The Music Of 'The Lion King': Exploring The Many People Who Brought One Of The Greatest Soundtracks Ever To Life

With John Favreau's hybrid of plate photography and CGI characters bringing The Lion King back to screen, it's a perfect opportunity to look at the key personnel who helped bring the indelible songs from the film to life. Some are famous, some less so, and some were left out of the narrative until recently. Since the original landed in 1994, this music has become part of a new pop song canon, playing for decades on Broadway and continuing to enthrall new generations.When the film was released, this was a breakthrough for Disney. The film was the first animated feature in the studio's history not based on an existing property, a rarity even by today's standards as evidenced by the fact that their entire slate seems to be remakes, sequels or prequels of familiar titles. Drawing from many references, especially Hamlet, the film was shepherded by many of the same that brought Beauty and the Beast to the screen, and along with Aladdin and  Little Mermaid convinced the world that the studio was once again the home to classic, timeless animated extravaganzas. The film had strong story, fantastic visuals, but above all an infectious soundtrack made by some exceptional talent.Here are some of those that helped give rise to the music of The Lion King.

Tim Rice 

A giant within the industry but hardly a household name like his musical collaborators, Rice began his career as the wordsmith for Andrew Lloyd Webber, crafting a children's choral version of a Biblical story into Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The duo followed that up with another liturgical spin with Jesus Christ Superstar, an unabashedly funky masterpiece that shifts the story of the Passion to Judas' perspective, as the tortured man struggles with his faith in his friend and the belief that he is leading his people astray. Evita soon followed, another monster hit, which led to the splitting of ways for the collaborators.Rice soon teamed up with Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the B-boys of ABBA's anagram, for the English version of their play Chess that's set during the Cold War. With a hit single "One Night In Bangkok", this was another big success for the lyricist. Rice joined the Disney fold after tragedy – Howard Ashman, the lyricist behind Mermaid and Beast, died at age 40 having partially completed the songs for Aladdin. Rice was brought in to collaborate with the music written by Ashman's long-time collaborator Ashman, and the two helped continue Disney's record of success.Rice was brought in early on the Lion King project (which gestated for almost a decade), originally suggesting the ABBA guys be brought along to help with the songs. When they declined, he made the suggestion of a certain British icon to help make the score roar.

Elton John

The most famous of the original collaborators, the artist formerly known as Reginald Dwight spent the 1970s, as referenced in Rocketman, providing five percent of global music sales, this at the height of audience consumption. It's a preposterous global success, only outdone by his comeback of sorts with this Disney project he became involved with.Elton's career has had more lives than any (jungle) cat, and by the late 80s and into the 90s he was clean, sober, and still finding the top of the charts with songs like "Sacrifice". Approached by Rice, he agreed to join the project, having been a big fan of films like Jungle Book where the songs lived even bigger outside the context of the ostensibly child-oriented entertainment. Elton's gift for melodicism is unparalleled, and his style, particularly then, made for highly orchestrated ballads or fluffy pop. "Circle of Life", "Be Prepared", "I Just Can't Wait to be King", "Hakuna Matata" and the Oscar winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". The later song is performed by John over the 1994 film's closing credits, and it's instantly recognizable within the context of his other tunes. There are plenty of his trademark motifs, with a rise/fall structure, diatonic slash chords and an exquisite moment of modulation that lifts the last chorus. It's pure Elton John, through and through, and instantly different than the style as sung by the characters in the movie. On deluxe editions of the soundtrack the other Elton version are intact – check out his iteration of "I Just Can't Wait to be King" ( with its four-on-the-floorbeat, powerchord emphasis, and digeridoo like bass element. It's not a far cry from, say, "I'm Still Standing", and works on its own as a bit of fun pop perfect blaring from a radio on a beach.It would take others, however, to take this as a building block for something more fitting in a Savanah setting.As a bit of a bonus, during the credits of Favreau's film Elton sings his latest collaboration with Rice, "Never Too Late", a decent if innocuous contribution to the 2019 soundtrack, the "oh, ohhh" that closes the chorus immediately evocative of hits like "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" that he performed with Kiki Dee. 

Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin

When I first encountered Hans Zimmer's music it was for the soundtracks to The Power of One and the marimba theme from True Romance. This was a post-Graceland period, and following Paul Simon's foray there was an ongoing personal fascination with the contemporary rhythms and harmonies coming from Southern Africa. Zimmer's renown is almost as big as Elton's, and he's helped defined the last decades of film scoring. His collaboration with longtime friend Rifkin has been strong, but it's his collaboration Mancina's contribution that most enthralls.Mancina's name is unknown to many, but for me he's the secret and absolutely key ingredient in much of Disney's incredible track record of taking songs and making them part of the world of the movie. His talent, thrown away deep in the credits as "arranger", takes what Elton and Tim wrote and adds the flourish. Done poorly, this "Africanization" could come across as trite or even insulting, but by incorporating new themes, rhythms and other elements the song takes on a completely different life after going through the hands of these immensely talented musicians.Take the new film version of "Can't Wait To Be King" in contrast to Elton's production. First, the rhythm evokes almost a 5/4 cadence, hinting at the same origins that gave us the Afro-Cuban clave, and adding instrumentation of woodblock, flutes, finger pianos and more to give it a sub-Saharan vibe. Most indelibly, however, is that opening hook, that "da da da da daa da – da da da daa" that lifts the entire song. Notably this is entirely absent in Elton's version, and for my money this is the greatest, most infectious part of the song added not by the original songwriter by these tireless arrangers that take something great and help make it greater.This is the stuff in which earworms are born, and that hook is probably the most insistent, incessant and tonally perfect for the purposes of the project in the entire Lion King score.Mancina's other Disney credits include doing the exact same thing he did with Elton for two other superstars – In Tarzan he makes Phil Collins' songs feel like they're swinging in a jungle, and with Moana he helped shower Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway leanings with Polynesian spice. Along with other long time Zimmerians like Bruce and Tom Fowler (monster players themselves, schooled by duties in Zappa's band and now in charge of conducting many of Hans' scores), this close knit musical team is what takes these superstar pop elements and grafts them into the theatrical context, expanding themes through lush orchestration or evoking through a simply rhythmic element exactly the mood and environ that the visuals are evoking.

Lebohang Morake

While Mancina, Zimmer and even Elton can in their own ways evoke the music of Southern Africa, it's clear the most direct connection between these sounds in the music of The Lion King can be found in the producer/composer credited as Lebo M. Exiled to the U.S. from his Apartheid-riddle homeland when he was in his teens, Lebo contributed massively, particularly with the choral parts and other arranged elements. It's perhaps indicative of the power of his contribution that merely hearing him sing in Zulu the call to Pride Rock ("Nants' ingonyama bagithi Baba | Sithi uhm ingonyama") immediately brings us into the fictional world of Simba, Nala and the residents of the Pride Lands. This warrior-like chant feels both ancient and timeless, and thanks to the sweeping score that follows sets up the opening images as profoundly as any visual motif.Lebo collaborated with Zimmer on Power of One as well, and his collaboration with Rifkin, Mancina and Zimmer on "Rhythm of the Pridelands" formed a kind of musical sequel to the original film. Just as James Earl Jones' vocal contribution was wisely seen as irreplaceable, It's Lebo's fine voice that still calls audiences to attention to the 2019 version, seemingly as strong as ever decades on from the original recording. 

Solomon Ntsele  (aka “Solomon Linda”)

In 1939 the employee of a record company (he packed up the finished product) was granted time in front of a microphone. He improvised a song about a Lion ("Mbube" in Zulu), on the third track adding a gliding vocal call that served as counterpoint to the repeating phrase sung by the rest of the singers. The single eventually released crediting Linda along with his backing group the Evening Birds. Sold for a couple dollars back to the record company, the song would go on to be a huge local success.Decades after, famed musicologist Alan Lomax gave the recording to Pete Seger who would perform it as a "traditional" song of South Africa, retitling the song to "Wimoweh", a misapprehension of the original word. In 1961 an otherwise unremarkable group named The Tokens recorded a version that had new English lyrics penned by George David Weiss. Following Linda's improvised vocal line, he added the lines "In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle, the Lion Sleeps Tonight". What followed was decades of lawsuits (detailed in several documentaries on the subject, including 2019's The Lion's Share on Netflix), but it was actually Disney's inclusion of the song as a throwaway moment in both the film and the musical that eventually resulted in the rights being firmly decided (if continuing to cause controversy in Linda's native land). A simple, pure song that was immediately removed from the artist who first sang it, you have almost a century of music ownership, greed and exploitation by many sides of the issue embodied in this one track. Linda died a year after the Tokens released their version. He was near penniless, and never knew that the music of his land would continue to echo decades upon decades after he stepped in front of that mic and changed music history.

Pharell Williams

The multitalented musician/producer/designer also has collaborated many times with Zimmer, and he was tasked with producing the vocal performances on the 2019 recording. Save for some newly added melismatic flourishes by Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter there aren't many overtly new features to the production that differ greatly from the original, save for an end credit "Lion Sleeps Tonight" with plenty of Lebo M's choral mastery on display.   


Other than the new song from Elton the other new addition for 2019 (surely meant to be used for an Oscar push) is "Sprit". It's credited to Beyoncé, Ilya Salmanzadeh and Timothy McKenzie (the end credits show that Rice/John haven't played a role, even if the Wiki page has yet to be corrected), evocative far more of diasporic African American Gospel tropes than the rest of the Southern Africa-styled score. It's a fine bit of contemporary pop, providing the requisite fierceness and infectious joy people have come to expect from this megastar. The piano drop with her high-octave leap is particularly strong, and this sucker for quartertone modulation digs that quite a lot. Still, it does kind of feel tacked on, likely working better in a different project.Who, however, would  dare have the temerity to be even tangentially churlish about anything done by Ms. B? It's a fine track, to be sure, and if anything I could see it becoming one of the more covered songs (and in turn immortalized at Karaoke bars and TV Talent shows) associated with Lion King.