Did you know ‘The Lion King’ almost had an ABBA soundtrack?

24 July 2019, 09:50

The Lion King soundtrack... written by ABBA?
The Lion King soundtrack... written by ABBA? Picture: Getty/Disney

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The soundtrack for ‘The Lion King’ is one of Disney’s greatest achievements… but it wasn’t always sure-fire. Here’s the story.

The Lion King has had its ‘live-action’ remake, and Elton John and Hans Zimmer have regrouped to put a glossier, grander spin on the soundtrack.

And with a $188 million opening weekend, the remake is set to push the soundtrack into the hearts of a new generation of Disney lovers.

But when the film was first pitched in 1988, no one had a clue what it was going to sound like… and it almost involved the talents of ABBA, Polygon reports.

In the early stages of deciding the music, Tim Rice recalls in the original film’s production notes, the lyricist contacted the Swedish pop group to possibly write music for the film, having already worked with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus on the 1986 musical Chess. But the rest of the production team wasn’t on board.

“It was a real head scratcher for a lot of us,” says The 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 an ideal candidate – but would he say yes? Predictably, he was a busy man, and he hadn’t done a film in some time.

Executive producer Tom Schumacher was sent to London to present the story to Elton and persuade him to participate in the project.

“We were terrified at first to even approach him,” Schumacher recalls, “because we thought he might be extremely busy or difficult to work with. Instead, we found him to be a very interested and insightful collaborator who was a big champion of turning this story into a musical.”

Elton, who had worked with Rice for years, said: “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.”

But how would they find their inspiration for the film? It was proving to be tricky.

“They had no sense of Africa or what we wanted to do with the music,” says producer Hahn. “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 musical inspiration, the pair struggled to find the right sound.

Then, Hans Zimmer was brought onto the project. At the time, the German composer was known for scoring Rain Man (1988) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), but was chosen for his work on the lesser-known The Power of One, a movie about an English South African boy who grows in the time 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.

But Zimmer, who won his first – and only, to date – Oscar for The Lion King was just starting out in his career.

“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.”

Zimmer took Elton’s music and Rice’s lyrics, and coloured them with African-inspired sounds. And on ‘The Circle of Life’, Zimmer worked with South African composer-singer Lebo M., who wrote the Zulu lyrics at the start of the opening call, and helped Zimmer recruit singers for the African choir heard throughout the movie.

Having an African voice open an animated film was unusual for Disney, and ultimately helped cement The Lion King in the annals of Disney royalty.

Speaking about scoring the this year’s remake, Zimmer told Classic FM, “I wanted to fix a few things from the ’94 score. There was less me, and more musicians.

“I had all my favourite musicians in the room – all 102 of them.”

And the fix? You can’t improve too much on greatness, but for Zimmer it was finding a way to reflect that emotional, ‘human’ aspect of the film: “We managed to make it much more improvisational, much looser, much more human film, in a funny sort of way.”

The Lion King is out now in cinemas nationwide.