By Maureen Lee Lenker
November 17, 2020 at 10:30 AM EST
Advertisement

When it came to the 11 o’clock number in Netflix’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, the entire production team needed to make it work.

The number, aptly titled “Make It Work Again,” follows the potential reunion of toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) with his long-estranged daughter Jessica (Anika Noni Rose). Simultaneously, Jeronicus works to repair the Buddy 3000 robot, a toy Jessica conceived of when she was still a child.

The two sing of making it work again, both the toy and their relationship, as Jeronicus labors and Jessica makes a journey. In the meanwhile, the entire town of Cobbleton closes up shop for the night, finishing their “work” in choreographed splendor before breaking out into glorious song and dance.

Written by John Legend and choreographed by Ashley Wallen (The Greatest Showman), the number is a true showstopper that will enter the annals of movie musical history alongside other mega-ensemble hits like Wallen’s own “This Is Me” in The Greatest Showman, “Step in Time” in Mary Poppins, “Who Will Buy” in Oliver!, and more.

To break down the beats of how this number came to life, we called up the Jingle Jangle production team to get the nuts and bolts of just how they made it work again.

Credit: Gareth Gatrell/NETFLIX

The script always called for a musical number here, but as the project evolved, writer-director David E. Talbert realized he wanted a truly eye-popping musical number as opposed to the more reflective moment originally planned.

JOHN LEGEND (songwriter, producer): David really wanted me to write a song for that particular moment in the film. Originally, I wrote a completely different style song. It was more of a plaintive song, coming from Anika Noni Rose's character where she was reminiscing about how her father wasn't around for part of her life.

DAVID E. TALBERT (writer, director): How do you tell John Legend that a song he wrote isn't quite working? I rehearsed that one for a few days. I wanted to talk to him about the song. Finally, his team said, "He's got a one-hour window on Saturday." This was Wednesday. I was in London; he's in LA. I said, “I'll see you at 11 o'clock."

LEGEND: I sent that song to David, and he wanted to come over and talk about it. So, he came to my house. He was like, “I feel like we need a different energy for this scene, and something that's more arousing and has more momentum and more energy.”

TALBERT: I said, “Where I wanted you to put the song you wrote, I've changed the scene. And now I need it to be the 11 o'clock song — where everybody's ass is about to fall asleep, you got to put a song in there to wake their asses up.” It's the end of the second act and the big climax and Jeronicus is trying to make this Buddy 3000 work and Jessica is on her way back to see if she can make their relationship work. He says, "I got it. Let's make it work again. Meet me at the piano."

LEGEND: I just sat down and started playing the chords and the chorus for “Make It Work Again” as soon as we talked about the idea of making it work. Jeronicus Jangle — his whole life is about making things work; he's an inventor and a toymaker. So much of the film is about trying to make his inventions actually work. Then, at the same time, they're trying to make their relationship work. We thought that was a perfect way to capture both of those sentiments at the same time.

TALBERT: I'm trying to pay attention to him, but over his shoulder there's an Oscar, about 12 Grammys, Emmy, and Tony Awards on the shelf. And I think he positioned it like that. So, when you sat down with him with the piano, you would shut the f--- up and let him do his job.

LEGEND: I sat down at the piano with David and started playing that idea for him. After about 15, 20 minutes, I had a framework of the song. After he left, I wrote the rest of the lyrics. It was very collaborative with David and understanding what he wanted from the film.

TALBERT:  I get [back] to London, the email comes in and it's a song from John. I play it, and I'm literally in tears when I'm listening to it.

The cast then had to pre-record the tracks in the studio before taking to the soundstage to film the intricate number.

ANIKA NONI ROSE (Jessica): I was really excited to work with John Legend. There's something very old about the spirit that he puts in his music. But this particular song, it just felt like ancestry was in the song. The depth of the song and the way the music sits and the way the rhythm moves through, it's just so beautiful. It's not a vocal place that I get to sing in often, so that was very exciting.

FOREST WHITAKER (Jeronicus): I looked at it with the singing coach and worked on it for a long time. There was something about one of the rhythms that I had [trouble with]. It's like a break in the beat and I was always [getting tripped up on it]. So I kept working on that. That one was more difficult for me. But otherwise, it flowed like all the songs in there.

ROSE: The music helped to propel me where I needed to go because it made me feel as if I was moving through the song. There's no way that I could have stood still and done that song. Because the pace of it moves through your body. This is somebody who's been hurt and is trying again against her better judgment. [But] she's talking from strength and girding herself to go do this thing that she needs to do.

WHITAKER: Just breaking out in song is different than playing a character in a scene, but actually doing a musical where you break out into song was pretty difficult and challenging. Especially when you're with singers like Anika. So, I was really nervous.

While they nailed down the music, choreographer Ashley Wallen began to devise the look and feel of the number’s movement. 

ASHLEY WALLEN (CHOREOGRAPHER): When I first heard the song it was more like a demo version. It had the base rhythm of what we needed. I went to the studio and did a few bits and then I showed David. He was happy with it, but it wasn't quite where he wanted it to go.

TALBERT: As the music was evolving, I knew that I needed something with some edge and I wanted it to be gritty and of the soil. I wanted it to soar vocally and be a spiritual thing. So, when we started really producing it, we put this dance break in, and I asked the choreographer to put in Black fraternity stepping — the way they would do these tribal dance routines. I wanted those routines so it would really feel like the soil of the earth and a working-class anthem.

WALLEN: I love musicals, so I take a lot of stuff from everything. It was some Mary Poppins; Stomp was a big [influence]. They used trash cans and all that. The stuff that they do at the universities, the stepping, they use their feet to make all the beats. A mixture of all different things came into it.

TALBERT: All I threw at him was go online to the Howard University step show and look at the Omega Psi Phis and the Kappa Alpha Phis. You look at the aggressiveness of their dance, and I wanted it to feel like that mixed with all the traditional dance. That's what he did.

WALLEN: It's such a song from the gut and a dance from the gut. I went back to the drawing board and put my spin on it a little.

Credit: Netflix

As the scene begins, Jeronicus works on Buddy in his workshop and Jessica begins to travel to Cobbleton to see if she can reunite with her father. The song cuts between them.

WALLEN: That was all very choreographed — her journey and when she arrives into the town to go and see her father. She's going to go here and then she walks up the streets. She gets the idea to go in. There was a big 360 with the camera that we did.

ROSE: I was in the carriage on the soundstage, and they were shaking it to death. If they weren't shaking it, I was bouncing.

WHITAKER: The hammering and the beats and all that stuff are part of your internal thoughts and your internal life. Jerry was determined at that moment to deal with this, and to fight through failure, and to succeed at making this new invention work. The beats of the song really help you.

WALLEN: With Forest, I did a pass at the dances for him to look at. But he'd seen what the feel of it was and I really didn't have to do much with him. He's just an amazing actor and he knows what to do, and how his character has to be. But it was all very choreographed to the music.

WHITAKER: You do the scene and you fill it up with your art and you go as far as you can, but then music carries it even further than that. You see more deeply into the bones of the emotion. It's how I was able to break out into song.

Credit: Netflix

As Jessica comes into Cobbleton, the workers are closing up their shops for the night. A blacksmith clangs his tools on an anvil, men stack sacks of grain on a truck, some shovel snow, and others sort laundry, all to the beat of the song.

TALBERT: I told one of the music producers, Davy Nathan, “I need you to throw everything but the kitchen sink into this thing." I said, "I'm going to put an anvil-man. I want the rhythm to be the movement of the town.” So, Davy Nathan started putting in all these industrial sounds.

LEGEND: What we were trying to do was incorporate both the idea of making the relationship work and making these machines work. We thought it'd be cool to have the sounds of the machines as part of the arrangement and production of the song. It gives it grit, it gives it energy, it gives it momentum, it helps carry the rhythm. That's a vital part of how we made that song.

WALLEN: We had to get a feel of the town closing up and everyone finishing their work and going home. What would people be doing in that town? From the first girl that shuts the “Closed “sign on the door, it would have a rhythm and a beat to what they do. It all was choreographed and edited like we'd done a [music] video.

TALBERT: I told Ashley all the sounds that we were putting in there, and I wanted them to have a choreographed movement. The movement of the song was a part of the movement of the town. It felt organic.

WALLEN: There was no room for error really. It was all in time with the music, even to the guys coming out of the pub going into the town square. The two shovelers coming down the street, it's one of my favorite shots, as they shovel the snow. It always felt like there was a rhythm. It was heavily choreographed to the beat.

As Jessica enters the town, she begins to make her way through increasingly larger groups doing intricate choreography. This includes some doing flips and incredible feats in the air.

ROSE: Ashley just basically said, “We're gonna move from the top of the stairs to here,” or “I need you to go through this space right here.” My job at that point was not to get kicked in the neck. Do not get kicked in the neck, do not fall into the hot coals, do not scare the horse, and make sure that you're singing. I'm singing full out every time that I do it. But I started on Broadway. It’s second nature to me to be able to move through dancers.

TALBERT: Anika wanted to dance because Anika is Broadway and she's a triple threat. I said "It's just going to be a beautiful picture of you walking through this chaos. And you're the calm against the chaos. But you're vocally chaotic with how aggressive you are."

ROSE: I didn't get to dance. I wanted to dance! But listen, I wasn't going to be dancing like those dancers, so don't worry about that. But I wouldn't have minded doing a twirl in spite of the corset. Or a nice stomp. But David really felt like the character was in a place where she was feeling so seriously about something that he didn't want to take away from the gravitas of the moment by having me dance. So I just moved through these badass dancers with jealousy and made my way to the house singing my face off.

WALLEN: I got a couple of guys in that are Parkour free runners. They run on buildings and do huge flips. It's very athletic, and I always wanted it to feel like they still had a job. Like one guy comes in and does a flip and catches the [chimney brush]. They still have to have an interaction and be involved in what this story wants to get across, but I'd always wanted it to be a part of it. 

Credit: Netflix

The number then pulls out into a wide shot to showcase a dance break featuring the entire ensemble.

TALBERT: I told my cinematographer, "Get me your widest lens, because I want to shoot full body choreography. And I want this to be a spectacle." Ashley and I talked early on because I love The Greatest Showman [which Wallen choreographed]. But I wish I would've seen some more full body shots.

WALLEN: It's very heavily choreographed with the camera. You've all got to be on board together because it changes my whole staging.

TALBERT: On the old MGM musicals, you saw full body dancing and that's what I loved. When I told him that, I swear he almost started crying. We shot everything so you could appreciate the brilliance of these dancers and the brilliance of the choreography.

WALLEN: The dancers could feel a bit freer because it's very much about what their story is and getting their energy across, so I let them do their thing really. I gave them the steps, but then it was about them bringing their interpretation.

ROSE: The land mines in that moment were those damn cobblestones that we were walking on because anybody in a heel knows that a cobblestone is not your friend. I was trying to walk and avoid the amazing dancers and not break my ankle on the cobblestones and hit your marks without looking like you're hitting a mark.

WALLEN: I did cameo in it. My assistant was on the film with me, [and] we both got into costume. But in the editing room that bit didn't make it.

TALBERT: Ashley has some very detailed movement. There're people in the front row going up, people in the second row going sideways, the people on the row behind them going the other way. It was really making sure that we had everybody in unison, everybody in sync with the cameras. Because we knew it was something special. At the end of all of those dance scenes, the dancers would all cheer because everyone was moving so violently, but so beautifully.

WALLEN: By the time we get to when they do that big dance, their energy is all one big blast. It's all heavy on the floor, but then there's times when they all jump up in the air. It was a really electrifying, magnetic feeling to get across.

Credit: Netflix

The song ends with Jessica singing her heart out, eventually concluding alone in front of Jeronicus’ toy shop.

LEGEND: I definitely wanted some elements of gospel music in it. One of the things that we do in gospel music is have different voice parts doing different things, countermelodies going back and forth. That's what I wanted to do for that end part with the dancing in the streets and all the people are joining in. We wanted it to have some of that gospel energy.

TALBERT: I told Anika, “We need to hit a note that makes your toes curl and the hair on the back of your neck stand up.” She went back in the studio, and she hit a note that everybody in there just stood up and went crazy. I think she did that so she could say, "I'm going to hit a note so he will shut the hell up and leave me alone." And I did.

ROSE: I wanted it to be really something at the end that had gravitas to it. But also had the strength of it. It was really wonderful to just sing from the gut.

LEGEND: I love the whole ending where she's just singing her heart out. She's a thrilling vocalist and is perfect for this role. We’re so lucky that we have her.

ROSE: I was just so excited to work with John, and it was everything that I wanted it to be. Probably more. His music made my voice feel like it was home and that doesn't always happen.

TALBERT: It was just a beautiful moment, and it wasn’t about any one culture or race or anything. It was just about these beautifully talented, gifted dancers all coming together and feeling the power and energy of this song and giving it everything they had.

Jingle Jangle is now playing on Netflix.

Related content:

Comments