Disney/Pixar is taking us back to the 2000s when life was full of boy bands, Tamagotchis, Easy Bake Ovens and adolescence. Turning Red introduces Meilin Lee, a confident, slightly dorky 13-year-old with a solid group of friends, an admirable record in school and a better-than-average relationship with her family for the most part.
Meilin—Mei to her friends—has every reason to expect smooth sailing throughout the rest of her middle school career, but like a lot of 13-year-olds diving headfirst into adolescence, Mei is in for a wild ride as she is torn between always wanting to please her mother and becoming her own person.
But no matter how complicated her life becomes, she can always find comfort in 4*Town, the dreamy boy band who always seem to know just how she feels. They represent that one band—that one song we all heard at her age that transformed us. Just like NSync, New Kids on The Block, New Edition, BTS and countless others, they’re Mei’s first crush, her first obsession. This passion for 4*Town is really her first dip into adolescence.
The Koalition had an opportunity to speak to the voices behind 4*Town, the hottest, coolest boy band of all time, who is behind songs like “Nobody Like U”—the single from their latest album that’s climbing all the charts. Their concerts are truly epic, featuring high-flying theatrics, lights, pyrotechnics and—best of all—the five dreamy members of 4*Town. Lending their voices to Robaire, Jesse, Aaron T., Tae Young and Aaron Z., respectively, are Jordan Fisher, Finneas O’Connell, Topher Ngo, Grayson Villanueva and Josh Levi.
With songs written by Billie and Finneas, the music shapes our experience at that age, and this is Mei’s story. It wouldn’t be complete without 4*Town.
“I think the thing that’s so powerful about 4*Town is the nostalgia factor. It’s such an ode to O-Town and NSYNC and Backstreet Boys days. I’m in love with the nostalgia factor of this boy band,” said Topher.
For Grayson, he found it important to “focus more on the tight harmonies and just bringing the swag and the singing. Putting all that together with the chemistry we all have together is what makes it really great.” Josh also agreed swag is what makes 4*Town so special. “The choreography is essential in a boy band, especially those nostalgic boy bands, and we really brought it with 4*Town.”
While Jordan thought the “group aspect was so essential in terms of bringing 4*Town to life. It’s when you’re looking at the poster of the Backstreet Boys or NSYNC or Jagged Edge, when you grew up loving and listening to [them]. It’s seeing a group of them, not just one guy, a handful of them up there that are all so gifted, so talented, so hard working and they all like having fun together. There’s that communal thing that is so important for the aspect of a boy band. It can’t all just be these individual characters but one cohesive unit; and as you know, obviously 4*Town is a little easier because you can just program them to all work really well together and be tight. It’s definite we had a lot of fun doing this [and] it was very nostalgic for all of us here.”
While it’s easy to create a band Mei and her friends swoon over, 4*Town pulls audiences in with their personalities and their individualities created by the actors. Inside that booth they helped to create pure magic, balancing what was already in the script with their own interpretations and inflections of the characters and songs.
“It’s the fun of going into a booth and playing an animated character, it’s being able to just fall into something that is completely shrouded in anonymity. I can create a creative voice in a moment and a dynamic that is super unique to the animation, which is really cool,” said Jordan.
“Robaire is the lead singer of 4*Town and has this effervescent quality to him. [This is reflective of how] the world works around him; everything just seems to work out for Robaire. He speaks French [and] I’m tasked with giving the guy a voice. It is a really an incredible thing and it’s even more of a testament to the power of these animators and the work they do. It’s such an unsung hero kind of thing, they did such a thankless job; they’re able to bring humanity to these animated characters [and] it’s so beautiful,” said Jordan.
“Getting the descriptions of these characters and being able to take on something that is beyond yourself and be on your own is super cool. I played Aaron in the movie and he’s kind of the goofball kid. He’s [got] on the backward cap and I feel like I find myself bringing bits and pieces of myself into the character and enabling myself to be a little bit more extra while we’re recording and tracking,” Topher added.
Turning Red is a coming-of-age story about change and those transitional moments. It’s about a time in people’s lives when they’re trying to figure out who they are. Mei is torn between her family and her friends, and her mother suddenly realizes her daughter is interested in strange music and boys—a mother who struggles with letting go of her child. Instead of embracing her music, she does what every parent has done before and completely dislikes 4*Town without listening to them and understanding the message they are trying to convey to their listeners. 4*Town is not just a boy band but a further extension of Mei and her feelings. By Ming dismissing them, it could be argued, she is dismissing her own child’s feelings as well.
“I would tell parents it’s still kid friendly; everybody can come to this show. 4*Town doesn’t make music for just a specific type of person; it seems very general, [it’s] music everyone could get into, and we put on a show as a boy band we would want everyone to come to. [The songs reflect so] many different types of emotions. We have a confidence booster song; we have a song that everyone knows, and we have our ballad which is something you can really feel your feels,” said Grayson.
Jordan who is expecting a son, chimed in with this reminder, “Music is for everyone, it’s not just for anyone entirely. It’s really up to the parents and it’s up to the kids to be open to learning about that genre that their parents are interested in and vice versa. I think it’s a two-way street. I think parents have to show interest and respect to be able to receive that. There’s mutuality in that there.”