‘Shrek’ at 20: How the Soundtrack Became a Millennial Cultural Touchstone

During the development of “Shrek,” the creators did not consider what might appeal to children.

“Andrew [Adamson, co-director] and I, we didn’t have kids,” co-director Vicky Jenson says. “We were making a movie that we would go see.”

When it came to the songs, the overarching mission was the similar, says the film’s music supervisor, Marylata Elton says. “We were just trying to make a great movie,” she says. “We weren’t thinking about a soundtrack at all.”

Two months after the movie premiered on April 22, 2001, “Shrek (Music from the Original Motion Picture)” hit No. 28 on the Billboard 200 and later scored a Grammy nomination. Since then, the “Shrek” soundtrack has earned a place in the pop culture zeitgeist to the point that Universal Music Enterprises released a vinyl edition in 2019.

The DreamWorks classic marked the first time a popular animated feature opted for contemporary music instead of original songs. Jenson explains that the choice was informed by the storytelling team’s cinematic taste.

“We’d seen it in indie movies and loved it,” she says. “The idea of doing that here to help push forward an emotion that’s already there in the characters and on-screen but captured in a known song felt modern and different.”

Though “Shrek” is characterized by a wry sense of humor, each track signals an emotion that’s deeply genuine. The placement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (sung by John Cale in the movie and Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack) was meant to capture Shrek’s heartbreak.

“Shrek was angry and bitter and didn’t realize how much he was longing for friendship,” Jenson says. “John Cale just seemed to capture the crusty skin that Shrek wore around protectively.”

For another sequence, Elton’s goal was to improve on the catchy temp track. When Donkey and Shrek first begin their journey to rescue Princess Fiona, the scene was accompanied by “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson.

“I have so got to beat that,” she remembers thinking. She wound up choosing the Proclaimers’ “I’m on My Way,” which brilliantly highlighted Shrek’s character development with the line, “I’m on my way from misery to happiness today.”

The movie is littered with efficient needle drops, none better than its opening scene. If the soundtrack was gold, then “All Star” was its alluring glitter. Elton explains that the Smash Mouth anthem was used as temporary filler so the animators would have something to work to. DreamWorks hired musician Matt Mahaffey to create a song specifically for the scene, but test audiences continued to prefer “All Star.” The song’s familiarity immediately pulled viewers in, says Elton.

“[Shrek] found the humorous way to live his life and take his mud baths and be the star of his own movie,” Jenson adds. “The tone of that song just seemed to capture that self-sufficient rebellious celebration of his filthy life.”

Smash Mouth was in the middle of recording their third album when they were approached to sign on for “Shrek,” including the final track, a remake of The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” Some band members were hesitant about spreading themselves thin with a movie soundtrack. In hindsight, bassist Paul De Lisle says that they ended up making the right choice, noting he thinks some people believe singer Steve Harwell is Shrek.

“Ever since the ‘Shrek’ movie came out, 20 years later, at every one of our concerts there’s someone holding up a Shrek sign or someone dressed up as Shrek,” De Lisle says.

According to Elton, the staying power of “Shrek” also rests on how people have embraced the story. Fueled by a nostalgic soundtrack, the film “reached all of us ugly ducklings,” she says. “Music is so universal. I think that’s why people connected to it, and there’s a whole generation. … It really just got into their DNA.”