Oh look, he’s writing about Disney again.
The Lion King is a great film, one of Disney’s most legendary animated films. I saw it three times in theaters when it first came out, and I’m sure my family was glad that I was finally moving on from the Aladdin mania that was taking over my life (except I still have yet to get over my Aladdin mania…)
The animation is spectacular, and the characters are iconic, but one of the defining aspects of the film is the music. The unstoppable duo of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman did great things with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but Ashman tragically passed away shortly after Beauty and the Beast premiered and Tim Rice, the lyricist who completed Ashman’s work on Aladdin with Menken, was looking for another collaborator.
Now, The Lion King almost wasn’t a musical. In fact, the production had its fair share of drama surrounding the subject, losing their first director, George Scribener, who felt the story wouldn’t work as a musical. His replacement, Rob Minkoff, disagreed, and so Tim Rice was given the green light yet again (although that’s just conjecture. I mean…it’s Tim Rice. I don’t think they’d ever want to lose him).
Enter Elton John, pop superstar and cultural legend. As Menken was unavailable, Elton John was Rice’s personal choice, and the two of them collaborated on the film’s songs.
Sir Tim Rice has had a massive career spanning film and the stage, including collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar), the gentlemen of ABBA (Chess), and of course, Elton John (After The Lion King, the duo continued to work together, creating the Tony Award-winning Aida and the Dreamworks animated film The Road to El Dorado). He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1994.
Sir Elton John got HIS knighthood a bit later (in 1998), but it’s all good. His career is so legendary, it’s a bit massive to squeeze into this little post, but let’s just say, he’s been nominated for three Oscars (and won one), thirty four Grammys (and won five), and four Tonys (and won one). He’s released 34 albums and has sold over 300 million records worldwide. But those are just numbers. Elton John is just a really big deal and if you didn’t already know that, then you’ve obviously been living under a rock somewhere out in the Pride Lands somewhere.
Shame on you.
Now, while The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin had more of a big Broadway musical sound, John wanted songs with more of a pop flavor, hearkening back to films like The Jungle Book whose songs were more inspired by the rhythm and bounce of the 60’s than they were the traditional sounds of India.
Enter Lebo M, the South African composer and producer who gave The Lion King‘s songs the needed traditional flair to blend John’s and Rice’s catchy tunes with the score. If you don’t know who he is, I can assure you that you know his fantastic voice. Along with assembling and conducting the African choir which features on the film’s score, he sang the famous opening call to “Circle of Life” which, combined with that shot of the rising sun, is one Disney’s most iconic moments. His work was expanded for the stage version of The Lion King whose choir is given a much more prominent role.
This guy’s story is pretty phenomenal. He went from living in the slums in Johannesburg during Apartheid to begging on the streets in Los Angeles following his exile (which would last 20 years), to making it in Hollywood. If you want to delve into his work more, check out Rhythm of the Pride Lands, an album full of music either inspired by The Lion King or written-but-cut during production. A few songs made it to the stage version and/or the direct-to-video sequel (which actually isn’t that bad), so there’s a great mix of familiar and new. And, of course, the vocals are fantastic.
The original version of “He Lives in You” (which was used in the beginning of The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride) is a great example of just how fantastic this guy’s voice is.
Alright, so now we have the songs. What about the score?
Enter Hans Zimmer and Mark Mancina.
Hans Zimmer, German composer and Hollywood legend, caught Disney’s eye after their execs heard his score for the South African-set drama The Power of One (which is where he first worked with Lebo M). Zimmer’s career is pretty huge, but I KNOW you’ve heard his work. He’s a favorite of Christopher Nolan, having scored the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar. He’s also done the scores for Gladiator, Prince of Egypt, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes duology, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, etc. etc. etc. There’s a lot more.
For The Lion King, he blended a big orchestral sound with his signature synthesized filigree, which makes the score not only huge and sweeping but sharp and powerful. It’s a legendary composition that won him an Oscar for Best Original Score as well as a Golden Globe and a pair of Grammys. After The Lion King, his already successful career exploded into the powerhouse it is today.
Finally, we get to Mark Mancina, a prestigious composer in his own right. Mancina went on to score Tarzan, Brother Bear, and Moana for Disney, but he’s also done a number of Hollywood blockbusters. If you liked mid-90’s action flicks, you’ve heard his work. He composed for Speed, Bad Boys, Con Air, and Twister. Also, if you remember the bizarre musical anti-capitalist lecture that is The Jetsons Movie, he wrote the songs for that one. For The Lion King, he arranged the songs that Elton John, Tim Rice, and Lebo M wrote.
It’s funny how The Lion King was originally just going to be “the other project” while everyone was working on Pocahontas (which the studio felt was going to be the Really Big Film). It was treated as a less important project, but once the musical team got together, they really elevated it into something special.
The story could have either lost its way for being too serious, or failed to adequately express the necessary gravitas, but the music really brings it all together. Elton John, Tim Rice, and Mark Mancina contributed the fun that brought the characters to life, Lebo M contributed the African soul that gave the film its depth, and Hans Zimmer gave the film an appropriate sweeping scope.
So now you need to watch this movie in surround sound so you can really appreciate just how fabulous it sounds, knowing what you do now about the people who gave it that sound!
Brb. Listening to Rhythm of the Pride Lands.
See you next week!