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Hal Willner’s Vision Is <i> Not</i> Mickey Mouse : Record Producer Revamps Disney Music Through Contemporary Artists

Hal Willner rolled his eyes wearily as a magazine photographer asked him to pose with a set of Mickey Mouse ears.

It’s not that Willner has any aversion to American kitsch--over lunch earlier he discoursed at length about Jerry Lewis’ most embarrassing moments on his annual telethons.

This particular bit of kitsch, though, cuts him a little close. Willner is the producer of “Stay Awake,” a surprise-filled collection of songs from Walt Disney films done by a variety of pop, rock and jazz performers. (See review on this page.) The mouse ears, he’s afraid, might give the impression that the album is somehow camp or comedy, while he wants to make clear that it was made entirely out of affection for the music--as was the case with his earlier, similar tributes to Fellini film composer Nino Rota, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and German theater composer Kurt Weill.

“You can’t just make fun of it,” Willner, 32, said, sitting in an office at A&M; Records in Hollywood. “We all grew up with this music, and no matter what you might say, it means something. You can’t trash it.”

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Still, Willner had better get used to being posed with Mickey Mouse ears and other Disneyana. The new album--because of the popularity of Disney and of such participating artists as Tom Waits, Los Lobos, Sinead O’Connor, Suzanne Vega and the Replacements--is likely to be his most well-known project thus far.

But in some circles, Disney is apple-pie sacred--and tampering with the music is akin to blasphemy.

“One thing to emphasize here is this record is in total respect,” Willner insisted, acknowledging that the project raised a few hackles in the Disney camp--though in general the Disney people were very cooperative in providing access to original recordings and sheet music.

“It’s not a comedy record or a vicious record. I’m not spitting in Disney’s face. In the long run, no matter what (Disney representatives or fans) think of it now, they’re going to see it as good.”

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Respect, though, is one thing. Reverence is quite another. These versions of the Disney songs--though all carry a Technicolor quality that could very well be termed Disney-esque --are very much interpretations, each reflecting the character of the artist. The most revisionist cut is Tom Waits’ “Heigh Ho.” Rather than the cheery tune the seven dwarfs chant on their way to the mines, Waits offers a clanging, post-industrial ode to dreariness.

But then, Willner sees nothing inconsistent between that approach and the nature of the Disney world. The squeaky-clean image, he believes, is inaccurate.

“Along with the princess you got the evil witch,” he said. “To bring something beautiful out of something dark is great. . . . It’s like life. Disney was great at capturing these extremes.”

That, too, is central to Willner’s approach as an auteur in a time when producers are often assembly-line managers. But on the other hand, Willner thinks it would be wrong to lump him in with such control-obsessed producers as Phil Spector.

“I guess I fall somewhere between the supervising producer and the full hands-on approach,” he said. “A producer should be ego-less enough to know when things are going well not to stop it.”

In fact, Willner said that about half the artists on “Stay Awake” chose their own material and were involved with the arrangements. “Every track has a story--there was no formula,” he said.

But he also admits that the album reflects his vision. “With these records I’m basically creating things I’d want to buy,” he said. “I guess I’m inflicting my tastes on the public.”

It began in 1981 with Willner’s tribute to Rota, using the likes of Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein alongside such avant-jazz figures as Carla Bley. The idea had come to the Philadelphia-raised Willner while he was an 18-year-old New York University student and jazz fan, working gofer jobs for jazz/pop producer Joel Dorn. Over the next few years, as he continued to work as Dorn’s assistant as well as musical coordinator for “Saturday Night Live” (a job he held until last year), Willner set about raising money for the project, recording selections when he could. The finished album was then released by the independent Hannibal label.

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Around that time, Willner attended a memorial tribute concert for jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.

“I got frustrated--the music was boring, which Monk never was,” he said. What would have livened it up, he felt, was appearances by some rock and pop performers who had been influenced by Monk. “I didn’t know why NRBQ and Donald Fagen weren’t there.”

That inspired him to make an album he thought would truly reflect the spirit of Monk’s music. Among the first artists he approached for “That’s the Way I Feel Now” was multifaceted Joe Jackson, whose manager took the project to A&M; records.

“Suddenly I had a series,” Willner said.

Besides the tribute albums, Willner has also applied his touch to Marianne Faithful’s 1987 “Strange Weather” and upcoming spoken-word albums by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, as well the solo debut by Gavin Friday of the Irish group Virgin Prunes. The next tribute will be to jazz composer Charles Mingus.

But because of the universality of Disney material, “Stay Awake” seems to stand the best chance of changing one aspect of Willner’s career.

“I still have not had my name on a real hit record,” said the producer.

Willner’s life sounds as if it has something of a Peter Pan quality to it--working with musical idols on dream projects. But Willner cringed at that suggestion, though he admitted one similarity.

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“I won’t grow up; I’ll never change--I was an old man at 7,” he said, offering his ulcer and thinning hair as proof.

The Disney character he says he relates to is not Peter Pan, but his nemesis Captain Hook.

“A nice Captain Hook,” Willner said with a sinister laugh. “He’s the one as a kid I was most fascinated by. I remember him having a real heart--but he was evil.”


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