Three years ago, if Roy Disney whistled while he worked, it probably wasn’t an Elton John tune.
“I wouldn’t call myself a fan,” says the vice chairman of the huge corporate entity that bears his uncle’s name--and the “unofficial chairman” of the animation world that is the heart of the Walt Disney legacy.
“We joke a lot that my knowledge of popular music stopped when Glenn Miller stopped recording,” he adds. “At least that’s what my kids tell me.”
Today, though, Roy Disney--and just about every other executive in the Disney empire--is whistling Elton John tunes all the way to the bank, and not “Benny and the Jets” or “Rocket Man.” The songs on their lips are the five that John and lyricist Tim Rice wrote for the Disney company’s latest animated film, “The Lion King,” the treachery-filled tale of politics and passions on the veld.
Those five songs cover a vast range of styles and moods. On one end of the scale is “Be Prepared,” sung with drippingly evil delight by Jeremy Irons in the role of the lion villain, Scar--it’s perhaps the darkest number in Disney lore. In complete contrast, there’s the chipper devil-may-care anthem “Hakuna Matata,” which is most certainly the only Disney song ever to have an implied (though never actually stated) rhyme of the common crude term for passing wind.
The musical results have spirits--and sales forecasts--high throughout Disney land. With the movie not even in theaters yet, Walt Disney Records has already shipped more than 2 million copies of the soundtrack album, featuring the five songs as used in the film, plus three alternate versions featuring John’s vocals and score instrumental pieces by composer Hans Zimmer.
That’s twice the amount initially shipped for the “Aladdin” soundtrack, which went on to sell more than 4 million, becoming the company’s all-time top release. (For the record, the second-best-seller for the company was 1979’s “Mickey Mouse Disco,” also at more than 4 million.)
The version of John singing the romantic ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight"--which in the film accompanies the blossoming love between the lion Simba and his childhood pal/future queen Nala--is at No. 18 on the Billboard pop singles chart, and the soundtrack album debuted at No. 13.
The movie, which opens this week in a limited run Los Angeles and New York before going nationwide, is also expected to challenge “Aladdin” as the top-grossing animated film of all time, and with that in mind, Disney Records has also shipped out nearly a million more units of other products, including read-along book-tape sets.
Disney execs, however, weren’t so euphoric the first time they first heard the “Lion King” tunes. Doubts had already been raised: Could the flashy pop star fit into the notoriously staid Disney structure? Would he be able to adapt to a system where creative decisions are made by committee?
As they sat and listened to the first demo tapes from John, those reservations loomed large. Lyricist Rice, who with former partner Andrew Lloyd Webber reinvented the modern musical with “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” had suggested John as his composer for the project after being recruited by Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1991, and remembers the chilly reaction to the tapes John had sent from England.
“In retrospect, I can tell now, they weren’t very excited about the demos,” says Rice, a tall, casually elegant Englishman, lunching on an omelet and bacon at the Disney cafeteria in Burbank. “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, looking back on his first hearing of the John-Rice songs, is diplomatic. “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,” he says. “There was a certain leap of faith that we should wait and hear the full arrangement.”
Rice, 49, wasn’t willing to bank on that faith, though. He knew that this was not what the execs were used to. With the songs from “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin"--the three animated films that had revived the Disney legacy in recent years--the team of lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken had used their Broadway musical background to produce demos that were literal blueprints for the final product.
“I went into the studio and redid a couple demos on my own with some other singers,” he says. “I turned (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”) into a duet with Lea Salonga and Brad Kane, the two voices from ‘Aladdin.’ I just hired them as session singers, and I put in some jungle noises. I thought, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work then I won’t tell anyone about it.’ And I did another for the song ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.’ But it showed them that you had to see beyond just Elton doing the songs.”
A hint at what the Disney execs first heard can be found in the three John-sung recordings on “The Lion King” album. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” for example, sounds not too unlike such past John ballads as “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” while “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” with its frisky rock twang, sounds as if it could be a pop singer dreaming of being Elvis rather than a lion prince impatient to rule.
The versions used in the film underwent transformations in arrangement--with Zimmer’s orchestral touches and a few hints at the African setting of the film replacing John’s familiar piano-dominated style (in fact, there’s no piano at all in the film versions).
The irony is that as the executives sat and listened to the demos, John’s work was basically done. He’d supplied the requisite catchy tunes, even if the Disney bosses couldn’t quite hear them in the tapes, and would only need to tweak a line here and there.
Rice’s work, though, was just beginning.
“I’ve often said, not really joking, that the longer I go in this business, the more people tell me how to do my job,” Rice says, shrugging. “With ‘Superstar’ and ‘Evita’ and ‘Joseph'--all massive successes--all the way to the last moment it was just two guys creating them.
“Of course, with Disney it’s different. I’ll admit that there were a few times I wish I had more freedom. It’s funny that we seemed to have that freedom when we were 18 and broke, and then when you’re 48, suddenly the whole world has got advice for you.”
By the time the real work began on “The Lion King,” Rice had already had a trial run with Disney. Shortly after he’d been recruited for the film in 1991, Rice was asked to step in to write three songs for “Aladdin” with Menken after Ashman’s death.
But the work of finishing up someone else’s project didn’t fully prepare him for taking on a Disney venture from scratch.
“The story line of ‘The Lion King,’ the basic premise that the young cub would be thrown into exile by his wicked uncle and be missing, presumed dead, that was always there,” Rice says. “That was always the basic principle, but there were hundreds of variations in detail.”
And each variation meant a different angle for the songs.
“ ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ was the first I wrote for this,” he says. “The brief was to write a love song, probably a duet, but a straightforward love song, which I did. And Elton put a pretty tune to it and I thought, ‘Great, that’s a good start.’ But they never could find a way to make it work within the main film.
“They tried it in outline with the two lions swimming and diving and running through the forest, and then it was tried as an argument almost, and then it was tried with a heavenly chorus singing offstage while the lions did whatever they did, then it was cut and then it was expanded and then we tried it with the wart hog and the meerkat singing a parody version. I thought, ‘This song is never going to get in the film, because it’s difficult to animate a slow ballad which doesn’t advance the plot in most of its forms.’ ”
In the end, the version that was used combined several of those elements.
“All these things happen, which I think makes the scene work,” Rice says. “So you can take it either as those things, or you can take it as a nice bit of corn for two minutes. I don’t mind. But Elton said, ‘I can’t record that because I can’t sing lyrics that are a wart hog and then a heavenly choir and a lioness, so I’m going to sing the original lyrics, because I like them best anyway.’ So I was thrilled, because I ended up with Take 18 used in the film, which works, and Take 1 at the end, sung by Elton, which is the single.”
Rice laughs as he calculates how many changes he had to make on the songs. “I mean, you think, ‘Three years and I’ve only ended up with five songs?’ ” he says. “But I tell you, it was a lot of work.”
During those three years, Elton John’s main job--once he’d written the tunes--seemed to be to sit back and allow the Disney machine to do its work. (John, busy preparing his own next album and rehearsing for his upcoming tour with Billy Joel, refused requests for interviews.)
“Elton really let me run riot on it,” says Zimmer. “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, though never specifically instructed to incorporate African elements into the music, took the opportunity to further explore African sounds that he had previously incorporated into his score for the South African-located “A World Apart.” (Zimmer’s other credits include “Rain Man,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination, “Driving Miss Daisy” and the new “Renaissance Man.”)
The African elements are most prominent in his arrangement of the opening “Circle of Life,” which features a Zulu choir, directed by Zimmer’s past collaborator, Lebo Ngema. But he says that he didn’t want to overdo that side of the music, despite the fact that the story is set in Africa.
Even Elton John’s tune for “Hakuna Matata,” the layabout creed constructed from a Swahili phrase (meaning, roughly, “don’t worry, be happy”) sounds more like an outtake from “Guys and Dolls” than from “Graceland.” Of course, that may have something to do with it being sung by the very New York duo of Broadway vets Ernie Sabella as the wart hog Pumbaa and Nathan Lane as the meerkat Timon.
“None of my tunes are specifically African,” says Zimmer. “I thought it would narrow things down if we stuck to one culture like that. I thought it would be more interesting if I opened Africa up to Europe and vice versa.”
In the context of the songs, he says, his first priority was to be true to the material he was given. “ ‘Circle of Life’ definitely sounds like something I would have done, but I tried to preserve the thing that is Elton.”
For the Disney company, the biggest thing that is Elton may be his name. Never before (unless you count Peggy Lee with “Lady and the Tramp”) has a pop star of such magnitude lent his talent and name to a Disney project in this way. The only potential concern in that regard is that there might be a sense that this is an Elton John project, not a Disney film.
No chance, says Rice. “I don’t think so,” he says. “Disney is still the main thing.”
For those responsible for selling the music, it’s the best of both worlds. Both “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” spawned hit pop versions of their key ballads, “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Whole New World,” respectively. But having songs written and sung by Elton John raises the stakes even higher.
“Disney animated music soundtracks have always appealed to a wide variety of people,” says Mark Jaffe, vice president of Walt Disney Records. “We have always had a strong adult purchase, and the Elton presence only adds to that. For us, what’s unique about this, is not only are we able to appeal to the traditional animation market, but the traditional pop market, too.”
So confident is the Disney team that there’s already talk about Rice and John working together again on another animated film, possibly a Verdi-less adaptation of “Aida.” And beyond that?
“I would never rule out anything around here,” says Roy Disney. “Well, obviously a couple of things--probably ain’t going to have a rap tune in one of these films in the near future, if rap is indeed a tune. But diversity from show to show has been one of our strengths in the last years.”