Various Artists: ‘Annie (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)’ Track-by-Track Album Review

The new Annie makes contemporary the beloved musical. While purists might not appreciate it, the album (and movie) is a clever, modern take on Annie that pays perfect homage to the original. We need to remember that Annie wasn’t necessarily meant to be a nostalgia piece; the poem “Little Orphan Annie” that inspired the original comic was published in 1886. The comic strip itself started in 1924 (that’s right, prior to the Great Depression) and the musical arrived on the scene in 1977 (the same year Star Wars first appeared). So, while some want to treat this as sacred ground, it has come under a number of alterations already.

The opening “Overture” gives us a taste of the contemporary feel for the musical. It’s a mashup of various songs from the musical but played out somewhat Stomp-style on the streets of New York with the melody drawn from cans, jack-hammer, car horns and New Yorkers singing. It’s a brilliant introduction making clear that this isn’t your Daddy’s Annie, while still being reminiscent of the original.

In contrast, “Maybe,” sung by the inimitable Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and the other girls in foster care, all of whom have fabulous voices, is a more traditional version allowing us to know that this won’t go too far afield. It captures the sad longing of those who are without family whilst also holding onto hope that they aren’t fully abandoned. The pacing and harmony is the song is stunning considering the age of the girls involved. We then flip into a version of “It’s The Hard-Knock Life” which has a bit more beat, more bass and percussive undertone (even a little reference to “Tomorrow” at one point). I love the recognizable melody with a modern beat.

Young Ms. Wallis sings “Tomorrow” with purity and sincerity leaning a bit more on the traditional side. While it’s intrinsically a bit sentimental and sappy; it’s handled straight-on without any overplay in the singing.  She hits just the right tone on this one.

Now we get the contemporary beat also taken up in the melody in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.” Joined by the delightful Rose Bryne, they jam their way through the song with energy and zest – “Yes! Yes! I think I’m gonna like it here.” This is the most contemporary song so far, with new lyrics to match the updated sound; it also shows how well this musical translates to modern day sound. While I think the visual in the movie is a bit over the top for this song, on its own, it is a wonderful take on the classic.

Sia (probably best known for “Chandelier”) brings it with “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.” Her strong vocals, combined with great melody and backbeat, drive this to be my new favorite version of the song. At first blush, it would seem that Sia would be an odd choice for helping with Annie; a little more powering and a definitely different beat than you might expect. She really works well for this version allowing her strong voice to be full of emotion and, more importantly, taking the songs as they are without cynicism.

Sia and Beck collaborate on “Moonquake Lake” which is not part of the original, but is a fun interlude. We hear Sia’s powerful voice and great rhythm matched with Beck who, somewhat uncharacteristically, comes on pretty strong as well. They have a great hand-off to each other as each takes a lead within the song. This is the get up and jam song of the album. It’s hard to listen to it and not want to get up and dance.

Cameron Diaz brings out all of the hate in an updated version of “Little Girls.” This is less focused on great music and more on moving the story, Ms. Diaz speaks/sings her little pity-party about her lot in life and having to take care of girls. Nonetheless, she holds her own, especially in the refrain. Her voices gears up as she sings “I’m locked in a cage with all of the rats I slipped through the cracks, and now I’m stepping on scrapes and I can’t seem to find my way back”

Jamie Foxx brings on another new song “The City’s Yours.” It seems like a replacement for the Broadway’s “N.Y.C.” It also drives the story forward about how Stacks “made it” through hard work. Mr. Foxx does a great job on this song with a smooth tone, solid beat and convincing voice. It also seems to have a different feel than the rest of the musical. Part of this is a transition from the light, comedic part of the musical to a slightly more serious part. While I like the song, it does seem that Mr. Foxx is more worried about showing his singing chops than fitting within the overall tone of the musical.

Opportunity” is also more serious but does seem to fit better within the overall structure. Ms. Wallis can truly belt out some sound while not losing herself to the point she can’t come back down and provide nuance. It’s also one of my favorite moments. It seems to fit within the Annie tradition – plucky girl who doesn’t give up and lives in the opportunity given. Is it a bit cheesy? Sure. Let’s face it, the whole music is somewhat cheesy (although this version is a little less so) but still great.

Easy Street” has been consistently done with a jazzy, slinky flair befitting a ‘20s Speakeasy in all of its previous incarnations. Not so much here. I still like it (I think I’m in the minority here) with the sleaziness of Guy coming out full-throttle. It may be that part of the issue is the beginning; it sounds more like it fits in Evita and less so in Annie. Obviously it also differs in substance; no longer is there a plot between Miss Hannigan, her brother, Rooster, and his girlfriend. Now it’s the campaign manager of Mr. Stacks colluding with Miss Hannigan to get fake parents for Annie. It works very well in the context, but we rarely like change and change abounds with this version.

Who Am I” extends the redemption story in Annie. It has always included a change for Daddy Warbucks (now Stacks) to lose his self-focus, but we also see a mini-change of heart for Miss Hannigan. Ms. Diaz voice is fine, but not strong. She is able to get the story elements across well in the song, but pales in contrast to Mr. Foxx’s singing. Surprisingly enough, however, when they sing together, his voice doesn’t dominate as much as you would expect. Ms. Wallis clearly bridges the two singers since she can be quiet and strong on need and comes in the middle. It also ties nicely into the growth of the characters during the musical.

Once again Mr. Foxx seems a bit challenged by singing in his own world during “I Don’t Need Anything but You”. While you would expect Mr. Foxx to bring his own flavor to the song, his overall tone and tempo are on his own when he sings solo during the song. When he’s joined with other voices, as we’ve seen earlier, he seems to join in with the others more. It would be nice if he could moderate his singing to match the overall feel when he sings alone. He obviously sings well but just doesn’t fully fit in to the rest of the musical or the other singers.

Tomorrow – Reprise” sums the musical up nicely. Its big, brass sound combined with snare drums builds an image of a parade which matched the musical’s ending. It brings out how the contemporary update is done in the same spirit as the original.

While Sia’s version of “Opportunity” doesn’t have quite the same heart as Ms. Wallis, it more than makes up for this in nuance and emotion. This is a big song, for which Sia’s voice is ideally suited, that still subtly brings out the sense of the hope and will power needed to take advantage of opportunities given.

Overall, it’s a delightful update on the classic. For those that find the older version somewhat staid, it provides new accessibility into a timeless story. For those who love the musical, it stays within the same spirit as the original. One aspect of the musical that a track-by-track review doesn’t fully bring out is that this is definitely a musical where the whole is great than the parts. While there are quibbles here than there on a particular song, put them together to make the movie musical and you really have something special. I highly recommend both the soundtrack and the movie itself.