It’s incredible to think that 1994’s The Lion King was initially considered a risky move, such was the incredible success of Disney’s 32nd feature film. The studio had never based a feature film on an original story. Nor had a Disney movie ever featured an entire cast of animal characters, though 1942’s Bambi had come close. And it was the first film of the studio’s renaissance to look beyond the talents of Broadway composers for its songs.
That last point was borne out of necessity. Tragically, lyricist Howard Ashman died during the making of 1992’s Aladdin, breaking up the winning partnership he’d formed with composer Alan Menken on the soundtracks of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Disney called upon British lyricist Tim Rice – best known for collaborating on stage musicals with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber – to finish Ashman’s work on Aladdin and asked him to remain with the studio for their next feature, The Lion King.
Rice set about choosing a writing partner, as he recalled in The Lion King’s original production notes. “The studio asked me if I had any suggestions,” he recalled. “They said choose anybody in the world and choose the best. I said, well, Elton John would be fantastic, but you probably won’t get a hold of him simply because he’s very busy and he hasn’t done a film score like this in 25 years. They asked him and to my amazement, Elton said yes.”
In his 2019 autobiography, Me, Elton John remembered Rice’s original approach, “Ten years after we’d last written a song together, Tim Rice phoned up out of the blue, asking me if I was interested in working with him again. Apparently, Disney were making their first animated film based on an original story rather than an existing work, and Tim wanted me involved. I was intrigued… The songs had to tell a story. The plan was that we wouldn’t write the usual Broadway-style Disney score, but try and come up with pop songs that kids would like.”
Though John’s songwriting ability was never in question, there were initial concerns that the songs did not evoke the African savanna in the way that they imagined. Speaking to The Los Angeles Times in 1994, Rice remembered the initial misgivings: “We had a lovely demo from Elton singing ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight,’ but it’s Elton singing at the piano. I don’t think they could quite relate to it being the voice of the characters… They felt like, ‘Oh, we’re getting Elton John tracks.’ I knew they weren’t, but they didn’t know that.”
Roy Disney, then vice chairman of the studio, also spoke to The Los Angeles Times, “I think because of the way that Elton does a demo, the songs as we first heard them didn’t sound anything like what’s in the film. There was a certain leap of faith that we should wait and hear the full arrangement.”
Hans Zimmer and Lebo M
Don Hahn elaborated on the sound the production team were aiming for, “We had been listening to Graceland, the Paul Simon Album. We’ve been listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African vocal groups that had been on the Graceland album and a lot of Soweto kind of South African music.” With the feeling that Rice and John’s songs hadn’t captured the essence of the film, composer Hans Zimmer was brought in to arrange the material. “Elton really let me run riot on it,” Zimmer told The Los Angeles Times. “I was worried he would hate what I did to his songs, taking his babies and giving them new arms and legs and eye colors. It gets personal and I really took his stuff apart. But he’s still speaking to me and that’s a good sign.”
Zimmer’s masterstroke was calling upon the South African vocalist Lebo M to add an authentic African flavor to his arrangements. Nowhere is this more striking than on the majestic and panoramic opening track, “Circle Of Life.” John and Zimmer’s powerful ballad was a rumination on the continuation of life, in this case soundtracking the moment that Simba, the lion cub and new prince of the Pride Lands is unveiled to the expectant animals who have flocked to see him.
The story struck a chord with Lebo M as he told CNN in 2019, “Just reading the script became very personal to me. I’m inside the story, and the story is me reliving my life literally while working on the story of Simba, who goes [into] exile.” When it came to laying down a vocal for “Circle Of Life,” Lebo M pictured Mufasa (Simba’s father, the king of the Pride Lands) standing atop Pride Rock and launched into a chant in Zulu that would become synonymous with the film, “I went ‘All hail the king; bow down in the presence of the royal family.’ It was inspired by a vision or dream that most of us South Africans were visualizing: Nelson Mandela taking the podium to become the first black president,” he said. “So it’s just a dual story that was happening at the same time – and thankfully the chemistry worked and the magic happened.”
The music and legacy of The Lion King
“Circle Of Life” was followed by more moments of magic – the joyous highlife of “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” the tour-de-force performance from Jeremy Irons as Mufasa’s evil brother Scar on “Be Prepared,” the comedic pop interlude “Hakuna Matata,” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” one of the great Disney romantic ballads. The latter was cut from an early version of the film, but after John insisted it was reinstated it went on to win the Academy Award® for Best Original Song.
For Elton John, The Lion King was a revelation, as he wrote in Me, “I thought the finished film was completely extraordinary. I’m not the kind of artist who invites people over to play them my new album, but I loved The Lion King so much that I arranged a couple of private screenings so friends could see it. I was incredibly proud of the whole thing; I knew we were on to something very special. Even so, I couldn’t have predicted it would become one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It introduced my music to a completely new audience.”
Not only was The Lion King a staggering box office success, the soundtrack was the biggest-selling ever from an animated project, and remains the second-highest selling album in Elton John’s catalogue, behind his 1974 compilation, Greatest Hits. Once again, a risky move had paid off for Disney.