Oscar-Nominated ‘Encanto’ Composer Germaine Franco Has Already Made Film-Music History
Composer Germaine Franco’s Oscar nomination for “Encanto” is a landmark moment in film music:
– She is the first Latina to be nominated in that category;
– She is only the sixth woman ever to be nominated for an original score;
– And she is the first woman to score a Disney film.
But ask any of her colleagues in the profession and they’ll tell you something else: that it’s a triumph for a musically talented, genuinely kind person who has worked hard her entire life, dating back decades to her childhood in El Paso, Texas, just across the border from where her grandparents were born in Chihuahua and Durango, Mexico.
Franco landed the “Encanto” assignment in part because she had firmly established the Mexican backdrop of Disney’s 2017 film “Coco” via her orchestrations and original songs. Says Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is also nominated as songwriter for “Encanto”: “I admired her work on ‘Coco’ and it was really important to me that we have a Latino music team. Our first meeting went really well and she spoke so powerfully about the themes and the instrumentation.”
For Franco, “Encanto” is the culmination of a lifetime of dedication to music. She started taking percussion and piano lessons at age 10, although, as she says, “my mom says I started sooner because I was always banging on pots and playing around on the family piano before I started formal lessons.” By age 16 she was studying classical music at Rice University in Houston while also starting her own Latin jazz band.
“I just wanted to play music,” she says. “I didn’t think about all the barriers and the roadblocks. I would travel to Mexico on my own during spring breaks in college, just hang out with musicians and play.” She went on to become the sole woman percussionist in Berlin’s World Orchestra in the 1980s, playing classical music by day and in salsa bands at night.
She came to L.A. to study with Cuban percussionist Luis Conte, became music director of the Los Angeles Theatre Center and began writing music for plays. In 1991 she scored a short for Universal’s Hispanic Film Project, the start of her career in films.
Composer John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon”) had met and worked with Franco’s brother, multimedia artist Michael Petry, in London during the ’80s and ’90s, and hired Franco as an assistant in 2003. “Back then he was doing five or six films a year,” she recalls.
“She was so wonderful and talented,” Powell remembers. “She did all the things that assistants do for you. She became my co-producer on scores, riding point on everything – singers, musicians, sessions, also playing marimba. As a percussionist, you have a broad knowledge, a sense of rhythm and pitch and melody.”
Over the next decade she also arranged, orchestrated and wrote additional music (on Powell scores including “Kung Fu Panda,” “Bolt” and “Rio,” and on “The Book of Life” with Gustavo Santaolalla) while also writing her own music for documentaries and shorts. She finally left her full-time post with Powell and scored the 2015 Sundance hit “Dope.”
The work continued to come: the action comedy “Tag,” the fantasy “Little,” the adventure “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” theme-park rides based on “Kung Fu Panda” and more. “Just because my last name is Franco, doesn’t mean I only write Latin music,” she notes.
While acknowledging her groundbreaking status as a successful woman in a very male-dominated profession, Franco doesn’t see herself as a leader. “I just do the work, and hope that people respond to it in a good way. But I do feel the need to show young women, especially people of color, that you can accomplish things when you are tenacious, have the desire, and do the work. You must practice, you must orchestrate, you must learn how to write for an orchestra.”
Already a winner of the Society of Composers & Lyricists’ original score honors for “Encanto,” she may well claim a few more statues on the way to the Oscars.
Says Powell: “Her personal empathy and kindness comes out in her music and her relationship with story. She feels it deeply. Those emotions will come out in music, and that music will fit the film. But she is an artist in her own right.”
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