With all due respect to Lizzo, Calvin Harris, and yes, even Beyoncé, the album of the summer has arrived, and it comes courtesy of the Minions.
Sure, the entire internet (this site included) roasted Jack Antonoff when he dropped the tracklist in May for the soundtrack to Minions: The Rise of Gru, the fifth installment in the Minions franchise. But in the face of that mockery—and against all odds or any shred of common sense—the animated film has managed to deliver the most fun and feel-good album of the summer thus far.
Of course, this really shouldn’t come as a shock to those familiar with the Despicable Me cinematic universe. No matter how you feel about the yellow, gibberish-spewing creatures invariably adored by meme-loving Facebook moms, the music in the Minions world has always been on point. Mike Knobloch, president of global music at Universal Pictures, credits that feat to the “slightly left-of-center musical identity” he’s helped to build at Illumination, the studio behind the films. It was Illumination, remember, that enlisted Tyler, the Creator to helm the soundtrack for the 2018 CGI version of The Grinch—a collaboration that worked shockingly well, especially because it managed not to totally water down Tyler’s style.
For Minions: The Rise of Gru, the music was somewhat predestined. The movie is largely set in San Francisco in 1976, chronicling young Gru’s (voiced by a pitched-up Steve Carell) quest to become the world’s most notorious supervillain. There’s music embedded into the plot—Gru’s evil lair is hidden below a record store called Criminal Records, and the track that unlocks the trap door entrance is, fittingly, Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.”
When it came time to curate the movie’s soundtrack, Knobloch tapped Antonoff, pop music’s favorite producer, who had worked with the studio a couple times prior, including recording a Paul Simon cover for The Secret Life of Pets 2 and producing Taylor Swift and Zayn’s Fifty Shades Darker collab “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever.”
“We were just kind of already in a groove, and always on the prowl for something that we could sink our teeth into together,” Knobloch says about working with the Bleachers frontman. “And then this Minions movie presented a really great opportunity to go further than, ‘Let’s just put ’70s songs in the movie.’ There was an opportunity to say, ‘Alright, what can we do with these songs, and do they need to be the genuine article or is there an opportunity to do covers, updated interpretations, refreshes of the songs?’”
He continued, “And so it started with, ‘What do we need to do for the film?’ and then it built up to, since we’re playing around in the sandbox of ’70s songs, why don’t we make something new? Let’s create this lineup of ’70 songs and tracks covered by the coolest artists ever that show up because they want to work with Jack and they want to be part of this project.”
The concept behind the album is pretty straightforward: a collection of ’70s songs reimagined by contemporary artists. But the execution is anything but predictable, with a collaborator list that includes rappers Brockhampton and Tierra Whack, indie it girls Caroline Polachek and Phoebe Bridgers, and more classical-leaning rockers like Gary Clark Jr. and Alabama Shakes lead singer Brittany Howard. Among the most astonishing cuts are St. Vincent’s hazy, vocoder-heavy take on “Funky Town” and Thundercat’s sparkly, woozy rendition of “Fly Like an Eagle,” both of which lend an air of futurism to such an otherwise retro album. And with his bilingual version of “Born to Be Alive,” Jackson Wang, a Hong Kong-based rapper and member of South Korean band GOT7, lends some global street cred to make the album feel even more modern. Ditto for Kali Uchis, who slinks through a cover of João Gilberto’s bossa nova standard “Desafinado.”
Knobloch admits there were plenty of artists they approached for the soundtrack who said no, as well as those who took some convincing, but ultimately he believes the attraction for most musicians was a chance to experiment outside of their own sounds—like St. Vincent, who he met while visiting Antonoff in a Los Angeles studio during the making of her album Daddy’s Home, and who most music fans probably would’ve deemed “too cool” for a Minions soundtrack.
“We were telling her about the project and talking about songs, and ‘Funky Town’ came up in conversation. It was very much just having the opportunity to pitch her in person and have her go, ‘I love that song. I want to do that cover,’” Knobloch says, adding, “This soundtrack is a vehicle for them to do something that they’re excited to do, that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise have the right platform or outlet to release that kind of a song as part of their artist brand or the cycles of music that they’re putting out.”
And then there’s what Knobloch refers to as the soundtrack’s “crown jewel”: “Turn Up the Sunshine,” an original song by Tame Impala and living icon Diana Ross that plays in the film and over the end credits. It’s an unlikely team-up, but one that ultimately gives the album its splashiest, sunniest, most song-of-the-summer-friendly moment. Consider it a cousin of sorts to Pharrell’s equally effervescent “Happy,” easily the biggest smash to date from the Despicable Me world, and one that’s hard not to imagine as a blueprint for Knobloch and his team.
Already, Minions: The Rise of Gru is a box office smash that’s shattered July 4th holiday records with its $127 million opening this weekend. We’ll see whether that translates into the soundtrack, which was also released on July 1, becoming equally successful on the charts or spawning a “Happy”-level hit, but it certainly has plenty working in its favor. Besides its all-ages appeal and diverse artist roster, the album also conveniently fits into one of the biggest trends in music over the past two years: ’70s and disco-inspired dance tunes. It’s something Knobloch points to as a happy coincidence, considering the soundtrack was made in 2019 and 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the film’s release to 2022, and before the success of Doja Cat’s “Say So,” Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, or ABBA’s resurgence on TikTok.
“I think what was a little bit weird is that, had we released the album and the movie with its music in 2020, with the trends in music, we felt like we were a little ahead of the curve,” Knobloch reasoned. “It felt like we were going to put out some ’70s-infused music, and some of it was a little disco and some of it was just ’70s pop and R&B. And it felt like music was trending in that direction, but we were ahead of the curve, I think. There was a little bit of like, ‘Oh, we could have been in front of that instead of behind it.’ I think that’s just us having a lot of time to live with it and being over-scrutinizing.”
If anything, it’s a good thing. Maybe the Facebook moms were right and the Minions really do spark joy. At the very least, Antonoff’s soundtrack certainly does. “We made a record that’s a groovy soundtrack for your summer,” Knobloch says. “That’s the short version that sums up the whole thing.”