‘Tarzan’: When Disney Tapped Phil Collins For A Masterpiece

For the 1999 animated film, Disney tore up the rule book and the former Genesis man delivered an unforgettable soundtrack.

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Tarzan soundtrack album cover
Cover: Courtesy of Disney

Tarzan was a Disney classic with a difference. While the 37th animated feature film from the studio had all the hallmarks of a traditional blockbuster – a heartstring-tugging plot, thrilling action scenes, unlikely romance, and a fearless hero – when it came to the soundtrack, Disney broke with convention.

From 1989’s The Little Mermaid to Hercules in 1997, show-stopping music had been an integral part of Disney’s renaissance. Each of these films featured songs that leaned heavily on the Broadway tradition – a mix of show tunes and power ballads sung by characters in the movie.

Listen to the Tarzan soundtrack on Spotify or Apple Music now.

Tarzan was different. The filmmakers were keen for Tarzan’s songs to evoke the strong tribal rhythms of African music and rather than use Broadway-tested writers, looked to the rock world for inspiration. Music producer Chris Montan turned to Phil Collins, then one of the biggest solo stars on the planet. Collins told in 2003 that he was initially apprehensive about the move to animated movie soundtracks, saying that the initial approach was “a phone call out of the blue really… We then all met up in Geneva to discuss everything. I was very nervous about being capable of writing songs like that.”

Not only did Tarzan break with Disney tradition by using a rock star to soundtrack the movie (even Elton John had been teamed up with theatre royalty, lyricist Tim Rice for The Lion King), the songs themselves represented a genuine shift. Collins initially began writing from the perspectives of the principal characters before the filmmakers heard his initial demos. Collins’ rough sketches were so powerful that he was asked to perform them himself, as he told MTV Japan in 1999, “The way I was writing and singing the songs was so much a part of the spirit of the film, they didn’t want anybody else.”

While songs had traditionally been used in Disney animated movies to make explicit a character’s hopes and fears, Collins singing all of Tarzan’s songs meant that they could be seen as the inner thoughts of characters, allowing for a more nuanced and mature way of storytelling. Collins discussed the possibilities this method opened up to him as a writer in the documentary The Making of Tarzan, “At one point I could almost be the voice of Kala [Tarzan’s adoptive mother]. Then, when he’s growing up, I feel like I become the voice of Tarzan’s father [Kerchak, the silverback leader of the gorilla troop that takes Tarzan in], then you get to ‘Strangers Like Me,’ where I’m actually singing Tarzan’s thoughts.”

Strangers Like Me (From "Tarzan"/Soundtrack Version)

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The songs of Tarzan

“Two Worlds” not only opens the movie, but provides a recurring musical motif that reappears at pivotal points throughout. After a stormy start, evoking the shipwreck from which Tarzan’s parents escape, the song develops into a stirring union of African rhythms and Collins’ soaring melodies. The “simple life” that Tarzan’s parents find in the jungle is celebrated as we see the couple building a home. The action shifts to Kala and we learn that she has lost a child as Collins sings, “No words describe a mother’s tears/No words can heal a broken heart,” before we see that Tarzan has been orphaned after a leopard killed his parents. “Two Worlds” sets the scene perfectly, both in a narrative sense and – thanks to score composer Mark Manchina’s contributions – by giving a sense of the beauty and danger that live alongside one another in the jungle.

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Collins looked closer to home for the inspiration for “You’ll Be In My Heart,” writing the song (or “lullaby” as Collins called it) for his then-10-year-old daughter Lily (now a successful actress). He said in The Making of Tarzan that it “lends itself to so many emotional moments in the movie… I’ve told my daughter that it’s her song, even though it’s an ape singing it to a baby boy.” “You’ll Be In My Heart” provides a soundtrack for the growing bond between Kala and Tarzan, the man-child she rescued and treated as her own. Collins’ lyric emphasizes another key thread of the movie – the common ground between us all, humans and animals (“I know we’re different, but deep inside us we’re not that different at all.”)

“Son of Man” picks up the pace, mixing an 80s stadium rock feel with percussive flourishes that feel straight from the jungle. It marks the moment in the movie where Tarzan is coming of age and proving his worth to the gorilla community in which he has grown up. Collins spoke about the song in a 1999 interview with CNN, “Tarzan is growing. They had to have him grow throughout the movie to become a man, so that song is a montage of him aged 5, 10, 15 to 20. So it’s a passing of time. You know, kids don’t want to wait, they want to hurry up and grow up. So it’s kind of the narrator of the film, saying, ‘Man in time you’ll be, just be patient. You’ll learn.’”

Collins clearly had fun writing “Trashing the Camp” the jazzy, percussion-heavy instrumental interlude that marks the point where Tarzan’s animal pals discover the human camp. Indeed, in The Making of Tarzan, Collins admits, “The thing that motivated me at first was the rhythmic possibilities, to me, it was tailor-made for what I do.”

Trashin' The Camp

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The final new song Collins wrote for the movie, “Strangers Like Me” represented another challenge. Collins told CNN, “‘Strangers Like Me’ is when he [Tarzan], discovers Jane and the other humans on the island and wants to know how come there are these people, these strangers. The apes are trying to keep [Tarzan] away from them, but yet these are his people, these people look like him. So you’re telling all that information in that song.” The infectious mid-tempo number is the perfect soundtrack to Tarzan learning human ways from Jane – dancing, astrology, reading, cycling – as they fall in love with one another. It also shows the potential problems for our hero, as he becomes distant from the family that raised him.

The release and reception

The Tarzan soundtrack gave Collins another new experience, as it was the first Disney soundtrack to be recorded in multiple languages for different markets by the same artist. It was dubbed in 35 languages – a record for a Disney film at the time – and Collins recorded his songs in Spanish, Italian, French, and German for the dubbed versions of the soundtrack.

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Not only was Tarzan a box office success – earning the second highest-earning box office opening at the time for a Disney film behind The Lion King and becoming the most successful home video release of 2000 – its soundtrack was a smash, selling over two million copies in the United States alone. It was also a critical hit, earning Collins both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song, for “You’ll Be In My Heart.”

Listen to the Tarzan soundtrack on Spotify or Apple Music now.

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