John Debney is the guy to go to when you need music to swell your heart as you trim your Christmas tree. In fact, Debney has scored almost every major holiday there is in the form of his filmography. Not only did he create the whimsy of Buddy the Elf’s journey to New York City and give The Sanderson Sisters their verve on All Hallows’ Eve, but he also wrote the music for Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and he was nominated for an Oscar for The Passion of the Christ. For David E. Talbert’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Debney outdoes himself with a beautiful, warm score that will lift your spirits this drab holiday season.
It’s interesting to think about all the holiday music we are familiar with from contemporary Christmas films. They are all distinctly different but they all tap into that nostalgia that makes us yearn for Christmas. Jingle Jangle is no exception. This is a one of a kind film that will mean a lot to many people for different reasons, and Debney’s score tugs those heartstrings without being pedantic or invasive to the story of the film.
Debney gets to really fly with Jingle Jangle because of the scope of the film. It has an intimate message but features large, boisterous set pieces that will excite all viewers no matter the age. At its heart, Jingle Jangle is a timeless story of love and family and Debney’s score is a true reflection of that.
Awards Daily: Do you think there is a key to scoring a Christmas story? How do you tap into that magic and wonder?
John Debney: That’s a great question. Christmas was always important to us. Halloween was always my favorite but Christmas always joyful and magical. There’s something about the holidays in general. For those of us who are lucky enough to have family or extended family or even just great friends, there’s a feeling of togetherness. Getting everyone at the table–even if you don’t agree with them all the time–there’s love there. I think there’s that spirit, and, for me, I’m of a generation where Christmas always had those little special. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
AD: I love that one.
JD: Yeah, these kind of cheesy and dated things have a charm and innocence to them. That’s what it is that’s similar to Jingle Jangle. There is the want and desire to have that comradery and those beautiful friends. Knowing David E. Talbert like I do, that’s what he wanted too. He’s quite a softie himself and so am I. There’s that feeling in this movie, I think. This movie is revolutionary in a lot of ways. It does speak to the heart and talks about those relationships that we all have and that we want to be better. It’s a lot of those warm and fuzzy White Christmas-y feeling.
AD: And that feeling is something that feels special to this time of year. My husband and I decorated this weekend and we pulled out all the movies and we always tell ourselves that we are going to watch, you know, some 40 movies.
JD: My wife is like that too. As the years go on, you find that you always have a lot more holiday stuff than you imagine. I love that.
AD: One of the favorite characters is Ms. Johnston, played by Lisa Davina Phillip.
JD: You and me both.
AD: She has this warm heart that goes with her huge smile. She’s always slightly overstepping her boundaries, especially when it comes to Forest Whitaker, but there is a tinge of sadness to her. What’s the key to her?
JD: I’m glad to you asked. She has that wonderful song and it’s blues-y and raunchy in a way. I love that about her because she is unabashedly in love with Forest. She lets him know. I think her music needed to be part of her character a la the song. I wanted it to have a little of gospel since Lisa has that incredible range. All the way through, David and I talked about the different characters and what their sounds would be. Her sound is very that going to church. She’s the church choir lady who tells everyone what to do but she’s still so lovable. There’s some blues piano that hints at her song. We had such a ball doing it. In fact David has me replay the piano in a certain way that I did on the demo piece and it ended up in the film. I love the blues.
AD: I haven’t really seen a family holiday movie that showcases a predominantly Black cast. I thought I was just forgetting a title so I searched it and I couldn’t find out. Something on this scale. I think the music is very representative of Black artists that we don’t always see in movies like this.
JD: I’m so glad you brought it up. I agree with you. It’s about time, right?
JD: We had Black Panther that opened up so many doors and hearts of so many people. This film, I think, it exactly that. There is a scene in our film where our two wonderful kids get to fly and David and I were working on that piece of music for a long time. It took a long time to find it. I hope he doesn’t mind me telling this story, but he said to me, ‘You know, Debney, there has never been any Black people flying in a movie.’ First you kind of laugh because David is such a funny guy–humor part of his heart and soul. And then I thought about it and he was right. Every frame of this movie is with that in mind. This is one of those movies I hope. I don’t mean to bring it into politics but just like our new President and our wonderful new Vice President, Kamala Harris. Wow. I hope this is something that can touch little kids’ hearts and mean something to people of all backgrounds but mostly to our Black brothers and sisters. We wanted a little gospel choir in certain areas. We wanted to give a nod to the incredible African culture. It was all so planned and executed by David. It was important for us to get it right.
AD: One of my favorite pieces that jumped out at me was the piano underscore when Jeronicus tells Journey, “Never be afraid if people can’t see what you see. Only be afraid if you no longer see it.’
AD: That’s a great line and the heart of the film, I think. Can you talk to me about that snippet of music there?
JD: To me, that’s the whole movie. That’s really powerful. That was one of the first scenes that I wrote with David in the room. This was right before COVID and we worked hard to make that as soft and delicate as we could. If memory serves me right, we ended with a delicate piano with some hints of “Square Root of Possible.” It’s so delicate that it’s almost transparent, and I remember putting in a little but of gospel ending on it. David liked it but we needed a little bit of the weight of it at the end. Honestly, I thought we were going to have to replace the piece because that was the first thing we did together and it just stuck. Late in the process, I asked if he wanted me to take another go at it with everything we’ve learned and David told me it was perfect. We let it be.
AD: On the flip of that, you get this really huge, adventure set piece with Journey and Edison go to save Buddy from Gustafson. It’s kind of Raiders of the Lost Ark and I love how it amps the action.
JD: David is a lover of not only musical but he loves Steven Spielberg and George Lucas movies. They are hiding from the guards and roaming through to get to the tunnel to escape, and all the while he thought we needed to fuse it with some John Williams. What was that weird movie with the big giant?
AD: The BFG?
JD: I love the score of that. It was big and adventurous and sneaky with a little wink to it. It’s fun. We wanted to have fun and make these dramatic shifts that I always love to do. When Ms. Johnston and Jeronicus pull up in her truck, we get a little lighter and then go right back to being serious. I think the biggest payoff for me is when the sled starts to go and they are racing to get to the finish line to get out and we get a little bit of a flying theme that was a nod to Spielberg. I love doing the small, intimate music, but I also love to make it big and bombastic. That was a gift. I hope people enjoy that part.
AD: I was curious about movie musicals because I feel like they come in waves. In the early 2000s, everyone said Moulin Rouge! and Chicago revitalized the movie music and then we got a slew of adaptations of other Broadway shows. And now, with films like The Greatest Showman and Jingle Jangle, we are getting these new big screen musicals with all new music that are very poppy. Can you comment on where movie musicals are right now?
JD: I was fortunate to work on The Greatest Showman also and I think that gave me a little bit of background for when I started to work with David, we talked about that movie. He loved the songs. I think it’s a great thing kind of like what we were talking about culturally. There have been musicals that have dabbled in contemporary music, of course, but I don’t think we’ve seen this level. Someone mentioned to me recently at how The Wiz was groundbreaking, but I think you’re right. Jingle Jangle is more gearing towards hip hop and soul and that stylistic approach, and I love that. The Greatest Showman was right down the pop lane but Jingle is a little more gutsy and in-your-face and soulful. That was all the design by David–that uber-now feeling–and he wanted the score to speak to that while being timely,
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is streaming now on Netflix.