Disney’s Pocahontas represented a brave step for the animation studio. The blockbusters that had put the company back on top in the 90s – The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King – were ambitious in terms of their use of technology and their sheer scale, but none of them had truly engaged with potentially sensitive subjects. Pocahontas might have been an epic love story in the grand Disney tradition, but it also dealt with the impact of colonialism and climate change while featuring a strong female lead character of color.
The studio called upon trusted composer Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin) and Disney newcomer Stephen Schwartz, who was hot property after writing the Broadway smash hits Wicked and Godspell. Schwartz met with Menken and Disney executives about working on a new project and was so confident that the partnership would work, he signed up before knowing the subject matter of the movie in question.
When Schwartz learned it was an adaptation of the legend of Pocahontas – the Native American woman credited with helping English settlers survive in Virginia in the early 1600s – he realized how challenging the project might prove. “Talking honestly about Native Americans and their encounters with white settlers would be difficult,” he once told Grammy.com. “But the worst that could happen is they’d see what I came up with and I’ll get fired.”
Such drastic steps were not necessary. Schwartz was determined to do the subject matter justice and did his homework. “I have this slogan: ‘in lieu of inspiration, do research,’” Schwartz told Grammy.com. He later wrote about his efforts to fully understand the culture on his official website, “We did go on a field trip to Jamestown and, while there, to a gathering of Native American tribes. As always, being on the spot was tremendously useful for atmosphere and specific details of the lyrics, and I bought some tapes while I was there, including one called Songs of the Virginia Company that was very Algonkian, but probably not the same Algonkian that Pocahontas actually spoke. [the tapes were] helpful in selecting musical styles for songs like ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’. The non-English lyrics are indeed authentic.”
Menken took the responsibility of writing for Pocahontas just as seriously, later telling Grammy.com, “Pocahontas was so pivotal given contemporary sensitivities about how we depict Native Americans. This is a musical and a Disney project, so there are elements that are really romanticized in the storytelling, but we had very pivotal Native advisors such as Russell Means. We and Disney wanted to be accurate and balanced in our depiction of the story.”
The sweeping epic “Colors Of The Wind” was a key song in acknowledging the contrasts between the Native American way of life and that of the European settlers. The song finds Pocahontas – voiced here by Judy Kuhn – opening John Smith’s eyes with lyrics like, “You think you own whatever land you land on / The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim / But I know every rock and tree and creature / Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.” While the settlers assumed Pocahontas and her people are “ignorant savages,” they have much to learn from them. It’s a climate-conscious Disney classic with a message that is, sadly, more relevant than ever.
Schwartz acknowledged his inspiration for the song: “The lyrics to ‘Colors of the Wind’ were inspired by a famous letter written by Chief Seattle to Congress, which has been reprinted many times. In the song, I basically wanted Pocahontas to address the Eurocentrism of John Smith; so in essence, it’s a consciousness-raising song. I tried to use Native American locution and imagery, and thus the specific wording was somewhat influenced by some of the Native American poetry I had been reading as research.”
“Colors Of The Wind” was the first song completed by the Menken-Schwartz partnership and inspired a surge of creativity. “Just Around The Riverbend” was another classic – a song that introduces the audience to the complexities of the central character. In the grand tradition of Disney lead characters, Pocahontas feels she is destined to pursue a different path to the one set out for her by her family and society’s expectations. Though she has not yet met John Smith, “Just Around The Riverbend” prepares the audience for the unlikely romance by emphasizing how headstrong Pocahontas can be.
The soundtrack not only handled Pocahontas’ subject matter with subtlety and intelligence, but it was also a huge hit, reaching No 1 on the US Billboard 200 chart in July 1995 (helped along by Vanessa Williams’ adult contemporary take on “Colors Of The Wind”). But its real triumph is how resonant the songs remain.