The Lion King Original Soundtrack
he Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
This isn't about The Lion King the movie, but let's make a sketch so we know what we're dealing with. The Lion King is one of the most carefully formulated artifacts in the history of laboratories, a target-marketed movie whose target is humanity. Of the four big movies of Disney's â€�90s renaissance it's my favorite, but those who hate it have good reason: as the first Disney movie not based on a specific story (this clumsy formulation used because "original" would be a stretch) it's always on-message, relentless in its Campbellian button-pushing. Ironed as it was, Beauty and the Beast remained spattered with shadows; the only shadows in The Lion King are the ones Robert McKee said should be there.
It's peculiar that this should be Disney's contribution to the Diamond list: Beauty and the Beast had been a comparable hit two years earlier, with a soundtrack decidedly meatier than this one and the played-up involvement of A Name (I know it seems everyone hates Celine Dion, but someone's paying to see her every damn night in Vegas). The Lion King, one of Disney's skimpier musicals, only had five songs, so the record's dry by the twenty-minute mark, left with a lot of Hans Zimmer score nobody bought this album to hear.
Its solution is to close with alternate versions of three of the songs, all sung by Elton John, which sound like the Magnetic Fields declaring bankruptcy. The original versions of "Circle of Life," "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" (all three with music credited to John) take the steel-drums-and-chanting route to exoticism, and it works well, especially on film, where "Circle of Life" provides the grandest entrance ever for a studio never given to dramatic modesty. Elton scales the track down to the lower end of synth-pop listlessness as if the radio's no place for rapture, and replaces the Swahili bits with rock-n-roll clichĂ©s that nevertheless echo The Lion King's most peculiar lesson: "Some of us fall by the wayside / And some of us soar to the stars" is the kind of line we're used to, so its relationship to a movie about a character living up to responsibilities conferred on him at birthâ€”for a few months in 1995 Disney forgot its devotion to the tabula rasaâ€”is easy to miss. But The Lion King's as Calvinist as the blues; it's just it's about the winners, which the blues tends to regard as improper.
For this reason it's not "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"â€”certainly the reason this record qualifies for this essayâ€”that stands as John's finest contribution. Amongst the three retooled tracks it's beaten narrowly by his reworking of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," which replaces Rowan Atkinson and squeaky kids with, basically, "Crocodile Rock," and deftly compensates for the loss of contextâ€”it's written for an inexperienced and obviously spoiled princeâ€”by pumping up the jaunty humor until it's impossible to take the narrator seriously; the song becomes a metaphor, and we don't begrudge Elton his title. As for the soundtrack proper, it's a toss-up between pop-culture fixture "Hakuna Matata," certainly the film's most showtuney showtune, featuring Nathan Lane and a horn solo meatier than anything in John's radio reworkings; and "Be Prepared," which for those of us born at the right time remains the highlight of Jeremy Irons' career, if only because it's the most breathless creation of the plot juggernaut admired above. Actually, I lied about the toss-up: "Hakuna Matata" confirms that the only thing dumber than a fart joke is a meta-fart-joke, while "Be Prepared" is Richard III doing cabaret. The lyrics are Tim Rice's, not Elton John's, but if "Hakuna Matata" is "Philadelphia Freedom" sung by a meerkat, "Be Prepared" is "Benny and the Jets" sung by Benny, its self-regard as total and eloquent as a rock star's.
It's a strange record, this, stranger than I rememberedâ€”shifting noisily from block to block of its menu, repeating itself in desperationâ€”and it's a fitting accompaniment to The Lion King, if only because its confusion throws the film's gorgeous, heartless confidence into relief. When it ends, with John's Grammy-winning rewrite of the Oscar-winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," the song's cavalcade of self-applied metaphorsâ€”kings, vagabonds, starcrossed voyagers, the "twisting kaleidoscope" John suddenly confuses with the circle of lifeâ€”it's strangely satisfying for an album so sparse and strangely solid for one so tenuous. That it went diamond is a surprise, but amidst the last volley of great traditional Disney films an appropriately mystical one. No doubt it's got something to do with circles.