This month’s remake of The Lion King knows what it wants to be: the exact thing as the 1994 version, but glossier. With now-iconic characters, a sharp wit, and a memorable soundtrack provided by Elton John, the original Lion King has a legacy that left little room for improvement. The movie’s $188 million opening weekend tells us everything about how the film is regarded 25 years later.
But in the early ’90s, during Disney’s Broadway-worthy fairy tale boom, no one working on the original movie had a clue what the The Lion King would look or sound like. First pitched in 1988, the tone of the movie was in constant flux in the years leading to release. Which is why, at least for some stretch of development, The Lion King was almost an ABBA musical.
In the early stages of deciding the music, composer Tim Rice contacted the Swedish Europop group to possibly do the music for the film. Rice had worked with ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus on the musical Chess, and pursuing the music for the movie project seemed like a logical progression. The rest of the production team wasn’t so convinced.
“It was a real head scratcher for a lot of us,” says Lion King producer Don Hahn. “But they couldn’t do it. There were conflicts — they got a tour or a new album they were working on or something. His next idea was Elton John, which to a degree was also a head scratcher because he hadn’t done a musical before.”
Rice suggested Elton John as a best case, this-would-be-totally-awesome-but-would-Elton-John-even-say-yes scenario, not entirely convinced that the musician would say yes. He was too busy, Rice thought, and also hadn’t done a film in quite some time.
In The Lion King’s original production notes, executive producer Tom Schumacher recalls the process of getting Elton John involved. “We were terrified at first to even approach him, because we thought he might be extremely busy or difficult to work with,” he says.
“I actually jumped at the chance because I knew that Disney was a class act and I liked the story line and the people immediately,” John says in the notes.
With the musician on board, the team started fine-tuning the movie’s overall sound. But while both John and Rice were gifted musicians and songwriters, with hit records and smash musicals to their names, they had a problem cracking the song list.
“They had no sense of Africa or what we wanted to do with the music,” explains Hahn, recounting how the duo researched inspiration for the soundtrack. “We had been listening to Graceland, the Paul Simon Album. We’ve been listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African vocal groups that had been on the Graceland album and a lot of Soweto kind of South African music.”
Even with the inspiration, Rice and John struggled to find the right sound for the movie. Then, the production team tapped Zimmer for the project. Though the composer had acheived critical success with the scores for Rain Man in 1988 and Driving Miss Daisy in 1989, he was chosen for his work on the lower-profile The Power of One, a movie about an English South African boy raised in the middle of apartheid.
“The entrance of Hans Zimmer into the musical equation was really the turning point that gave us that final sound that the movie has,” says Hahn.
Zimmer — who went on to win his first Academy Award for The Lion King — had already made a name for himself, but compared to Elton John’s prolific legacy, he was still just starting out.
“Hans had a real decision to make,” Hahn recalls. “He decided early on he could either be intimidated by Elton’s music and just stay close to it or do something that he really felt personally was right for the movie. And he chose the latter. I think it was a very bold choice for him to do that because anyone would have been intimidated by Elton’s legacy and all the things he had done.”
According to the producer, Zimmer took Elton John’s music and lyrics and colored them into African-inspired sounds. Some tracks still retained the more pop rock elements, such as “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” with its playful, bouncy energy (“Eddie Cochran meets Motown” described Elton John). On “Circle of Life,” Zimmer worked closely with African-born singer/arranger Lebo M., who wrote the Zulu lyrics of the song and helped the composer recruit singers for the African choir heard throughout the movie.
“Circle of Life” establishes the tone of the entire movie, the very first belting notes set against the rising African sun. It’s unlike any other Disney opening song and represents the moment that the scrappy Lion King became a pillar of the Disney Renaissance.
Hans Zimmer, Elton John, and Lebo M. all returned to the 2019 redux of the Lion King, which takes everything about the original — animation, music, and voices — and trades it in for the same thing, but “real.” The music of the original Lion King was born out of trial and error, experimentation, and absolutely no idea if it would even work; the new movie repackages the unique sound of the original in plastic veneer. If only we got The Lion King: Here We Go Again.