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David Talbert Talks New Holiday Musical 'Jingle Jangle'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today - throughout the month, we've been inviting you to discover new holiday films and songs that offer a fresh take on that much-loved but maybe well-worn holiday fare. And now, courtesy of Netflix, a new musical called "Jingle Jangle."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JINGLE JANGLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Oh, forget about yesterday. It's dead and gone away. The only thing that matters is right now...

MARTIN: "Jingle Jangle" is the story of a brilliant inventor and toymaker named Jeronicus Jangle, played in later life by Forest Whitaker. Jeronicus is down on his luck after his betrayal by a once trusted apprentice. But then his granddaughter Journey, whom he's never met, comes to visit. The two of them join forces to right past wrongs - and of course, since this is a Christmas movie, after all, find true meaning in family and relationship.

"Jingle Jangle," which features original songs by John Legend and Philip Lawrence, is the brainchild of writer and director David E. Talbert. And he is with us now. David Talbert, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations.

DAVID E TALBERT: Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, you've said - I've read that you've said the "Jingle Jangle" is a film that's been 20 years in the making. So tell us, where did the idea come from, and what kept it alive for you for 20 years?

TALBERT: Well, it's really a love letter to my childhood. And I started that because I refused to grow up. It's a trap. So all of the...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Good to know.

TALBERT: Yeah, all the joyous, the most fun times were all wrapped in my childhood. So why wouldn't I want to revisit it?

So for me, this was really the films I grew up watching, which were "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory," "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," Rex Harrison's "Doctor Dolittle," "Mary Poppins." These were the films that kind of ignited my imagination. And I wanted to, you know, do one of my own and create a character that would, you know, sit on the Mount Rushmore of big names, you know - Ebenezer Scrooge, Caractacus Potts, Mary Poppins, Willy Wonka. And now you have to Jeronicus Jangle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JINGLE JANGLE")

FOREST WHITAKER: (As Jeronicus Jangle) The contract clearly stated you were not to touch, move, bust, break or take anything from this shop. Do you remember?

MADALEN MILLS: (As Journey) I didn't move it.

WHITAKER: (As Jeronicus Jangle) You expect me to believe that it just got up and walked over here?

KIERON L DYER: (As Edison Latimer) Well, actually, he flew.

WHITAKER: (As Jeronicus Jangle) That's not possible.

MARTIN: You've described the visual aesthetic of "Jingle Jangle" as Afro Victorian. Tell me a bit more about what you mean by that.

TALBERT: Well, you know, the costume designer, Michael Wilkinson - brilliant. Two-Time Oscar nominated British costume designer put these amazing Victorian patterns together. And my wife says, who's a producer - Lyn - she said, well, there's something missing and came up with the idea of mixing African patterns with Victorian style.

And so Michael Wilkinson flew to Ghana, flew to Nigeria and got authentic patterns. And it was so wonderful. The lady who plays Joanne Jangle, Jeronicus' wife, she is from Ghana. And when they brought her her wardrobe, she started crying. And I came in - they said, you know, Sharon Rose is crying. And I came and said, everything all right? She says, David, these are the patterns from my country.

MARTIN: Aw. It's like you've reawakened something that is many people's lives. I bet if we went into a lot of people's households, they would have elements of both, wouldn't they? Did you have a moment like that when you saw that you had created what you carried around in your mind all those years and really kind of in your heart all those years?

TALBERT: Well, my moment - and I was a crying mess throughout the whole (laughter) production shoot. I get very emotional about these things. But probably, it was a couple of moments. But really, when Forest Whitaker was flying, it was very emotional for me because I had never seen a Black man flying in a film before. You know, there were superheroes and all those things, yes, but a grounded kind of person that I said, well, I could be that person. And when I saw him flying, it was like me seeing myself. It was like me seeing this idea taking flight.

And my son, I showed him the pictures of Buddy 3000. He asked me, what could the robot do? And I said, well, he can walk and talk. And he said, well, can he fly? And I said, yeah, (unintelligible), so he can fly. And then he looked at me and said, Daddy, can I fly?

MARTIN: Aw.

TALBERT: When he saw it, you know, it's just - you want it to be received critically as a filmmaker, but as a father, I want to be able to inspire my son. And then as a grown man myself, I want to be inspired. And that's what the whole idea of flight in this film did for me.

MARTIN: Well - and the idea of Forest Whitaker as the toymaker - I mean, I think of Forest Whitaker as such a serious actor. You know, who knew that he could sing...

TALBERT: Well...

MARTIN: ...And fly, of course?

TALBERT: Well, first, I pitched the idea around town, "Idi Amin: The Musical." And no one bought that. So...

(LAUGHTER)

TALBERT: No one thought that that was a good idea (laughter). So - but no, I've know Forest as, of course, this towering man, this bigger-than-life actor who steps in and takes on these roles with such grounding and gravitas and power. But I also know Forest is a father. And there are nuances in things that no one has yet tapped into or even asked him to tap into in this treasure trove of being a daddy. And no one knew that he went - I didn't know - he went to school to train as an opera singer. That's what he trained in college. So he just had to dust off that training and rediscover that instrument. And he did. And it was masterful.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JINGLE JANGLE")

WHITAKER: (As Jeronicus Jangle, singing) I love to remember. But it's hard to remember because remembering won't bring back those days, those days. Tell me why, why. Tell me what all this was. My life should have been so much more. Oh, when did I leave...

MARTIN: Honestly, it just - it just blew me away. If you haven't seen it yet - if people haven't seen it yet, it's just hard for me to sort of describe just the joy in the film. I mean, it comes in the - even though, you know, there's a sad understory here, a sad backstory - the fact that Jeronicus has been - as I said, he's experienced a betrayal. He's in a deep funk at the point at which Journey meets him, comes to him. But there's so much joy in the film. I mean, there's the snowball fight set to Afrobeat music, the bright colors, the hilarious characters, even, like, the postwoman who makes her appearances...

TALBERT: Oh, yeah - Ms. Johnston.

MARTIN: Right, Ms. Johnston. And even the villain like Don Juan Diego, the tiny matador. I don't want to give it all away. The just sense of joy and energy is, what is, I think, people will take away from it.

TALBERT: Well, you know, I approached it as - and anything that I direct or write, I approach it as I am the audience. You know, if it never reaches anybody else outside of me, I am the audience. And what do - what entertains me? What brings a smile to my face, and what may break my heart? What may warm my heart? I put all of that DNA into the script, and I allow myself to go on this roller coaster ride of emotion. And then if that ride is a joyful or eventful enough ride for me as a writer and reading it, then I say, OK, well, then maybe it will be that same kind of experience for the viewer.

I think the film came at a time - also, I could have never expected that as much would be going on in the world, but I think it came at a time when the world just needed a collective opportunity to exhale and be given permission to sing again and love again and heal again.

MARTIN: That is David E. Talbert. He is the writer and director of the movie "Jingle Jangle," which is available for streaming on Netflix now.

David Talbert, thank you so much for talking to us. Happy holidays to you. And I hope your holidays are filled with joy.

TALBERT: And I think you - and I hope, not I think - I hope you continue to embrace what's possible because everything is possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRANDPA ME NIE'")

BISA KDEI: (Singing in non-English language) (Singing) Come and play with your granddaughter. (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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