Steven Universe: The Movie does a lot to acknowledge the great strides the series has made since it began six years ago, but on top of that, it’s also a grand celebration of something the series has long been passionate about: musical theater. Not only is The Movie a full-on, all-singing-all-dancing spectacle, it’s a very good one.
Beyond being catchy as all hell—frankly, it contains an almost dangerous quantity of catchiness—the soundtrack to Steven Universe: The Movie is a culmination of the show’s long experimentation with music as a storytelling tool. It’s a celebration of not just the series’ lyrical capacity to communicate character through song, but its melodic and instrumental worldbuilding as well. Suffice to say, after hearing it for the first time, we fell in love, and then just proceeded to listen to it over, and over, and over (and over!) again!
As it’s wormed its way into our ears over the course of the last week, io9's very own Diamond Authorities—namely James and Charles—had to sit down and talk about it, and what it could all mean for Steven Universe as it charts a new future for itself.
James Whitbrook: Charles, we’ve been talking privately about the soundtrack to Steven Universe: The Movie for a hot minute, but if we don’t talk about it openly I think I might start going insane. And with the movie out, now we can!
I wanted to ask you, coming into the movie the first time, what was your reaction upon realizing that this thing was gonna be a full-on musical? Because Steven Universe has always had a strong musical component, but this is on another level.
Charles Pulliam-Moore: Do...not, uh, take this the wrong way, but my first reaction was mild concern, not because I didn’t have faith in whether the creative team could make a proper musical, but because I don’t always find musicals to be the most enjoyable experience. They’re extra, and they’re meant to be, but the way in which that extra-ness is pulled off varies wildly and sometimes a show you think you might love ends up being something you loathe, you know?
But then the opening credits started with that grandiose, Old Hollywood OOMPH, and I was immediately sold. Cause I’m a sucker for that mess.
James: Hahaha, honestly, when I first read your review, I was in a similar space—not that I wasn’t sure they couldn’t pull it off, but more if it could become almost too much of a good thing, somehow? But almost immediately I was surprised with the intensity of it—song after song after song—and that, despite that, there’s so many smart, great details in each piece that I didn’t get tired. It was a blast, start to finish. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since the movie aired, and I’m weirdly not tired of any of it yet.
Charles: Well, I think there’s something there to dig into. Steven Universe has always been a show with musical numbers in it rather than a Musical™, mainly because of the show’s format. While you can (and should) listen to those songs as musical pieces of art in order to get a better understanding of the overall narrative, when you’re watching from episode to episode, the songs are these discrete things.
Here, the entire story’s this enclosed tale that you get the beginning, middle, and end to in a single setting, and because these songs in particular are what drives the story forward, you can’t help but want to listen to the album as a whole thing.
James: The way the full soundtrack is presented as a continuous thing is really interesting—and even when I’ve cut the playlist down to just the vocal pieces on it, I’ve not tried actually just shuffling them all up yet, because I like the flow of, in a way, almost getting to re-experience the movie slightly fast-forwarded. The way these songs are placed into the story, and how they interplay with each other thematically and rhythmically, referencing each other or adding context to each other (like how “Let Us Adore You” pairs with “Found” when it’s reprised), is done with such deftness it almost feels scandalous to hear it out of order.
Which has been fine so far when I’m still in this honeymoon period with it and happy to hear it all in one go, but like, you know…someday I’m just gonna wanna hear “Isn’t It Love?” as is and I wonder if it’ll hold up in isolation. Hopefully it does, because I think it might sneakily be my favorite Garnet song the series has ever done now. Have you got any current highlights like that?
Charles: We’re on the same page, more or less, about whether the songs hold up individually. Or, we were on the same page. Depending on my specific mood and how much time I’ve got to sing to myself, both “Let Us Adore You” and its reprisal are definitely my favorite songs of the series—even though, out of context, they don’t have anywhere near the same kind of heft as “It’s Over, Isn’t It?” or “Stronger Than You.”
There’s something deliciously high camp about listening to Christine Ebersole, Lisa Hannigan, and Patti Lupone going full-on exasperated auntie—while harmonizing—and collapsing all over your throne rooms like the overgrown drama queens they’ve always been. As much grief as certain segments of the fandom give the series for having its villains...whatever the opposite of “turn heel” is...“Let Us Adore You” perfectly captures this fundamental rigidity that the Homeworld Gems have. Steven and the Crystal Gems can only soften it but so much, because while Steven’s been about changing people’s minds, he’s never been especially interested in changing who people are, if that makes any sense?
James: Totally—it’s this sort of sense that Steven gets across in “Change” really well—he has the power to change things, but it’s mostly through inspiring others to see it in themselves to do so if they want it. “Let Us Adore You” gets it across in that cutesy manner of casting the Diamonds as overbearing gem moms, but there’s a similar intent. Plus, all that harmonizing, god, it’s so good.
Speaking of which, I think one song I actually like more out of context on the soundtrack is “Happily Ever After,” weirdly enough—despite it being a sort of “story song” in that it’s essentially catching us up on who each member of the Crystal Gems is, before Spinel robs them of that. It’s sort of Steven Universe: The Song, in that it encapsulates the entire series’ myriad musical styles, its main characters, and that it’s, uh, catchy as all hell. It reminded me a lot of that special extended version of “We Are the Crystal Gems” they put out for Comic-Con a few years ago.
Charles: See, now that’s where we kinda differ. I like a lot of things about “Happily Ever After,” but as a full song, it’s just so much to take in, and the part of me that, initially, was like “yes, yes, Pearl was the musical theater gay of the group, I would like to meet the new Gem, please” definitely kicked in while I watching the movie for the first time. That being said, the little clever asides like Garnet’s “I have every idea what everyone’s doing” definitely make the song worth listening to.
James: There’s so many great little details musically there too, like how each of the Gem’s verses is backed by their “character” instruments in a way—the piano of Pearl’s, the synthy bass of Garnet—and how you get little callbacks to their past solo songs as little leitmotifs fitting into the backing track.
But, speaking of the new Gem, let’s talk the big songs for Spinel (Sarah Stiles): “Other Friends,” “Drift Away,” and then her duet with Steven in “Found.” She brings something new to the table that really shakes up the musical vibe of the series for me over the course of these songs, and it’s clever how it ties into her Fleischer-cartoon-esque old-timey aesthetic and animation style:
She’s a ragtime icon. And I love it.
Charles: We talked about this way back when, but Steven Universe: The Movie splits the difference between your average TV series, essentially beginning an entirely new season that begins with a time jump, and a Very Special Adventure type of film that you often see in big-screen anime productions, like all of the Pokémon movies and My Hero Academia: Two Heroes. Spinel, to my mind, functioned as a really great bridge between the two kinds of narrative styles because while the movie (and also her musical stylings) could have just been one-and-done, semi-canonical bits of the larger story, the movie puts them squarely within the context of the established story. The entire movie is more or less a condensation of your expected Steven Universe arc, you know? Villain shows up, villain damn near kills everyone, things get bad, there’s some singing, and what do you know, the villain’s good again.
But by making Spinel’s motivation directly connected to Pink Diamond’s betrayal, literally the thing that set the entire series into motion, she doesn’t end up feeling like a tacked-on character whose only purpose was to give the other Gems a villain to face off against. She’s always been a part of Pink’s story just, uh, off somewhere in the galaxy lost and forgotten.
James: They do such a good job of rooting Spinel into the past of the Gems through the music as well—there’s moments in songs like “Who We Are” and then the reprise of “Let Us Adore You” where you hear the beat and style associated with her subtly blend in and out as she sings a line or becomes involved in a scene and it’s such an interesting way of grounding her, even as aesthetically from the rest of the cast through her bouncy animation. There’s a great interplay between that contrast/familiarity that makes her truly feel like, paradoxically, she’s been there as part of Steven Universe all the time even though she clearly hasn’t, metatextually.
Charles: It’s right down to Spinel’s aesthetics even, that I think speak to her circumstances in this really devastating way that you might not immediately pick up on. We’ve seen Gems created specifically for other Gems in the past like all of the Diamonds’ Pearls, but I don’t think there’s ever been a Gem who was created to look so much like their owner in a way that I think speaks to how the Diamonds saw Pink at the time and what Pink’s personality was.
Spinel is more or less just a caricature of Pink right down to the style of her clothing, and it makes you understand that unlike Pearls who seem to be created with a variety of different functions in mind, Spinel was really only ever meant to have one specific, two-dimensional bit. You get why Pink would grow frustrated with her after a while, especially at a point in her life when she felt she needed to become a mature Diamond worthy of having her own colony. But that’s not to say that any of what happened to Spinel is Spinel’s fault—she honestly didn’t understand because Pink never even made the effort, and that’s really the tragedy.
James: They get into the melancholy of it in “Drift Away,” which I think of Spinel’s three big songs might be my favorite of hers. The way it takes that sort of bounce that characterizes her animation and the ragtime rhythm of “Old Friends” and it becomes this waltzing ballad is such a great way of evoking that slow realization she has of being left behind over the course of the song. Sarah Stiles kills it, with that mix of regret and like you say, this very Pink Diamond-y childlike naiveté.
We’ve spoken a lot about what’s worked for us in these songs, but is there anything—even though we’re pretty effusive about it overall—that stands out to you as disappointing on the soundtrack?
Charles: Originally, I had two, but I’ve softened a little on one of them. Initially, I had a bit of difficulty getting used to Zach Callison’s performance as older Steven because I’ve just become so used to his kid voice. But the more I’ve listened to the album, the more I’ve settled on the idea that he’s doing something very specific in terms of vocally telegraphing that Steven’s, you know, a teen whose voice is still in the process of changing, so some of his singing parts are a little...rough? My only other major quibble was with Michaela Dietz’s solo in “Disobedient,” which has this really warped sonic quality to it that’s so at odds with the rest of the song that I thought it actually took away from the song.
James: I get what you’re saying about Callison’s voice—there’s a great little moment in “Change” where, for the most part he’s in that lower vocal register, got his powers back, got his groove again, but then when he starts appealing that Spinel can change his voice gets higher and cracks ever so slightly, and ugh, I love it. He really does feel like a teen in that awkward, transitory phase, vocally speaking.
Honestly, this is going to sound like a cheap complaint, but I think my biggest disappointment with the soundtrack is what isn’t on it, rather than what is. Some of its down to scheduling issues for actors, presumably, but I am really sad that we didn’t get more Peridot and Lapis on the soundtrack—Lapis got “That Distant Shore” on the show, and Peridot got “Peace and Love (On Planet Earth” to some extent, but I’ve been longing for a proper big song for her for a while, and both she and Lapis get sort of left on the sidelines here. Just…give me more! Of everything!
Charles: Hard agree, though if I were to play devil’s advocate, perhaps if everyone got a full-on song, the movie might have begun to feel a little overlong? Maaaybe?
James: Oh, who needs things like plot and pacing when you could have SONGS!? Just an excuse for them to get to a sequel already, frankly.
Speaking of the future—because here we are in it—Rebecca Sugar has repeatedly made it clear there’s more Steven Universe beyond the movie, so where do you think, musically speaking, the series goes from this soundtrack? This feels like such a culmination of all the things the series has been building towards so far, sonically, all these little leitmotifs and lyrical experimentations, that it almost feels like it’s a goodbye before they move on to a new kind of soundscape, which would be befitting of Steven and the Gems having matured and changed themselves up to this point.
Charles: In feeling like such an artistic level up from the series, it’s going to be interesting to see whether the future of the series settles back down to a narrative level that feels more in-line with the story before the movie or whether we’re scheduled for a paradigm shift. There’s part of me that feels as if the show might not introduce yet another long-forgotten Gem with a bone to pick because it took all of the movie’s time to make her story feel distinct and not like your run-of-the-mill baddie.
A friend of mine pointed out this nifty little tidbit the fandom picked up on about, ironically, “Everything Stays” from the Adventure Time finale mapping almost perfectly onto Spinel’s story. Sugar worked on both Adventure Time and Steven Universe and she’s spoken about the song being inspired by an actual event from her childhood, but I bring it up just to say how much creative energy was obviously poured into the movie, and I can’t exactly imagine the Crewniverse coming back and saying “ah, well, let’s turn that energy down now.” Not in the sense that every episode’s going to be a production the way the movie was, but that things are just going to have to change going forward.
James: I think that’s the most exciting thing for me, from a musical point of view—I came into this unsure if they could really pull off something with the scale of a proper musical, even with the show’s past history with some really great musical setpieces. Now that they have, I want to see what else they can do, what they can experiment with, not just in storytelling through music, but just in terms of the show’s entire soundscape. If it’s time for Steven and the Gems themselves to take stock of how far they’ve come, this soundtrack feels representative of the series’ own sound in a similar way, and while it moves on to a new future, it stands as a great testament to everything Steven Universe has done musically up to this point.
I’m…just gonna put my headphones back on and listen to “Happily Ever After” a dozen more times now we’ve talked about this, okay?
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