Pharrell Williams Debuts Trailer for His Lego Animated Biopic ‘Piece by Piece’ — and Teases Two New Tracks

The trailer for Focus Features’ upcoming movie “Piece by Piece” begins with a Lego-fied Pharrell Williams sitting down for an interview about his life

Published Time: 06.06.2024 - 18:31:29 Modified Time: 06.06.2024 - 18:31:29

The trailer for Focus Features’ upcoming movie “Piece by Piece” begins with a Lego-fied Pharrell Williams sitting down for an interview about his life.

“You know what what would be cool is if we told my story with Lego pieces,” Lego Pharrell tells the similarly-bricked director Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winning documentarian behind “20 Feet From Stardom”), who chuckles politely and asks, “Seriously?” Pharrell replies: “Just be open.”

The colorfully and creatively reimagined scene is pretty close to how the conversation played out nearly five years ago, Neville says, as he and Williams sign on to a Zoom chat to discuss how this innovative project came together.

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“That’s how the conversation went down in my head,” he tells Variety. “I didn’t know what it was going to be, but it was going to be interesting and I was completely in.”

And the result is unlike anything he’s ever done — or seen — before.

“What we made is not like any other movie. I don’t know what a comp for it would be,” he explains of the psychedelic-looking visuals that seem to be infused with joy as much as they are music. “People can try and label it. It’s just its own film. It’s mind-blowing, in a way, the freedom that we were able to put together in the film, but that only works if you’re channeling your subject.”

As the clip illustrates, Williams has always viewed art in unconventional ways. “I loved music. It was mesmerizing to me,” he narrates over a scene from his young life. ” I would see beautiful hues of light cascading. I just thought that’s what all Black kids did — they stared into the speaker like ‘Whoa.'”

So it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that he came up with the idea to use Lego to illustrate his journey. However, he’d been resistant to the idea of doing a documentary or biopic when his agent first brought him the prospect seven or eight years ago.

“Everyone was doing them at the time, and I was like, ‘Hell no.’ I never want to do what everybody else is doing,” Williams recalls. “Everybody’s taking the Lincoln Tunnel, then I want to take a plane.” Neville chimes in: “Or a jet ski.”

He continues: “But when he finally said the magic words, ‘You can do it any way you want,’ I knew deep down inside that I wanted to do it through Lego.”

There was freedom in the bricks, which would allow Williams’ story to reach more than just the people who’d be nostalgic for the behind-the-scenes stories about his music.

“We wanted it to be a medium for anyone that just wanted to hear a good, aspirational, inspiring story told vividly, in a way that felt like it could apply to them personally,” he explains. “That they’d realize that at seven years old or 77 years old, they could wake up tomorrow and go tell their story, piece by piece.”

As the film, which hits theaters on October 11, chronicles Williams’ rise to music prominence (and pop culture dominance), he’s not the only superstar to get the Lego treatment. Gwen Stefani, Kendrick Lamar, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg are also featured prominently in the movie.

“Everybody comes through so well. It’s so captivating when you see it,” Pharrell says, praising the Lego team and Neville for the innovation. “I enjoy stop-motion animation. But that’s not what this is.”

So, what was it like the first time they saw themselves as Lego characters? “It’s awesome!” Neville adds. “It’s always strange to see yourself, but it’s better to see yourself in Lego.”

Read on as Williams and Neville detail the process of making the musical movie — which includes two new compositions from Williams — and tease its larger inspirational themes.

What has been your experience of seeing this idea come together?

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: The joy is seeing it come together piece by piece — pun intended.

Being a Maverick and being a pluralist — one who’s interested in and inspired and has aspirations in many different directions and artistic disciplines — my story never really made a lot of sense to most people. Because most people just choose a lane or two, and I like to cross into different lanes and go into different worlds and take what I feel like is interesting from this place and those experiences and apply them elsewhere.

I was very self-conscious to listen to myself, like, talk. I love giving advice and helping people live in a solution space. But my own? I was like, “Man, how do I sit and listen to myself philosophize for an hour and change?” So I never really wanted to do it, but when I was given the opportunity to do a documentary any way I wanted, and Morgan raised his hand, it was like, “OK, this could be interesting.”

And it’s been nothing but magical. This guy is a masterful painter in the color of vulnerability. He’s just one of the greatest stitchers of tapestry and of eras, ever, and I’m just lucky to be one of his many, many, many subjects.

Morgan, what was it like to use Lego as the thread for this tapestry?

MORGAN NEVILLE: I think of myself as a little bit of a method director, in that whoever I’m making a film about, I’m trying to channel them into the storytelling as much as I -

can. Lego was Pharrell’s idea, but it’s not just a gimmick. It’s the metaphor. It’s part of the way he sees the world — which is in groundbreaking and deeply creative ways. That was something that it just gave us such license to create in the film, too.

Pharrell, you’re also producing an untitled musical directed by Michel Gondry. How do these movies relate — seeing that they are both inspired, in ways, by your life?

This film is about my life and how God is continuing to give me the pieces that put it together — piece by piece — and to have really amazing people along the journey in my constellation. To all the stars, musically, and all my teachers and everybody who has contributed to this constellation.

That project is about the neighborhood that I grew up in until I was, maybe, 10 and what that life was like. It takes place in 1977. I was obviously four years old, so it’s not about my life. It’s a fictional story told in that world, called Atlantis Apartments.

We actually show some of Atlantis in “Piece by Piece,” because that’s my real life. I was born in Mermaid City a nickname for Norfolk, Virginia, and raised in Atlantis.

There are talking-head style interviews throughout the clip with Pharrell, as well as your all-star lineup of musicians — what was the process of capturing those? Did you sit down for an initial interview with Pharrell and start building the story, then start bringing in other people? Then animate those interviews?

NEVILLE: My process is just to listen as hard as I can in the beginning, so we started having conversations, first, in person — we recorded just audio. And then COVID hit.

I did most of the interviews during COVID, sitting here in my living room on the phone talking to people. They would be in their studio, or I’d send a sound person to them. Because you’re animating it gives you that freedom to do whatever in terms of audio. We did go and shoot some things; we went back to Virginia Beach and filmed with Pharrell. But a lot of it was just us trying to figure out almost doing like a radio edit, and then saying, “Well, what could happen visually anything can happen. We have the freedom.”

I’ve never made an animated movie before. Documentary is such a different instinct, because you can’t control anything. In animation, you get to decide what everything looks like, so it was incredibly exciting to do that in the service of trying to channel him into the story.

What did you learn about working with Lego as the medium? It allows you to do anything but there are some restrictions to how it can move. What presented an interesting challenge?

NEVILLE: One thing that was really important was to feel like we were being as authentic to his story and community as possible. So the number of conversations we had about hair and skin tone and pushing Lego in ways that were way beyond their comfort zone, into things they had never done before was really important.

WILLIAMS: African Americans, and Black and brown folks, a lot of times we’ll have short hair, right? Williams takes his off cowboy hat to show off his close crop. Or we’ll have like hair that’s even shorter than that. We had the first Caesar short haircuts. We had them take a forensic look at hair types and facial features. You’re gonna see a lot of that in the film and also in the toys.

NEVILLE: Normally in a Lego movie, the characters basically wear the same thing the entire time, cuz that’s who they are. Not in this movie. Pharrell might have something like 80 different outfits in this movie and nailing it just right, all based on real past looks.

WILLIAMS: The Lego folks did a really good job. This is one of a myriad of things that Morgan really, really gave me the space and the room and the support in areas that just made me feel safe to just be my crazy self. We felt that it was essential, so that’s what we did.

There’s new music for this movie, too. How many tracks are there? How would you describe the sound?

WILLIAMS: There are two new compositions. One is made for a specific scene. And the other one is made for a specific scene but tells the story; it’s like my thesis — which is that God is the greatest, that awareness, just understanding that that’s the story.

The rest of the music is music that Chad Hugo, the Neptunes co-founder and I made together and songs also that I made by myself, and that we produced and wrote for other people. It’s one big fun musical documentary biopic.

NEVILLE: There are also some unreleased tracks of yours — early tracks and other bits of score that you did, so it’s a bit of everything.

When you saw all of these superstars as their Lego versions — who did you think turned out the best?

NEVILLE: There are so many great characters, everybody from Snoop to Daft Punk, all these different people are amazing in Lego. But recreating recording studios and boom boxes, and turntables and all this stuff that hadn’t really been done, people are going to … I want a set of all that stuff! It was a great, creative challenge.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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