‘Shrek’ at 20: How a Film Soundtrack Became a Millennial Touchstone
Two months after “Shrek” premiered on April , , the film’s soundtrack hit No. on the Billboard , and later scored a Grammy nomination. Since then, the soundtrack has earned its place in the pop culture zeitgeist. Universal Music Enterprises released a vinyl edition in .
The Dreamworks classic, which turns this year, marked the first time a popular animated feature opted for contemporary music instead of original songs. Co-director Vicky Jenson explains that the choice was informed by the storytelling team’s cinematic taste. “We’d seen it in indie movies and loved it,” she says. “The idea of doing that here to help push forward an emotion that’s already there in the characters and on-screen but captured in a known song felt modern and different.”
Though “Shrek” is characterized by a wry sense of humor, each track signals an emotion that’s deeply genuine. The placement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (sung by John Cale in the movie and Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack) was meant to capture Shrek’s heartbreak.
“Shrek was angry and bitter and didn’t realize how much he was longing for friendship,” Jenson says. “John Cale just seemed to capture the crusty skin that Shrek wore around protectively.”
In another sequence, music supervisor Marylata Elton’s goal was to improve on the catchy temp track. When Donkey and Shrek first begin their journey to rescue Princess Fiona, the scene was accompanied by “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson. “I have so
got to beat that,” Elton remembers thinking. She wound up choosing the Proclaimers’ “I’m on My Way,” which brilliantly highlighted Shrek’s character development with the line “I’m on my way from misery to happiness today.”
The movie is littered with efficient needle drops, none better than its opening scene. If the soundtrack was gold, then “All Star” was its alluring glitter. Elton explains that the Smash Mouth anthem was used as temporary filler so the animators would have something to work with. Dreamworks hired musician Matt Mahaffey to create a song specifically for the scene, but test audiences continued to prefer “All Star.” The song’s familiarity immediately pulled viewers in, says Elton.
Jenson explains that the song personified Shrek. “He found the humorous way to live his life and take his mud baths and be the star of his own movie,” she says. “The tone of that song just seemed to capture that self-sufficient rebellious celebration of his filthy life.”
Smash Mouth was in the middle of recording their third album when they were approached to sign on to the film, including its final track, a remake of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” Some band members were hesitant about spreading themselves thin with a movie soundtrack. In hindsight, bassist Paul De Lisle says that they ended up making the right choice, noting he thinks that some people believe singer Steve Harwell is Shrek.
“Ever since the ‘Shrek’ movie came out, years later, at every one of our concerts there’s someone holding up a Shrek sign or someone dressed up as Shrek,” De Lisle says.
According to Elton, the staying power of the movie — and its nostalgic soundtrack — rests in part on how well the music served the characters and helped people to embrace the story. The film “reached all of us ugly ducklings,” she says. “Music is so universal. I think that’s why people connected to it, and there’s a whole generation. It really just got into their DNA.”