Space Jam: Creating the best tunes for the toons

Space Jam
(Space Jam’s music supervisors talk film’s tunes)

Last weekend Space Jam: A New Legacy double-teamed Marvel Studios’ Black Widow and blocked it from the top box office slot. Giving Warner Bros. its best post-pandemic theatrical opening since Godzilla vs. Kong, the film grossed $31.6 million.

Besides the jokes and animation, which mixes 2D and 3D, another factor of the original Space Jam’s success that the filmmakers sought to embrace was its musical element.

Much like the original Tune Squad jersey, the original soundtrack took on a life of its own after the film’s release in 1996. It featured the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, Busta Rhymes, Barry White, Seal, Coolio, Monica and Chris Rock.

For this modern reimaging, the filmmakers knew they’d need something that could live up to those original jams, while still offering a sound that contemporary youth audiences could connect to. “The soundtrack had to be epic,” noted director Malcom D. Lee. “It’s fantastic. Great music throughout.”

Keir Lehman and Morgan Rhodes, the film’s music supervisors, were well aware of the challenge ahead of them. “I think it was a good challenge,” Rhodes states. “I think the challenge was to create as great a sonic experience for people as the first time around. Those songs on the first soundtrack are so memorable, people love them, people talk about them all the time, so we wanted to create that same moment; we wanted people to leave the viewing experience saying, ‘Man, I remember this song, I remember that song.’ And I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve achieved something really memorable, that people will be talking about for a long time.”

The duo knew that finding a unique sound would involve mixing new, more contemporary aesthetics with a healthy dose of Looney Tunes nostalgia. “We definitely wanted to make it fun for the Looney Tunes,” says Lehman. “You know, a little bit of a callback to the classic sounds that we grew up hearing in the Looney Tunes cartoons. But a lot of the sounds in the movie are definitely fresher. We wanted to bring them into our current day and into the future a bit as well.”

Rhodes agrees with this sentiment. “Even with this very deep story about father and son, we wanted to keep it fun. And we were reminded of that by effects, by characters floating through space, by LeBron going through space, by the server-verse, by games between Bugs Bunny and Lola and Porky Pig. So that helped us keep the vibe light.”

In searching for songs that would evoke the same kind of memorability stoked in the original film, Rhodes and Lehman drew on new musicians and fresh voices, as well as a few veteran artists, a true melding of the classic and the contemporary.

Music Supervisor Keir Lehman

“We had a lot of fun with it,” says Lehman, “because a lot of artists right now grew up with Space Jam and have a real connection—an emotional connection—to it. Of course, we were then able to tune into more current sounds and fresh artist who are really popular now but still give a nod to the classics from the first film, incorporating those elements into this new version as well.”

Lehman notes that those modern sounds meant “using a lot of hip hop and R&B, pop music—things that feel modern and also timeless. We have music from 24kGoldn, who is blowing up right now and making great music that is connecting with youth, and Lil Uzi Vert, who turned in an amazing flip on Pump Up The Jam, a classic played in arenas and stadiums during games, that he took to another level.”

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“I got really excited about the song with Kirk Franklin and Lil Baby called We Win,” says Rhodes. “It came together really organically.”

Lehman reveals that the Big Freedia song that is heard in the film was a find, owning that the track comes in during a pivotal time in the film: the big game. “It’s a great song and it plays just as the Tunes are behind and have to figure out how to play together if they’re going to win against the Good Squad. The song needed to reflect the boost of energy they need.”

Aside from the soundtrack, the film’s musical landscape is lent its more tailor-made moments by composer Kris Bowers. Says Rhodes, “I have to give a lot of credit to Kris, who really helped to carry the narrative with this beautiful score that included sweeping dramatic moments, subtlety, small flourishes… working with Kris really helped to carry those tonal shifts.”

Bowers was intrigued by the same “melding” approach that drew Lehman and Rhodes to the production. “With a project like this, we wanted to figure out how we could combine the traditional orchestral sound with some modern production elements and things like that,” he recalls.

Composer Kris Brown

“We were really trying to discover what the unique musical thumbprint would be. I think Malcolm really wanted to honor the original Looney Tunes sound and wanted to heighten the idea that we’re bringing LeBron into this Looney Tune world, so it was about trying to find a way to make that sound feel as traditional and full as possible, but then adding videogame elements that were light and more textural.”

When scoring a picture, Bowers first searches for what he calls the “heart” of the story. On Space Jam: A New Legacy, he found it in the father-son story at the core of the film’s narrative. “For this it was really about LeBron and Dom’s connection, this father-and-son theme

that we wanted to establish, and so for me it was about watching the film and finding a scene where I could really get into their relationship. A moment where I was really pulled emotionally by their chemistry and dynamic. Then I started to use that theme almost like bread crumbs and just kept piecing the theme throughout the rest of the film.

“With score I’m just trying to play something that makes me feel the same way that the film does,” he continues, “and once I find a melody or chord or some sort of sound that really starts to get me close to the way the film feels, that’s usually when I know I’m on the right track.”

In working on this film Bowers harbored an emotional connection to the material that consistently summarizes the mindset shared by the film’s many makers and collaborators. “Working on this film has been an emotional rollercoaster,” he says. “I feel like just getting it in the first place has been pretty wild to me. This is such a huge film and to be working on a project that’s this big and this large of scale, it just felt like a huge honor. To be trusted with this score and trusted with this process…It still doesn’t feel real to me. Scoring a project that evokes a film that really meant so much to me and so many others as a kid. I think it’s helped connect me to my childhood self in a really fun and beautiful way. I think audiences will find that the film does that, too.”

Space Jam: A New Legacy is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.