Whether we want to admit it or not, Hans Zimmer is the most influential film composer of the past twenty years. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the New Age wailing vocals of Gladiator, earth-shattering power anthems of late 90’s action standards, the propulsive simplistic action ostinatos of the Dark Knight trilogy - almost every trend can be traced back to him. And that in itself is a major achievement. One of such staples was the usage of quasi-African vocal elements in film music Everyone from Jerry Goldsmith to James Newton Howard at some point in their careers copied that approach, and while The Lion King is not the first score to utilise this kind of device (not even in Zimmer’s repertoire), the aftershocks after its release could be felt within the filmmaking community. Not to mention millions of albums sold and Academy Awards for both songs and score.
The music has become so popular, even among Zimmer-haters, that it easily became a beloved work among soundtrack collectors. It's then really surprising to learn that the project as heard in the film (and on disc) isn’t exactly what composer had in mind while composing it. After two decades, Disney announced the the release of the expanded and remastered album that would kick off the new series of soundtrack releases from various classic features. Fans of this work eagerly awaited this kind of treatment, given how the original music got shortchanged on the original presentation from 1994. Little did they expect that the sound remastering would mean more than clearing up a few details. Indeed, The Legacy Collection edition of The Lion King is a major restoration and re-imagining of what we heard back in 1994.
Zimmer always had a tendency to amplify and “flesh out” his orchestral ensemble with synthesizer doublings, so the somewhat artificial sound of the original mix wasn’t much of a surprise. That version, however, wasn’t exactly what he intended for this film and a lot of initial and unfinished demo elements made their way into the finished film. That meant a lot of the “real” instruments captured during recording sessions never made it into the film, to the apparent disappointment of the composer. With the aid of frequent collaborator Alan Meyerson, he restored his original intentions for the purpose of the new album and the differences are often staggering. We can now hear completely new details and the score as composed reveals new details and layers. Vocal elements have also been completely remixed. They were already a major presence within the film version, but never quite to this extent. All the Elton John songs also received a fundamental facelift, although probably to a slightly lesser extent.
The music itself needs no introduction. It is one of the most successful merging of songs and original score in the post-Disney Renaissance era in which both areas were divided between different artists, unlike the usual Alan Menken treatment. The only project that could even approach this level of success was Tarzan by Mark Mancina and Phil Collins, released some years later. The two elements work together so well that it comes as no surprise that Hans’ team was also responsible for the arrangement of Elton John's material and turning it all into a seamless whole.
The score is rich in thematic material and melodies. From the weighty hymnal tunes worthy of royal figure (‘Kings of the Past’ and ‘Mufasa Dies’), to the comical relief of Timon and Pumba (‘Bowling for Buzzards’), through the Lebo M-led vocals of celebration (highlighted especially towards the end of the picture). The comical, but at the same time, ominous hyenas theme occupies largely the films first half (‘Hyenas in the Pride Land’) and many of those statements were removed from the film or drowned in the mix. Pan flute, while in such incarnation culturally largely unrelated to the locale, serves as the main instrument of choice to depict the Pride Land and the fact that this time we hear an actual live performances, and not their synthesised counterpart, is very refreshing.
Hans Zimmer’s score is also highlighted by many action cues, such as the iconic ‘Stampede’, ‘Nala, Is That Really You’ and ‘Elephant Graveyard’. The material from that last one is later reprised at the end of ‘Mufasa Dies’ and enhanced with hyena-like vocal laughing effects from the chorus. The extended climax of the film is a powerhouse of its own, multiple resolutions taking place. The surprising cameo of Dies Irae helps to add the sense of desperate urgency to the scene where Scar publicly accuses Simba of Mufasa’s death. His own demise is punctuated by horrific choral reprise of Hyena material.
While discussing the music of The Lion King we can’t forget about Elton John's’ contributions to the project. ‘Circle of Life’ is a major setpiece that opens the film and serves almost as an anthem to Pride Land. 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ became a pop ballad standard, largely due to its pop version being ever-present on the radio. It is also worth pointing out that in the film Simba’s adult singing voice was provided by none other than Joseph Williams (John Williams’ son), and the melody itself is quoted by Zimmer briefly at the end of ‘Hyenas In The Pride Land’ in a scene where Zazu informs both kids of the matrimonial plans for them being already arranged. The three remaining songs are more comical in nature and serve to flesh out the characters and plot points (‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’, ‘Be Prepared’ and ‘Hakuna Matata’). The campy performance in Jeremy Irons’ piece is less about singing and more about acting, but the interesting arrangements make it work. ‘The Morning Report’, unused in the original film but resurrected for Broadway show and subsequent DVD releases, has been thankfully moved to the bonus section, as it stands apart quality-wise from the rest and doesn’t add much to the story.
The complete score and songs are presented chronologically on disc one, while the second one is devoted to score demos and early versions of songs, which is where we can find the pop versions of Elton John material. The liner notes don’t go into much detail on how the score was put together and they are mostly aimed at the casual audience, not as interested in technicalities of film scoring. However, the interesting packaging (in a form of a hardcover book) is pleasant to look at.
Overall, The Lion King stands as a towering achievement in Hans Zimmer’s filmography. The careful balancing of synthesisers and acoustic instrumentation, memorable themes, all augmented by absolutely gorgeous choral material - all those elements together are hard to resist. The entire package is a one big joyful celebration of life and the complete presentation flows just beautifully as a pure listening experience. On a more personal note, the original 1994 album was the very first soundtrack album to be purchased by this reviewer. This Legacy Collection release marks then his own 20th anniversary of film music collecting. It’s hard to imagine a better present for this occasion.
The Lion King: The Legacy Collection is available now from Walt Disney Records