the first time around. ''To be fair, there were only two channels at home [in Wellington], so everyone grew up watching the Muppets,'' the 37-year-old says, noting that its competition on the other channel on a Sunday night was ''A Dog's Show, a competition of sheepdogs herding sheep''.

''I didn't grow up thinking, 'I want to do musical comedy', or I didn't grow up wanting to be a puppeteer, but it was kind of, I think, a subconscious backdrop. Definitely, even making Flight of the Conchords, we acknowledged the Muppets as an influence on us. It is one of the few shows that plays with music and comedy, and Conchords, although it deals with some adult ideas, it was a very family-friendly show, very G-rated.''

McKenzie regrets not being able to collaborate with Muppets creator Jim Henson, who died at only 53 in 1990, ''because now it's a little bit like working with a covers band'', but says he has still enjoyed his Muppets experiences - even with one particular diva.

''Ironically, the guy that does [the voice and puppeteering for] Miss Piggy is difficult to work with, ha ha ha! He's very serious about Miss Piggy's singing ability, and obviously Miss Piggy's a terrible singer, so it's quite funny.''

McKenzie's only other major movie connection, meanwhile, is on fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, in which he has little more than a recurring cameo, thanks to a pre-Conchords appearance he made as an extra on the first Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, in 2001.So is this is it for McKenzie now? A life of Hobbits and Muppets?

''Ha ha ha! It's strictly Muppets, man. I only work with Muppets now.''

Muppets Most Wanted - out now. 

- Sydney Morning Herald

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