(Corrects names of those nominated for Oscar in paragraph 15)
By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES, April 9 (Reuters) - As the opening scenes of "Rio 2" begins, so does the beat.
The film, a follow up to 2011's successful animated film "Rio," picks up where the first one left off, with hip-shaking rhythms and Tropicalia styles along Rio de Janeiro's famous beaches.
But this time around, the movie about a family of the rare Spix's macaw birds shows off the South American county's diverse musical heritage, branching off from the signature bossa nova and Carnival music of the Atlantic Coast and venturing into the rhythms of the Amazon region.
"It's hard to think about Rio or Brazil without thinking about music," said director Carlos Saldanha, a Rio native.
In the 3D animated film, which will be released by 20th Century Fox in U.S. and Canadian theaters on Friday, music works as a vehicle to help illustrate the melting pot of Brazilian culture, the 49-year-old director said.
"This was always the kind of stuff that came to my head when I was making this movie," he added. "It has to have a very integrated musical component to it because I wanted to be able to explore different rhythms, different styles and vibes."
The film begins with the vibrantly blue family of macaws, headed by the father Blu, as voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, and mother Jewel (Anne Hathaway), who leave their bird refuge in Rio for a trip to the Amazon to find a possible colony of their critically endangered brothers and sisters.
But first, the movie aims to draw in audiences with its biggest hope for a radio hit: R&B singer Janelle Monae's song "What Is Love," a Brazilian-influenced dance track that is supposed to evoke Rio's roaring New Year's Eve parties.
"What Is Love," which was delivered to radio stations two weeks ago, features the drums of marching bands and whistles familiar to Carnival music. Monae said she wanted the song to serve as an overture to the film's score.
"I gathered sounds from street performers; I recorded the ocean," the singer said. "I've always thought cinematically ... We (Saldanha and I) said, 'How can we make all these Brazilian colors come through in the music?'"
Although the soundtrack to "Rio 2" is not expected to duplicate the runaway success of Disney's "Frozen," which has sold nearly 2 million copies with the hit song "Let It Go," the movie coincides with global attention being focused on Brazil, the host of this year's World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
The movie's journey into the depths of the Amazon lets Saldanha and the film's executive music producer, bossa nova legend Sergio Mendes, tap into Brazil's interior through artists like body percussion group Barbatuques and Uakti, a group that uses homemade instruments.
Mendes, 73, who broke out in 1966 with the international hit "Mas Que Nada," a jazzy samba he performed with his group Brasil '66, said regional rhythms of musicians like Carlinhos Brown from the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, reflected the cultural melange of European colonization and slaves from Africa.
"Samba came from Africa, so if you listen to a samba in Rio there's a different kind of beat," Mendes said. "When you go to Bahia, they have a different kind of beat for samba as well, different instruments. It's still samba, but they have their own accent, which makes it very interesting."
Saldanha and Mendes worked again with film composer John Powell on the score. Mendes earned an Oscar nod along with Brown and lyricist Siedah Garrett for "Real in Rio," their original song from the first film.
"Naturally, Brazilian rhythms are very strong," Saldanha said. "Even if you can't understand the rhythm, you can't help but shake your body. ... We really tried to tap into (that)."
"Rio 2" has already grossed $55 million in Europe and elsewhere after it was released last week. The film is expected to gross $39 million in its opening weekend in North America, according to Boxoffice.com, which is in line with the first "Rio" movie, and it should earn the bulk of its ticket sales from abroad, much like the first.
Saldanha said his hope is that the music and film will complement each other, drawing in audiences on both fronts. For him, the film had a strong personal resonance.
"I did the movie because I wanted to write a love letter to my county," he said. "I wanted to write something that I felt connected to myself." (Reporting by Eric Kelsey, editing by G Crosse)