soundtracks

How Shrek Blew My Band Up

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Dream Works

Frou Frou was never intended to be a long-term band. When songwriter and producer Guy Sigsworth was approached to produce a cover of Bonnie Tyler’s exuberant ’80s bop “Holding Out for a Hero” for the 2004 Shrek 2 soundtrack, the British electropop duo, comprised of Sigsworth and vocalist Imogen Heap, was not technically active. Both independently successful (Heap as a Grammy-winning solo artist and Sigsworth as an in-demand songwriter to top-tier talent like Britney Spears and Björk), Frou Frou had dropped one album in 2002, aughts-pop staple Details. When record sales didn’t materialize, they left it at that.

So when Shrek 2 music supervisor and KCRW DJ Chris Douridas, an early Frou Frou supporter, approached Sigsworth to reimagine “Holding Out for a Hero,” which originally showed up on the Footloose soundtrack, the producer was eager to get Heap’s vocals on the track. Just like that, thanks to the power of a box-office-topping big green ogre, Frou Frou was back. (It bears mentioning that the Shrek films — especially the first and the second — have aged much better than 2004’s manic-pixie mopefest Garden State, which prominently featured Frou Frou’s “Let Go” and exposed the duo to mainstream audiences well beyond the U.K. and Europe.)

The result, driven by Heap’s trademark layered vocals and Sigsworth’s futuristic production, is not only a sharp, modern reimagining of Tyler’s original — it’s also a simmering synth-pop gem that shows the power in a cover’s ability to both pay homage to and also reinvent a beloved classic. Selected to kick off Shrek 2’s closing credits (the movie also features another cover of the song, performed by Jennifer Saunders’s Fairy Godmother), “Holding Out for a Hero” remains an early-2000s favorite of younger fans who grew up with the Shrek franchise.

Though it isn’t available to stream — it’s one of a handful of songs from the soundtrack not legally available anywhere — Frou Frou’s cover has been uploaded unofficially to YouTube several times over, with each video racking up millions of views. (Multiple streaming and label sources declined to comment on the record for this story about why the cover is not streamable.) “All of these streaming services don’t own the copyright,” suggests music supervisor and composer Timothy Andrew Edwards, the creative director of Move Music LLC. “They’re basically licensing these different works and compositions — a lot of it comes down to licensing terms. It doesn’t really come from a site having or not having something; oftentimes, it’s about whether something is available to be licensed. It’s not like radio or record retailers where it’s whatever gets played gets up there. It really comes down to licensing the rights.”

Despite its lack of legal availability, the long tail of “Holding Out for a Hero” is, of course, inextricably tied to the overall reach and success of both Shrek soundtracks, which neatly mirrored the animated franchise’s universal appeal to both kids and adults. For every Baha Men and Smash Mouth needle-drop, the films also had classic-rock hits from David Bowie, Eels, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Tom Waits, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and Dashboard Confessional. (Hey, it was 2004. We were all listening to Dashboard Confessional.) For millions of kids around the world, it was likely their first exposure to pop staples like “Funkytown” and “Changes”; many of the movies’ youngest viewers walked away thinking the songs existed only in the Shrek vacuum, newly created tracks made only to soundtrack our titular ogre’s flatulent adventures.

To this day, Shrek’s legally available soundtrack singles put up major numbers on streaming, with Eels’ “I Need Some Sleep” (heard in Shrek 2) landing the band’s No. 1 spot at more than 41 million streams. Naturally, both Smash Mouth singles lead the Shrek band’s Spotify plays, too, with “All Star” and “I’m a Believer” coming in at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Coincidence?

But back to Frou Frou: Sigsworth and Heap did find time to reunite semi-recently, with a 2018 mini-tour, where, Sigsworth laughs, it didn’t even occur to them to perform “Holding Out for a Hero.” He doesn’t rule it out in the future, though. “You value your own stuff in a different kind of way,” he says over Zoom. “I still love [‘Holding Out for a Hero’]. It’s just probably that it doesn’t occupy as much bandwidth as the stuff that I remember fretting over.”

Speaking to Vulture on Zoom from his London studio, with the framed Shrek 2 soundtrack in the background, Sigsworth opens up about the genesis of Frou Frou’s “Holding Out for a Hero” cover, fielding fan questions about why it’s not on Spotify (“I don’t think we have the power to force that!”), and the possibility of Frou Frou reuniting for the upcoming 20th anniversary.

Between Garden State and Shrek 2, 2004 was a pivotal year for Frou Frou. Do you remember how you were approached to work on the “Holding Out for a Hero” cover?

This is how I remember it, and obviously your memory can lie to you, but what happened was a guy called Chris Douridas got in touch with me. He was on KCRW, and he’d been one of the first people playing Frou Frou demos. I was asked by Chris to do a version of the song “Holding Out for a Hero.” And it was one of these funny things where he didn’t ask for it as a Frou Frou thing.

There’s another singer that was quite well known at that time — she’d done a version of the song [that she submitted for the soundtrack]. The song is at a tempo where it’s quite fast; this other artist had done a version where she’d half-timed it, but that made it into a really slow, languorous ballad. And I said, “Could I have a go? I can just do it with Immi.”

Chris said, “Oh, okay. I was actually waiting for you to say that.” I did it really quickly. After that, I listened to the song and then I was kind of like, Oh, this is a crazy tempo. And then I worked out a very basic beat. I’d just got this new piece of software that was completely impenetrable. And I was determined to use it, come what may, and was driving my engineer crazy. It was one of these things where you kind of had to create sounds almost in theory. You say, “Imagine there’s a force of newtons hitting the drum.” Then you press a button, and you’d wait five minutes, and it would render this sound.

I finally got this beat going and then Immi popped in, and we listened to the original, the Jim Steinman one, which is relevant because Jim Steinman recently passed away. And it’s kind of gloriously ’80s, and it’s almost impossible not to laugh at it because it’s so exuberantly over the top.

Yeah, Bonnie Tyler’s original is such a signpost of 1980s excess.

You know Team America, the famous song “America, Fuck Yeah”? Listen to that track and take out the vocals. It’s more or less like a carbon copy of his backing track of the original. It’s like they’ve taken that as the model. “Holding Out for a Hero” is actually the model of the song. And it was just — as Immi and I were listening to it, we were kind of like, “I can’t stop laughing.”

Oh my God, you’re right.

I mean, no disrespect to the original, because the original is what it is. It’s fun. And that’s why it’s so brilliant for a Shrek movie. But it’s almost like if you’re trying to do a cover and you try and take it somewhere new, if you listen too much to the original, it’s just going to hold you back. And I liked the fact that [Immi] would just be herself and wouldn’t try and imitate the original Bonnie Tyler vocal in any way whatsoever.

What was the reception like when you submitted your version?

They loved it. I think it came after we’d done most of the Frou Frou record. There was a weird catch-up whereby I think Garden State — the song in the film had a different title and then we just forgot about it. We’d already done loads of stuff. And then suddenly everybody’s saying, “Oh, there’s this movie, and you’ve got to see it.” And we didn’t even know what the meaning was because of the changing title. And then we were really honored when we saw that [Zach Braff] used our song so perfectly that it was almost like he’d written the script to do it.

I think [Shrek 2] is one of those films where they crack the secret of making films that the kids can enjoy on one level and the parents can enjoy it on a different level. It does it so well. Even the music is like that, because they got really smart people to cover old songs in all kinds of clever ways.

Yeah, I also just rewatched the scene where Jennifer Saunders as Fairy Godmother is doing her version of “Holding Out for a Hero,” and the character is totally hamming it up and sitting atop a piano.

Yes. I have to say that she’s one of those comedians I love because I can’t do comedy at all, but I think if you’re going to make the joke work, you can’t hold on to your own dignity; you have to be prepared to do whatever it takes. I was a huge Ab Fab fan, and that was the thing I saw about it: that she didn’t mind making herself look absolutely terrible to get the joke. And I just love that about her — it’s kind of uninhibited, for the sake of the joke. There’s no indignity she’s frightened of.

What do you think Imogen as a singer brought to the cover? 

We just have this real understanding of each other as musicians. I’ve known Immi since she was at the BRIT School, and we’ve worked so much together, and we always had this good relationship. We can always be honest with each other. So if she hasn’t done it good, she doesn’t need me to break it to her gently — and we both know when something’s good and we like it.

I just wanted her to do super-Immi things in the front of the song to more or less put her trademark — that kind of beautiful yodel-y thing she has. And then, also, she has a striking rhythmic quality that I really love in her delivery. She’s one of the few singers I know who if you listen to her breathing, it’s always really in time. It’s like she breathes in the rhythm of the song. [With “Holding Out for a Hero,”] I just thought, Let’s do more of that.

Because the Bonnie Tyler vocal of the original is just so OTT in its own way, you don’t even want to do a parody of it. You’d just be like a bad karaoke — you have to do something completely different. It was one of the quickest things we did, actually — because we’re both good at taking forever on things, taking months over a snare drum, and this was really brilliant.

Do you recall what the feedback was like at the time from your fans? 

I didn’t obsess over it. I just remember going to the cinema when the thing was finally placed in the film and actually just sitting with my kids and then literally, as the story concludes, that song came on immediately and I was like, Oh, fantastic. It’s always kind of cool when you do stuff like that and your own friends and your family [can hear it]. That matters more to me than worrying about what the sort of wider meaning of it is to other people.

It’s been great, actually, to discover that it meant a lot to people later, because I think we’ve had lots of people tweeting us about, “Oh, this song isn’t on Spotify.” So I realized it meant more to people than I realized … Maybe because it was a cover for us, maybe we didn’t think of it the same way as we thought of “Let Go” or some song that we’d put our everything into. It’s different when it’s a Jim Steinman song. I mean, I love him, but you’re always going to love your own more, aren’t you?

Why isn’t the song on streaming? 

We can’t directly control it … I think it’s … Is it Universal? It’s DreamWorks, which is probably Universal, isn’t it? We can encourage them to get it sorted, but we can just complain. I don’t think we have the power to force that.

As the film has aged and kids have grown up with it, to what extent do kids or young adults think that “Holding Out for a Hero” is a Frou Frou original?

Actually, I think it has been interesting to see how people mention it. Immi and me did a mini-tour two years ago, just before lockdown started, and we never thought of doing that on the tour, but maybe we should have, as an encore or something, as a laugh, but it never occurred to us to do it. I’m sorry, I don’t mean any disrespect or offense!

I’ll tell you, I was actually partly involved in Björk doing that song “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which is a cover … It was a 1930s Hollywood singer. [“It’s Oh So Quiet!” was originally performed by Betty Hutton in 1951.] I just had this cassette of old Hollywood singers, and I played it to Björk; she thought it was funny, and she did a cover of it. But then I noticed that Björk just stopped performing it. I mean, the first time, I was doing it on tour with her. It was amazing because we do the entire set and then you play one note of that and then the audience was just going crazy.

But then I think at a certain point, you’re thinking, Hang on, I didn’t even write this song. It’s not my song. People are always like, “Hang on, you’re not allowed to like that more than ‘Army of Me,’” or something. I completely understand. You value your own stuff in a different kind of way.

What are the chances you and Imogen might properly reunite Frou Frou — perhaps for a Details 20th anniversary set next year?

I’m up for it. I think it’s just a matter of working out schedules and what we’re both up to. I’d love to do something to mark it. There was no problem between the two of us; we still get on great. It’s just that Immi is always discovering the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How Shrek 2 Blew My Band Up