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The Lion King
  • Composed by Hans Zimmer
  • Songs by Elton John and Tim Rice
  • Walt Disney Records / 2014 / 121m

The extraordinary Disney revival of the early 1990s after a long time in the doldrums was fuelled by Alan Menken’s music to such an extent that it was quite a shock when the musical team behind The Lion King was announced – Hans Zimmer to write the score (he had a few decent hits by then, but was nothing like the superstar composer he is today) and Elton John to write the songs with Tim Rice.  This pattern (score by a film composer, songs by a well-known pop artist) was to be repeated a few times later on – but never with remotely this success.  The Lion King became the most financially successful Disney movie of them all (though has since lost its crown, first to Toy Story 3 then to Frozen), and the music was a vital part of its success.

It was Rice apparently who suggested John to be his songwriting partner.  His career was at a bit of a low-point, his battles with various demons at the time was very well-chronicled, so he was certainly not an orthodox choice – but it turned out to be an inspired move.  So, too, the hiring of Zimmer – which happened because the filmmakers loved his music from The Power of One – not just for the score he would write, but for the arrangements (with Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin) of the movie versions of the songs and his hiring of the vocalist Lebo M, which this album’s liner notes say was washing cars in Los Angeles to make a living at the time and just happened to pop by Zimmer’s studio while the Disney people were there, which sounds like a load of baloney to me (he had been working consistently on film scores and the press bumph at the time said that Zimmer contracted him for the film while he was performing a series of gigs in South Africa).  Together they concocted a veritable cornucopia of a soundtrack, absolutely teeming with life and the spirit of the savannah.

Elton John and Hans Zimmer

Elton John and Hans Zimmer

The hugely-popular soundtrack album released at the time of the film gave sadly short shrift to the score.  All of the songs were included (of course) but a scant four tracks of score, covering just 17 minutes.  When a “special edition” soundtrack arrived a decade later, hopes were high that a fuller presentation of Zimmer’s contribution may be included; instead, it added another song, plus a remix.  Now, finally, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the film and a new line from Walt Disney Records called “The Legacy Collection”, a luxurious double-CD set with the 74-minute first disc concentrating on the score and songs heard in the film plus a second disc filled with demos, a couple of additional songs and the Elton John performances of three of them.

The outstanding album begins with what is actually its highpoint, the incredible “Circle of Life” – Lebo M’s now-famous call at the outset, session singer Carmen Twillie’s superb rendition of John and Rice’s great song, the middle bridge featuring a lovely Zimmer theme on pan pipes, the kaboom finale that takes one’s break away – it’s the film and score in a nutshell, vibrant and colourful and moving, one of the truly great Disney songs.  It’s possible that a 37-year-old man shouldn’t get so excited by such a thing, but it’s impossible not to; it’s also possible that a 37-year-old soundtrack reviewer shouldn’t use up all of his adjectives within a single paragraph, but who’s counting?

The score begins with “Didn’t Your Mother Tell You Not to Play with Your Food?” which is an endearing mix of the comic and the macabre, the soulful sax solo either side of a typical (for the time) bout of darker Zimmer action, male choir and all (just a hint of the melody from the song “Be Prepared” which will appear later on, too).  “We Are All Connected” presents the composer’s uplifting, inspirational main theme for the first time, a gorgeous melody (in my opinion the finest he’s ever written) full of sweep and beauty; for the first time too we hear a different melody (“Busa”), a playful tune as heard in this initial presentation though for the most part it will receive the full African choral treatment courtesy of Lebo M.  I think it’s probably the finest of the score tracks.

A darker theme is then introduced in “Hyenas in the Pride Land”, full of menace (and a pan pipe solo which, surely not by coincidence, is almost identical to the famous one from Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in America, known to be one of Zimmer’s favourite film scores).  The second half of the cue sees it perk up considerably, suddenly cheerful (and closing with a brief hint at the famous “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” melody), and that’s because it leads into the next song, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”, almost irritatingly catchy and happy and quite delightful.

Hans Zimmer with his Oscar

Hans Zimmer with his Oscar

“Elephant Graveyard” is a madcap piece, occasionally with a slightly comic feel again in its earlier moments, an outlandish waltz, before it veers into much darker territory for the later moments, including a particularly moving section to close the piece; it’s here and virtually only here that there’s a slightly synthetic sound that rather sadly cheapens it.  Not a hint of that in the stunning “I Was Just Trying to be Brave”, brimming with emotion and almost a requiem-type feel at first thanks to the choir.  The big song for the villain of the piece is next, “Be Prepared”, performed with gusto by Jeremy Irons (so much gusto in fact that he did his voice in with his evil cry “You won’t get a sniff without me!” and the last few bars had to be sung by Jim Cummings, impersonating Irons – it’s noticeable once you know about it, but you’d probably never realise otherwise).

“Simba, It’s to Die For” is a very brief piece which leads into another of the score’s highlights, the spectacular action piece “Stampede”, so full of energy and excitement and danger.  This is followed by one of the most moving pieces, “Mufasa Dies”, and this one really is a requiem (the composer having listened to Brahms’s for inspiration).  The choral version of the main theme is just gorgeous.  The action which closes the piece is quite breathlessly exciting.

The theme which opens “If You Ever Come Back We’ll Kill You” is full of tragedy and sadness, more genuine emotion, followed by a lovely arrangement of the main theme sounding so intimate thanks to its minimal arrangement.  “Bowling for Buzzards” briefly features a big orchestral romp of the “Ride to Dubno” variety – odd, but somehow it works.  “Hakuna Matata” is the song for the comic relief – Nathan Lane’s meerkat and Ernie Sabella’s warthog – and it’s witty and charming (in small doses).

We’re back to murkier waters in “We’ve Got a Bone to Pick With You” but that doesn’t last long, sweetness and light the order of the day in the following “Kings of the Past”, with a distinctly heavenly air.  “Nala, Is It Really You?” includes a dynamic brassy melodic statement before calming into a sweet passage, the spirit of young friendship mixing with a couple of dollops of humour, leading nicely into the big ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” which is such a lovely song.

From that moment, Zimmer’s music takes on an appropriately epic sweep as it builds up to the film’s conclusion.  The eight-minute “Remember Who You Are” goes through a lot of ideas, gently inspirational (particularly the beautiful choral sections), most of the score’s main themes on show at some point.  “Busa” receives its first full-blown arrangement at the conclusion of the score, but it’s frustratingly brief (if only Zimmer had been able to put in an extended version at some point in the film – he did manage to get one onto his “Wings of a Film” compilation several years later); having said that, after a second’s break between tracks, it’s back again (and brief again) to open up the glorious “This Is My Home”, which packs quite an emotional punch.  Everything is wrapped up in the gargantuan finale, the twelve-minute “The Rightful King”, brilliantly effective in telling a story through music – journeying with rugged determination from distress to triumph (“through despair and hope, through faith and love” as some may say) leading to the rousing “Circle of Life” and then “Busa” finale.

This is a brilliant piece of work – everything about it.  John’s songs are all very good and a couple are exceptional; Zimmer’s score all the more effective through its continuity with the songs (not just thanks to the consistency which comes from him arranging their film versions, but also a few quotes from them within the score from time to time).  It’s one of the very best things Zimmer’s ever done, right up there with The Thin Red Line and Inception in terms of his triumphs (though obviously completely different from either in style).  Alan Meyerson deserves an award for his remastering of the music for the Legacy Collection release – there’s so much life to everything, so much more detail, in both the songs and score (there’s much more instrumental clarity here in Zimmer’s score in particular than ever heard on the previous albums).  Three of the songs were nominated for Oscars and it was the ballad that predictably won, but clearly “Circle of Life” was the most deserving; and Zimmer also walked home with his first and so far only statuette, a very well-earned one for sure.  The packaging is aimed far more at fans of the film than film music freaks (there are brief liner notes about the music by the film’s producer Don Hahn, along with beautiful stills from the animation process and all the lyrics.  I can’t believe that this mixture of orchestra, electronics, African vocals, occasional calypso rhythms, pan pipes and Elton John songs works so well as a package, but it does and that’s credit to Hans Zimmer.  It’s safe to say that The Lion King has finally received the release it deserves and this album is full of a joyous spirit which is simply a delight to experience.

Rating: *****

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  1. tiago (Reply) on Sunday 3 August, 2014 at 05:02

    ” It’s safe to say that The Lion King has finally received the release it deserves and this album is full of a joyous spirit which is simply a delight to experience.”

    Exactly. I always wanted an extended version of this soundtrack and, although there are many bootleg versions online, an official release would be better. This score is indeed one of Zimmer’s best and, between the film scores of 1994, I still prefer Thomas Newman’s wonderful “The Shawshank Redemption” (imagine what would be the film music world today if Newman had an Oscar and Zimmer don’t?), the Academy Award it received was well deserved.

    Now, let’s hope that DreamWorks has the same initiative and release a complete version of The Prince of Egypt.

  2. Bright Chen (Reply) on Sunday 3 August, 2014 at 05:54

    Finally, some well-earned love for Hans Zimmer’s 20th Century gem. DreamWorks should be taking huge note of this and give us the other Zimmer gem: Prince of Egypt in all its glory.

  3. Mr. Eff (Reply) on Sunday 3 August, 2014 at 09:15

    This score is certainly among Zimmer’s best and one of my personal favourites.

    I was a little bummed about the packaging not having an in-depth detailing about the whole score for us film music freaks. Had they gone through the trouble of doing so, I would have liked to finally find out what exactly that minor theme unofficially called by fans as the “Lala” theme(as that Rhythm of the Pride Lands called Lala and Endless Night are based on it) is meant to represent in the film. Despite having become some sort of motif to represent Simba’s inner turmoil, the majority of its use in the movie’s score itself seems to be for Simba and Nala’s friendship than that other idea.

    Still, despite that missed opportunity, this new release just oozes with such great quality that it’s forgivable.

  4. Palavar (Reply) on Sunday 3 August, 2014 at 22:45

    I’m in complete agreement with Tiago and Bright Chen. Great review!

  5. Michael McDaid (Reply) on Monday 4 August, 2014 at 02:07

    Great review. But you missed another Morricone film that Zimmer relies on in this score. The Mission theme shows up plenty of times in the score.

  6. Scott Mac (Reply) on Monday 4 August, 2014 at 16:20

    I was only slightly bummed that they didn’t include the hysterical and short “luau!” song from Timon.

    “Luau! If you’re hungry for a hunk of fat and juicy meat
    Eat my buddy Pumba here because he is a treat.
    Come on down and dine
    On this tasty swine
    All you gotta do is get in line!
    Are ya achin’
    For some bacon!
    He’s a big pig!
    You can be a big pig too. OOO!”

    A small niggle about an other outstanding album and score. Full marks!

  7. Michael McDaid (Reply) on Monday 4 August, 2014 at 21:11

    @Scott Mac. Actually that song is in the score. It’s between This is My Home and The Rightful King!!

    • Scott (Reply) on Monday 4 August, 2014 at 23:00

      How the heck did I miss that??!!! Thank you! I retract my comment. 100% perfect album!