• Ben Erickson

The Lion King


Dedicated to Hans Zimmer

The Lion King assumes a prodigious limelight as the latest in the expanding line of Disney live-action remakes, delivering a state of the art visual experience that will have you coming out of the theatre with a pressing need to call your dad. Directed by Jon Favreau, who also produced the live-action 2016 Jungle Book, the 2019 Lion King presents a virtual replica of the 1994 animated musical film (in some cases shot-for-shot), flush with familiar dialogue, characters, and songs. The score was made no exception, with Hans Zimmer reprising his role as lead composer in one of the most beloved works of his career. Unlike many of the Disney films I convinced myself to enjoy as a child, I truly cherished the original 1994 Lion King growing up. It was a cultural event that made Shakespeare's Hamlet accessible, a story that taught the value of responsibility to its viewers, and a film that praised the natural beauty of the earth. Even by today's standards the original holds up against criticism, while the 2019 Lion King, despite having an updated cast, still suffers from certain controversies. Namely, the fact that screenwriter Jeff Nathanson received sole credit when 90% of the script was already in existence; likely the easiest six-figure pay cheque he has ever made. Internal affairs notwithstanding, if you liked the original, you will like the live-action remake. To quote Hamlet, "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Zimmer was hired to compose the original 1994 Lion King score on the basis of two previous films involving African settings which he had worked on, The Power of One and A World Apart. The composer was joined by his partners Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, who assisted with arranging and song production, and the score was supplemented with traditional African music, courtesy of South African producer Lebo M. Already attached to the project were Elton John and Tim Rice, who together wrote five original songs for the film; "Circle of Life", "I Just Can't Wait to Be King", "Be Prepared", "Hakuna Matata", and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". That year The Lion King received nominations and accolades galore, taking home the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. It would go on to inspire sequel adventures, produce the stage musical adaptation, and influence countless films to come. This is the Hans Zimmer I fell in love with. In the time before everyone knew him for his work with Christopher Nolan on Inception, Interstellar, and The Dark Knight trilogy. A time when Zimmer had just started to make a name for himself, coming out of the '80s with Driving Miss Daisy and Thelma & Louise under his belt. A time when every score held exciting new promise waiting to be unlocked. The potential in The Lion King was boundless, and it gave the composer an opportunity to integrate authentic African performance techniques – a practice that was still largely unheard of at that time – with music on a level of high Shakespearean drama, using contrapuntal and harmonic expression that would fit comfortably in a tale of Arthurian legend, applied here to a universal context. The last remaining ingredient of the score came about of a personal tragedy suffered by the composer, the death of his father. It has long been confirmed by Zimmer that The Lion King was written as a requiem for his late father, the last cruel motivation to be felt in its beautifully devastating musical arc. The 2019 Lion King score is, in effect, a remastered version of the original, using greater depth of orchestration and taking the cultural authenticity of the music further by replacing the predominantly synthetic components with live musicians, such as the percussive synths that were newly performed by a drum circle. Augmenting the regular session players at the Sony scoring stage was the Re-Collective Orchestra, consisting principally of African-American performers out of New York and totalling 107 musicians altogether. The ensemble was led at the podium by Nick Glennie-Smith, a frequent collaborator who has provided additional music for several feature films composed by Zimmer. The new score was orchestrated by Bruce Fowler, while Mark Mancina returned to assist with the arrangements. Also returning as the African music consultant was Lebo M, who spent a good deal of time recording excerpts in Africa and of course provided the vocals once again for the opening call in "Circle of Life". Choral contractor Edie Lehmann Boddicker assembled a 48-voice choir for the large-scale vocal set pieces of the score, subsisting of a smaller, mainly African-American vocal ensemble to record the more intimate choral excerpts separately. And brought on board to produce most of the recognizable Elton John/Tim Rice songs was Pharrell Williams, with two original songs written for the feature, Beyoncé's "Spirit" and Elton John's "Never Too Late". That anyone could come out of "Circle of Life" without feeling geared up for the rest of the film seems impossible. A faded shot leads us into the early morning of the plains as a quiet stillness baits the viewer, and then all at once the sun pierces the horizon and Lebo M's rapturous cry fills the air. The choir answers, summoning the congregation of animals even as we are drawn in by the visual splendour of the African savanna, swiftly taking up the Zulu chant beneath. Their mantra clears the way for the deep vocals of Broadway actress Lindiwe Mkhize, replacing Carmen Twillie's original take with an affectionate, nurturing grace. Mkhize has performed the role of Rafiki in two musical productions of The Lion King.

Zulu Chant Nants' Ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama Siyo Nqoba Ingonyama nengw' enambala "Here comes a lion, Father Oh yes, it's a lion[...]"

For the most part the remaining songs from the original were done justice by the new cast, with JD McCrary killing it as the young Simba in "I Just Can't Wait to Be King", some amusing banter between Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan as Timon and Pumbaa respectively in "Hakuna Matata" (definitely no auto-tune there), and a stunning duet between Beyoncé and Donald Glover in "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". Glover offers a sincere, bashful, and robust Simba, with pleasant harmonies joining Beyoncé's aggressively 'Beyoncé' portrayal of Nala. Though a different cue had already been written for the montage in which Simba and Nala travel back to the Pride Lands together, Zimmer's only response when Beyoncé sent "Spirit" was, "how can you say no when a masterpiece is sent to you?" The only song from the original to experience significant change in the 2019 remake was "Be Prepared". This went from one of the greatest villain songs of all time, complete with growling drones, hyena yowls, and creeping, chromatic bass lines, to a monologue. It could be this was done for a couple of reasons; conceivably the previously defined structure of the song was sacrificed to fit the live-action 'realism' of the mise-en-scène, or maybe Chiwetel Ejiofor is not much of a singer? Unfortunately, speaking in rhythm is not the same thing as singing, and I cannot imagine I was the only disappointed listener to come out of "Be Prepared". Contrary to this, hearing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in the film was wonderfully entertaining, providing an additional performance for Eichner and Rogen. The song was originally composed and recorded by Soloman Linda under the title "Mbube" in 1939, written with Zulu texts and used for the 1994 Lion King film and subsequent musical, for which Disney later suffered a law suit claiming $1.6 million in royalties. In the remake, Timon and Pumbaa blissfully skip through the jungle singing to their heart's content, joined by a small host of the animal kingdom that 'play' with their hooves, yelps, and forest instruments before being rudely interrupted by Nala. A separate recording of "Mbube" was recorded for the end credits, performed by Lebo M. A lot of what makes the musical palette of The Lion King so earthy and inherently African comes from the varied instruments used, both in the songs and the score. Following the title sequence in "Circle of Life", we are met by mbira and kalimba in bright, playful poly-rhythms bouncing off one another ("Life's Not Fair"), just as one might hear in their native country. Shortly after the mouse enters the shot lingering strings are joined by a flute, anticipating the intro to "I Just Can't Wait to Be King". Flutes play an especially important role in The Lion King, and since its conception the stage musical has been blessed by longtime flautist Darlene Drew, who regularly uses over a dozen different timbres to communicate the diversity of its surroundings. Among these are the Indian bansuri flute, the Chinese dizi flute, woodwinds from Romania, Ireland, and a few other distant corners of the world, assembled as one for the cradle of life setting. It would be a surprise to learn Drew was not involved in the 2019 score on some level. The cue to follow, "Rafiki's Fireflies", introduces the Peruvian bamboo flute alongside a rainstick, shakers, crotales, vibraphone, harp, and wind chimes, all for the wizened baboon. We get a sense of the rest of the orchestra here for the first time too with the recapitulation of Simba's theme, reinforcing its progress with celli, double bass, and near-devotional choir. The remaining orchestra members heard throughout include violin, viola, clarinet, oboe, trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba, timpani, xylophone, marimba, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, bongo, and tubular bells among others, living for the most part in E-flat minor. "Elephant Graveyard" arrives shortly after to establish the other principle themes in the score; most notably the Bravery theme and Mufasa's theme. The Lion King presents a multitude of unique musical themes, and before this review is over all of these will be touched on, but three above all constitute the 'core of the score', so to speak; Simba's theme, Mufasa's theme, and the Bravery theme. What is more, each of these main themes are made up of binary period phrases, which is to say that their melodies receive repetitious treatment halfway through each theme before resolving, which I have demonstrated in the excerpts below by bisecting each theme with a new system. Additionally, all of these themes employ a one beat pick-up in the melody with stable harmonies beneath, and by unifying the value of this pick-up across each of the major themes the transitions from one theme to another were made fluid and seamless. A good example of this can be heard in "Reflections of Mufasa" around 3:27 when the Bravery theme enters. The Bravery theme is followed directly by Mufasa's theme, as so often happens in the score due to their close relationship with one another, and at the cadence of Mufasa's theme we are introduced to a three-bar coda that acts doubly as a transition into Simba's theme. This coda can be heard again in "Remember", serving the same function as a transitional device between the changing meters.

The Bravery theme, so named here due to its association with the scene in which Mufasa teaches Simba about the meaning of bravery ("Elephant Graveyard"), makes its first appearance as Mufasa fends off the prowling hyenas from the cubs toward the beginning of the film. Its entry is bold and swift, moving fearlessly in tandem with Mufasa as he works his way toward the cubs and mirroring his pace with rapidly falling thirty-second note rhythms. Outside of its solemn and dignified appearance during Mufasa's instruction to his son, the Bravery theme returns in a big way toward the end of the film as Simba faces off against his uncle Scar ("Battle for Pride Rock"). Around the 9:00 mark in the cue the two adult males duke it out for rule over the Pride Lands as a slow, powerful rendition of the melody is performed by choir and brass amidst the crashing might of their slow-motion capture bodies.

Mufasa's theme above all, I suspect, was actuated by the death of Zimmer's father. It is one of the few plausible explanations for a melody of such palpable and explicit tragedy. That, and because Zimmer is reported to have been listening to Brahms' Requiem for inspiration at the time. For many kids growing up with The Lion King, Mufasa's end in the gorge was their introduction to the concept of death. The disconnect initially experienced by Simba, and the understanding to follow, presented a deep sense of loss seldom traversed in cinema before, and it offered Zimmer an opportunity to explore an incredibly vulnerable and (hopefully) cathartic path of composition that brought real heart to the music.


The dual phrasing again allowed for melodic expression such that its contour in the initial phrase could rise over the second barline to the upper tonic, travelling a sixth against contrary motion in the lower voices within the span of a single beat to create perhaps one of the most yearning musical gestures ever written for film. The second phrase answers by quickly resigning to the lower octave tonic, nearly always doubled a sixth below, and joined often by an arpeggiated bass line. Its most harrowing delivery can be heard three minutes into "Stampede" as Mufasa fights against the herd within the gorge, where the choir literally cries in admonishment for the noble king, returning again at 5:50 of the same cue on strings and woodwind amid his passing. "Reflections of Mufasa" contains another remarkable statement of the theme when Mufasa's spirit returns to communicate with his son, joining the low rumble of the rolling clouds.

Simba's theme is in a number of ways the simplest of the three, written in common time and using a great deal of stepwise motion, with the odd leap of a fourth and fifth, and it is for this very reason that its association with the protagonist is made unmistakably clear. It is also the most pervasive theme of the score, undergoing manifold variations in orchestration and ending, interestingly, on the dominant. The missing sense of resolution here plays a role however as Simba's theme regularly leads into other portions of the score, and when it does not do so the half cadence provides an open path for our protagonist to grow. The tempo of the melody has much to say as well. Just looking at Simba's ascension as king of the Pride Lands we can see how it matches pace with his steps ("Remember"), elucidating his literally growth into the theme. One last point of interest can be heard in that Simba's theme is usually written in G-flat major, the relative key to E-flat minor, developing tonally out of Mufasa's theme, and it is similarly doubled a sixth below much of the time; thus the father – as is his spirit claims – is always with the son. There are three subsidiary themes detailed in the score too, though their associations with particular ideas or objects within the story are less apparent than the themes already discussed. The melody first heard about halfway through "Elephant Graveyard" as Mufasa prepares to reprimand his son is probably the most ambiguous in this sense, comprised of two distinct phrases that are not always performed in tandem and defined by its use of dotted eighth-note articulations. The melody can be heard in full during Scar's speech to the pride following Mufasa's death ("Scar Takes the Throne"), and a third time when the pride overruns the hyenas in "Battle for the Pride Lands". The initial phrase represents disappointment and fear of failure to a degree, exhibited in Mufasa's fear for his son or the pride's fear of leadership under Scar, whereas the second phrase is capable of both welling this fear within the narrative or overcoming it. Replete with chromatic dissent and a wary rhythmic advance, this 'fear' melody presents the musical antithesis to the Bravery theme within the score.

Next in prominence is the lament, written as two consecutive melodic sequences, the first descending and the second ascending. The lament melody is introduced in "Stampede" as Simba grieves for his father, using bittersweet woodwinds in the second half that swell over each barline with excruciating beauty. It is performed twice afterward, first in "Simba Is Alive!" as Rafiki contemplates the state of the Pride Lands, and second in "Reflections of Mufasa". If any share of the score were to be attributed to Nick Glennie-Smith as arranger it would have to be this, using orchestrations and techniques akin to the composer's style (in this case the sequential element).

Lastly we have the 'anguish' melody, a tortured, grieving profile led almost exclusively by the full chorus. The melody can be heard in "Stampede" around the 2:50 mark and several times in the climactic "Battle for Pride Rock", usually carrying the terrified, desperate howls of the chorus over into Mufasa's theme. It is given a redemptive, dignified airing on brass in this latter cue as Simba saves himself from Scar's deceitful assassination attempt. The extraordinary leap of a sixth early on, a recurring element within the score, gives the theme an especially desperate quality, informing the viewer of the inherent danger of the moment.

The two large-scale musical set pieces of the score are naturally "Stampede" and "Battle for Pride Rock". "Stampede" enters just before the wildebeests are seen running into the gorge on abrupt, sharp violins, announcing the charge to a frenzied and raucous chorus that egg it on. This cue, without question, contains some of the best action music Zimmer has ever written, throwing furious percussion into the mix that evokes the urgent danger of the situation. A similarly wild confusion can be heard in "Reflections of Mufasa" alongside purring flutes as Rafiki guides Simba to his father. It is in "Stampede" that we are furthermore introduced to the revolving semitone portending Scar's casting of Mufasa from the cliff, with a stinger chord arriving at the precise moment of Scar's betrayal. "Battle for Pride Rock" continues the fight with the return of the prodigal son, heating up at the entry of the Dies irae chant around 1:56 on a string ostinato. The Dies irae chant is the boy who cried wolf of film music, mistakenly identified time and again over the years throughout the medium, but here its character holds true, highlighting the storm and the ensuing epochal assault. Shortly after we hear once more the revolving semitone as Scar attempts to discard Simba in the same manner as his father. This is followed by goofy, oom-pah tuba rhythms when Pumbaa assaults the hyenas, incensed running string lines repeated against violent percussion, and a gallant statement of Simba's theme signifying nature's resistance at Rafiki's arrival, all the while aided by the spirit of Mufasa when his theme is taken up by heroic brass. The cue ends at Scar's demise, using an accelerating tempo and descending bass line that resolves to a low C. Each of the main themes is given a final, glorious performance in "Remember" after the Pride Lands have been restored, with a joyous chant immediately following Simba's theme. The complete performance of this brief excerpt is a traditional African song known as "Busa", named for the Mande language and used several times in the 1994 Lion King. It is likely this complete cue that was discarded in favour of Beyoncé's "Spirit", and much as the replacement made for a satisfying update it would have been nice had the re-recorded version been included as a bonus feature on the soundtrack album. An unexpectedly inclusion on the soundtrack was "He Lives in You", which listeners may recognize either from the musical or The Lion King II: Simba's Pride. After the excerpted chant we come full circle with "Circle of Life", closing the score as it had begun.

Busa Chant { Chorus } Busa le lizwe bo Busa lomhlaba wethu Busa ngo thando Busa ngo xolo "Rule this land Rule this land of ours Rule with love Rule with peace" { Lebo M } Shwele baba Siyakubongela Usi lethel' injabulo Noxolo Liqhakazise baba Ngo thando "Hail to you, Father

We are grateful to you

Your brought us happiness

And peace


Brighten our future

With love"

Say what you will about the Disney Renaissance, The Lion King is an incredible achievement, visually and musically. This score goes beyond nostalgia for me, because at the end of the day it is some of the richest music I was exposed to growing up. And the 2019 live-action remake presents a rare opportunity among film scores in that the music has been updated according to modern practices. An equivalent to how one might react to a new recording of a favourite piece in the concert repertoire. This was basically a concert after all, with all of those fervent string lines recorded in a single day, and though the story of The Lion King may not be as original as we all thought at its 1994 release (look up Kimba the White Lion for more on this) the music sure as hell was. The score is, in every way, a lesson on music and emotion; a classic case where we are not told how to think, but how to feel, and its visceral honesty has been renewed for the next generation. For this reason alone I am endlessly grateful. Thank you, Hans. #HansZimmer



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