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THE LION KING
Exceptional album teems with the spirit of Africa
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Score composed by
Songs written by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2003 The Walt Disney Company; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall.
The Disney revival of the early 1990s was fueled 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 A-list 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, and the music was a vital part of its success.
Where it comes together so well is that Zimmer didn't just write the score, he also arranged John's songs for the movie, so even though they are composed by different people, there is a wonderful unity to the music. The African sounds (Lebo M played his part) make the movie simply teem with the spirit of the savannah, a glorious achievement for all concerned, and the composers were all rewarded with well-deserved Oscars. Sadly the soundtrack album didn't do justice to Zimmer's score, relegating it to just fifteen minutes, and even this special edition which followed for the 10th anniversary edition of the movie didn't add any more (though there is plenty of room for more music), instead adding in a song which had been dropped from the original cut of the movie, and a remix of one of John's pop arrangements.
All of the songs are lumped together at the start of the album before the score suite and then John's pop versions of his songs. "Circle of Life" is the grand opening, and in its film arrangement is simply outstanding. The vocal (by Carmen Twillie) is powerful and moving, the song arranged simply perfectly from the portentous Lebo M opening through to its thunderous final note. It should have been the Oscar-winner instead of the ballad "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" - but no matter. It's simply a tremendous track.
The other songs are all very fine too. "I Just Can't Wait to be King" is a cute little piece for the young lion at the heart of the story; "Be Prepared" a great villain's song, performed with gusto by Jeremy Irons; "Hakuna Matata" an amusing duet between the film's comic relief, a warthog voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella's meerkat. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" - despite what I said above - is a truly lovely love song. The new song added back in for the special edition is "The Morning Report", somewhat disposable compared with the others, but still nice to have. It seems to have never been properly-recorded for the film before being dropped, so the version here (and in the 10th anniversary version of the film) was newly-recorded for the purpose. Rowan Atkinson didn't provide the vocals as he did in the first place (including in the second song on this album) but Jeff Bennett does a very good impression of him.
The score gets going with the inspirational "This Land", one of Zimmer's most impressive pieces. It has the cheap brass sound associated with everything he's done (just how does he make brass sound so awful?) but is otherwise just outstanding, with expansive choral writing underpinning the orchestra, hugely-effective in suggesting the vast expanse of central Africa; and the piece concludes with a brief burst of "Busa", an African chant by Zimmer and Lebo M. "...To Die For" is flat-out action music, quite dark, and unique in Zimmer's canon in the way it uses screeching chorus to great effect. Action music is something he's done well in his time - and this is as good as he's got. It concludes with another great theme, a darker one this time, but really very beautiful.
"Under the Stars" is just as beautiful as its name suggests, with another wonderful African song incorporated into the score. I've been heavily-critical of Zimmer over the years for his various indiscretions, but when everything comes together as here, it's a joy to behold. The score concludes with "King of Pride Rock", the most traditional piece of film scoring here, and even this is a cut-above your typical animated score. It reprises several of the themes from the previous tracks, and ultimately just leaves one wanting more. The rousing climax to the cue, with Zimmer's "Busa" and then a brief reprise of "Circle of Life", is enough to make the hairs on your neck stand on end.
The album concludes with the Elton John performances of three of the songs - which are are very charming pop ballads, but do seem slightly out of place when put alongside the magnificence of the rest of the disc. Still, they're fine for what they are. This is a glorious album, one of the finest to come from an animated movie, representing a supreme creative achievement for all concerned. This really is an essential part of any film music collection.