‘The Princess Diaries’ at 20: How a Perfect Pop Soundtrack Was Born

‘The Princess Diaries’ at 20: How a Perfect Pop Soundtrack Was Born

There were a few things everyone wanted to talk about in 2001: low-rise jeans, Harry Potter, Britney Spears’ infamous VMAs performance with a python. What else made that list? The Princess Diaries.

Based on the YA novels by Meg Cabot, Disney’s The Princess Diaries follows socially awkward San Francisco teen Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) as she discovers she’s the princess of a European country called Genovia — and its heir apparent. What ensues is chaos as she tries to manage normal life — high school politics, her friends, romance — with her royal one. For Anne Hathaway, this would be her breakout role and launch her career as a Hollywood A-lister. The big screen adaptation, directed by the late Garry Marshall and produced by the late Whitney Houston, would also take legendary actress and singer Julie Andrews out of semi-retirement. Its success would lead to a sequel in 2004 with The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.

Around the time of its July 29, 2001 release, the movie would earn mixed reviews and be dubbed “Pretty Woman for children” by The New York Times. Twenty years later, however, it has cemented its legacy as an enduring, beloved piece of early aughts pop culture. That isn’t too surprising considering the caliber of the director and the cast, which, beyond Hathaway and Andrews, included Mandy Moore, Sandra Oh, Robert Schwartzman, Heather Matarazzo, Héctor Elizondo and Caroline Goodall.

And like many great films that attain cult status, behind Princess Diaries is a great soundtrack. The music of The Princess Diaries was a product of its time, crafted following the height of boy bands and bubblegum pop. In 2001, the Billboard charts were led by R&B-tinged pop songs like the star-studded “Lady Marmalade,” Janet Jackson’s “All For You” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious.” Also, thanks to bands like The Strokes, there was an eruption of post-punk revivalists and a new wave of rock players gaining fame. Both the state of pop and the changing face of rock music would be integral to the music of The Princess Diaries.

It was also a time when movie soundtracks, particularly for coming-of-age films, were celebrated. From Bring it On to Legally Blonde, the music helped clinch the movie. “The late ’90s [and early 2000s] soundtrack business was just booming,” recalls soundtrack producer Mitchell Leib. “It was a very buoyant time of the connection between film playability and people wanting to relive that experience in buying the soundtrack.”

When it came to the soundtrack, Leib aimed to incorporate bigger names like Backstreet Boys, Hanson and Aaron Carter while also ensuring there were a handful of Hollywood Records (the label owned by Disney Music Group) artists featured — like Youngstown and Myra — because he was trying to serve the record company. “We were trying to, on the one hand, go for groups that were very popular at the time that would put an unreleased track or a B-side [on the soundtrack] because most of these songs were really licensed in,” he recalls. “They weren’t created for the movie.” Along the way, there were a few heartbreaks. Music supervisor Dawn Soler had a Nelly Furtado song she envisioned for an early scene when Mia arrives home “because it was about to be a big hit.” But they ended up using Krystal Harris’ pop anthem “Supergirl” instead.

It was also important that the soundtrack catered to its audience: teen girls. While songs were meant to be trendy and radio-friendly, tonally, they couldn’t be risqué: They had to match the Disney aesthetic and the film’s ethos. In concepting the soundtrack, the music had to be “peppy” per Marshall’s instructions, recalls Soler.

Peppy is certainly the word for one summery scene where Moore (Lana) sings a playful pop cover of Connie Francis’ 1958 hit “Stupid Cupid” at a high school beach party. At the time, Moore was riding the wave of pop stardom and the success of her self-titled, third studio album. Soler intentionally selects songs that service the storyline, and at that point for her, “‘Cupid’ was definitely playing its part.” The song’s placement and stage performance also paid homage to her love of musicals. “Mandy came in and she had this idea of doing it, and I said, ‘In the scene, you run out there on the stage, so it’s got to be full-blown from the very beginning,’” music production supervisor Sidney James recalls. To accompany the beach party scene, Marshall wanted “quirky dance music,” so James obliged. There was even one song called “The Banana Dance,” but “it was two minutes too long,” so it was cut from the film.

Two decades later, it’s the inspiring pop moments that stand out for Soler. Her favorite musical scene in the film remains Myra’s “Miracles Happen (When You Believe)” “because it was a song from the ground-up.” As Mia goes from the ballroom to a private plane on her way to Genovia, the joyful anthem bursting with sparkling piano follows her and memorably concludes the film. The song was written for the movie and had a long shelf life — in The Princess Diaries 2, it was featured in Chinese. “It just summed up the [movie] and how you feel as a girl being on top of the universe,” Soler says.

In addition to the actual soundtrack, there were other pieces of music that have remained landmarks of the film even though they didn’t make the cut. One being the Genovian national anthem, of which there were originally “many versions,” according to James. “One of the actors actually wrote the anthem, and then I arranged it for all the various uses,” he said. “Garry said he picked the instruments because ‘this would be the band [Genovia would] have.’” Sung like an opera by the Genovian ambassador at a dinner hosted by the queen, it was impossible not to laugh at its low-brow lyrics at such an ostentatious event. “Everyone wanted to write for it, so it was probably one of the most complicated and political pieces,” recalls Soler.

It’s also impossible to ignore the impact of Robert Schwartzman — who played Mia’s love interest Michael — his band Rooney and their single “Blueside” throughout the film. Rooney’s brand of California pop-guitar rock surfaced just as The Strokes were finding fame with Is This It. “‘Blueside’ is a throwback song,” Schwartzman says. “It has a ’60s British Invasion kind of a sound to it.” As a rock revolution was brewing, so was an interest in Rooney.

“I was playing live shows around L.A. as a musician, and I think [Garry] thought, ‘Oh, this is interesting. He’s really, you know, appropriate for this role in many ways,’” says Schwartzman. He thinks Marshall “tried to find ways to weave the person I was in reality into this role.” “It was authentic, and audiences saw that kind of connection,” adds Schwartzman. “It’s not forced upon the character.” After all, even his own love of M&Ms made it into the film.

While “Blueside” would end up on Rooney’s debut album, it wasn’t featured on The Princess Diaries soundtrack. “I wouldn’t say we really found our stride as professional artists,” Schwartzman recalls. “I think we just weren’t even in a place where that song [“Blueside”] could live out in the world. It was almost too early.” But The Princess Diaries would help launch the music career of Schwartzman and Rooney, which would lead to tours with The Strokes and even an appearance on The O.C.

For Soler, Rooney ended up being an integral part of The Princess Diaries for plot reasons. “We were talking about modern princesses, and what do modern princesses like? Boys.” An early scene where Mia visits a garage and listens to Michael’s band playing spoke directly to that idea.

As important as Rooney and Michael were to the inaugural Princess Diaries film, Schwartzman wasn’t in the sequel. At that time his own music career was taking off, and the sequel gave Schwartzman a nod by saying his character was on tour. At the same time, he says, “I think they had a different, maybe, vision for where they were going to take the story.” Schwartzman, however, is currently aware that there’s been a lot of talk about a third installment of The Princess Diaries and he’s had time to think about potentially rejoining the universe. “If they call and they’re like, ‘Do you want to do this?’ Yes, absolutely. The movie had such a great impact.”

Between the film’s empowering message for young girls and its carefully crafted pop soundtrack, The Princess Diaries has lived on as a time capsule of the early aughts. The fact that a third movie is being discussed 17 years after its sequel is proof of its impact. “You can’t intentionally try and create a pop culture phenomenon,” says Leib. “You hope for the best outcome and every now and then get struck by lightning. And I think that’s what The Princess Diaries was.”

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