Stevie Wonder isn’t in the habit of making songs for movies — but when he gets around to it, the song makes an impact.
In 1985 he won an Academy Award for “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” from the Gene Wilder comedy “The Woman in Red.” In 1991 his soundtrack for Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” topped Billboard’s R&B chart and led to several Grammy nominations.
Now, a quarter-century after his last Hollywood moment, Wonder is up for original song at Sunday’s Golden Globes with “Faith,” his and Ariana Grande’s duet from the animated film “Sing.”
A zippy, Motown-style dance tune, “Faith” is as emotionally direct as “I Just Called” and as rhythmically nimble as “Jungle Fever.” Unlike the earlier songs, though, it wasn’t Wonder’s sole creation; “Faith” was co-written and produced by Ryan Tedder, the OneRepublic frontman who’s also known for his work with A-list pop stars like Beyoncé (“XO”), Adele (“Rumour Has It”) and Taylor Swift (“Welcome to New York”).
“Stevie doesn’t do other people’s melodies,” Tedder said in an interview this week. “And I think maybe one or two other people have ever told him what to do — like, ‘I need you to re-sing this, that’s not the right note.’”
As a result, no one was certain how things would go when Tedder gathered with Wonder and Grande — as well as executives from Republic Records and Universal Pictures — in a North Hollywood recording studio one evening last year.
“Halfway through the session, [Republic chief] Monte Lipman looks at me and goes, ‘Man, there was a greater-than-50% chance this could’ve been a disaster,’” Tedder recalled with a laugh.
Instead, he added, “it ended up in the top two or three sessions of my entire career.”
What made it so great?
Just the pure joy of it. We were up till 3 in the morning. At one point I told Stevie, “You know, the first song I ever heard from you, when I was a kid, was ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You.’” He immediately busted out the song at the piano, and then for the next 20 minutes was basically doing any song me or Ariana would name that we liked.
Many of these high-profile duets are recorded piecemeal. How unusual was it for the three of you to be in one room together?
Highly, highly, highly unusual. It just doesn’t happen anymore; it felt like it was 1975. But nobody’s gonna pass up a session with Stevie Wonder. He and I had been talking for a couple weeks leading up to it, so we’d gotten to be chummy, and we still are actually. I plan on doing some more writing with him here in the next couple months. But before he even agreed to do the song, he wanted to have a phone call and talk for like an hour to see if we had a good vibe.
It wasn’t exactly a gig he needed to take. You can imagine he’d have bailed if the vibe wasn’t right.
He told me he’s been pitched so many concepts over the last 40 years and that this was the first one in a decade that made him want to step away from doing his own thing. I felt very honored.
What convinced him?
Given the nature of what Stevie Wonder likes to sing about, I think even the title, “Faith,” played a role in it. The song is about love and spotting the X factor in somebody else and calling it out and lifting them up — those are all things that fit Stevie’s DNA.
He sounds surprisingly young, especially in the first verse.
That was the hardest part of the song to cut because it’s very contrary to what his instinct was on that section. I had this iPhone voice recording — it was just gibberish, but he loved the pocket of the melody that I had. And he was so committed to not veer off-course on that delivery; I’ve never seen anyone go above and beyond like he did to nail those eight bars. I think that’s why it feels young — he sounds like he’s 25 years old.
At the Golden Globes, “Faith’s” competition includes another uptempo pop song: Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from “Trolls.” What do you make of that tune?
To me it came out of left field. I’ve known Justin since we were both like 20, and we’d been talking maybe two months before that song dropped about going in to write together. I believe we’re still planning on it. But this sounded so diametrically different than his previous two albums that at first I did a double take: “That’s not Justin!” But I think it was the song of the summer — a feel-good record kind of in the spirit of Pharrell’s “Happy.”
“Happy” was also from an animated movie, “Despicable Me 2.” What does that medium do for you as a songwriter and producer?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and here’s my theory: The reason animated pictures bring out the poppiest, gummiest, sing-songiest contributions from artists is because you get a hall pass to not be what people expect and to not take yourself so seriously. You get to go for it: What is the most singable, fun, effervescent record possible? You’re not gonna get that from someone’s standard 12-track album that they spent 15 months doing; it doesn’t work that way.
Me and OneRepublic, we get asked probably every two months to do a song for a film, and when I do, it’s almost like a weight is lifted off my shoulders. I don’t have to think about all the same things and criteria and rules — I just get to go write the biggest record I can that captures this moment.
And here’s the other great thing about it: If you swing for it big for a movie and it turns into a smash, great. But if it doesn’t? Hey, it was for a film.
Justin Timberlake isn’t the only other recognizable name in the running for this year’s Golden Globe for original song. Here are the rest of the nominees:
“How Far I’ll Go” (“Moana”)
Tunes from animated Disney films like this acclaimed adventure about a Polynesian princess are proven awards-season favorites: Between 1991 and 1995, four Disney songs won Golden Globes, including “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin” and the title track from “Beauty and the Beast.” (Then again, “Frozen’s” inescapable “Let It Go” lost three years ago to a so-so U2 song.) “How Far I’ll Go” hasn’t become a standalone pop hit like those earlier cuts, but it’s gotten a boost from the monster success of “Moana” and from its connection to “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the song. (Listen here.)
That winning U2 track in 2014 was produced by Danger Mouse, who’s back in the running this year for his atmospheric collaboration with Iggy Pop from Stephen Gaghan’s movie about a balding gold hunter played by Matthew McConaughey.
“City of Stars” (“La La Land”)
Damien Chazelle’s modern-day musical about a jazz pianist in Los Angeles has earned rave reviews as well as a fair amount of scorn from jazz experts who’ve criticized the film’s childlike ideas about the meaning of musical authenticity. “City of Stars,” by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, mostly sidesteps that debate: It’s a wistful Broadway-style ballad whose naivete is kind of the whole point. (Listen here.)
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” (“Trolls”)
Certainly this year’s highest-profile nominee — it reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was the biggest-selling song of 2016 — Timberlake’s bubbly electro-disco jam reteamed the pop singer with Max Martin, the Swedish studio savant who helped make him a star with ’NSync. (Listen here.)