One of the most iconic musical moments in cinematic history was a spur-of-the-moment freestyle, recorded for a demo for a movie that many thought would be overshadowed by a beautiful cartoon from Disney: Pocahontas. In 1994, though, The Lion King began with an animated sun rising against a crimson sky, a now-legendary voice booming “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba.” Nothing would eclipse it.
“As I was leaving the studio I saw the image of Mufasa, and I asked what’s that about, and I was told that’s the king arriving. Then the prince was going to be announced. I looked at it and turned the mic back on, and I said, ‘Nants ingonyama bagithi baba,’ and I left,” Lebo M. says. “Fortunately, I was never asked what that meant, but I saw that and realized in my culture and tradition when a king or person of royalty arrives I created the call that says ‘all hail the king’ or ‘bow down in the presence of the royal family.’”
That demo helped create “a signature tone for the movie” and three months later, Lebo M. would return to work with Hans Zimmer on the score that would introduce a generation to an African world of talking lions, farting warthogs, and Hamlet-inspired familial drama.
For all the magnitude of The Lion King brand in 2019, the original success of its soundtrack (over 10 million copies sold, a Best Original Song Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globes wins) was far from promised. An American audience was about to be thrown into an ecosystem that featured African choirs, English rock, Broadway sensibilities, and sweeping orchestras. Tim Rice was an acclaimed Broadway lyricist, untested in the realm of animation, with a vision of bringing Elton John’s larger-than-life rock songs to screen. Roy Disney, the company’s vice chairman in 1994, wasn’t a fan of Elton or the music that ultimately rewrote the parameters of animated film soundtracks.
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“In retrospect, I can tell now, they weren’t very excited about the demos,” Rice told The Los Angeles Times in 1994. “We had a lovely demo from Elton singing ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight,’ but it’s Elton singing at the piano. I don’t think they could quite relate to it being the voice of the characters.”
25 years later, that same cast of musicians, coupled with a new generation of pop titans (Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Pharrell) faced a similar challenge. If the 1994 version of The Lion King needed to sell the gravitas, credibility, and emotional weight of a world populated with singing lions, then the task in 2019 was imbuing that same depth into Jon Favreau’s world of photo-realistic animals without ruining the generation-defining songs in the process.
The possibility of an updated Lion King soundtrack began, in part, at Coachella in 2017. Hans Zimmer was performing his most popular songs, but it was the response to “Circle of Life/Nants’ Ingonyama” with Lebo M. that overwhelmed him. Edie Lehmann Boddicker, a studio singer from the original Lion King, had been working with Zimmer since his 2015 Grammy performance with Pharrell and helped put the choir together for the festival.
“I think Coachella is what prompted Hans to go ‘I really need to do the remake of The Lion King with Jon Favreau,’” Edie admits. “Because at Coachella, the Millenials were openly weeping when he started The Lion King… I don’t think they realized how iconic, how much a part of our culture that song and that movie has become.”
The primary goal for updating the orchestral and choral arrangements of the remake was adding a level of variety the original film lacked. “I was going for diversity,” Zimmer told NPR. For Lebo M. and Edie, that meant stitching together a choir that spanned generations and continents. Lebo travelled back to South Africa to record with a choir, and Edie assembled multiple ethnicities (African-American, Indian, and Israeli) in the States.
The one looming concern over The Lion King soundtrack was the new generation of voices tasked with updating songs ingrained in the pop psyche. Nowhere was this more apparent than the potential chemistry between the movie’s new stars. “I guess my biggest worry and beautiful surprise, I was more worried about the medley with Beyonce and Donald on “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” because I’ve seen that so many times on Broadway and I’ve seen the many different dynamics that we deal with putting out the medley of Simba and Nala,” Lebo shares. “Thankfully, it all ends up in magic, the blend and the performances were amazing.”
Ilya Salmanzadeh and Labrinth, the duo responsible for the soundtrack’s new Beyoncé contribution “Spirit,” were contacted about the project at the beginning of 2019. For Ilya, the chance to work on a song for the CGI-remake was a full-circle moment. The Lion King, was the first movie he saw in theaters as a child; now he had the opportunity to work with the new voice of Nala (Beyoncé).
“Labrinth and I had booked a writing session specifically to come up with at least a seed of an idea to present to Beyoncé,” Ilya explains over email. “We wrote this little idea and quickly produced a rough track for it and sent it to her. She happened to really love it, and I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ So she finished writing it with us. She’s such an amazing writer and producer. Once we had the lyrics and melodies down, we focused on the production to make sure it felt right and sonically had the spirit of The Lion King. We tried different intros, experimented with drums, choirs, et cetera — you name it. There where many, many hours and days of going back and forth with production tweaks and ideas between Beyoncé, Lab and myself. I spent hours and hours just studying African drums, percussions, and instruments to see what could be used. Also a lot of hours went into studying Swahili and the different ways of pronunciation for writing the intro.”
“When we had most of the production done, we went to Hans Zimmer’s studio and put the final touches to it,” Ilya continues. “We recorded and used the same sounds that was used in the new Lion King film, to make it sonically cohesive with the rest of the soundtrack.”
When it came time to shepherd the young versions of Simba (JD McCrary) and Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph), Pharrell Williams’ tranquil disposition was instrumental to the process. The two young actors recorded “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” at the same time. According to Wright, between voice acting and singing recording lasted two months. “We had so much fun there,” Wright says. “Mr. Pharrell and Mr. Hans Zimmer gave us so much freedom to basically just be young Nala and young Simba. The way that they trusted me and JD. This was one of the times where I really had a great director who really trusted us.”
“It was like general directions like, ‘Put more force on this note, sing this note longer, put more vibrato,’ nothing that out of the ordinary,” McCrary adds. “But Pharrell did give me some advice, because I was messing up so much. I was not as focused. He would just say ‘Calm down. Nothing’s wrong, just be yourself, pretty much. Don’t have too much stress on you.”
Another essential relationship in the movie is between an adult Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa. The trio’s voices carry some of the movie’s most memorable moments — “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata” — but it’s their comedic chemistry that’s integral to almost a third of the film. “Donald, Seth [Rogen], and Billy [Eichner] in one studio, watching them trade back and forth, the ad-libs flying, they didn’t do it in a sterile environment. They did it together as a group. They created some magic. They would ad-lib, and Jon would go, ‘That’s so awesome. Let’s do another one.’ And then the next one would be completely and totally different. They were given free rein.”
Despite lackluster reviews, 2019’s The Lion King is now the biggest July opening of all time, and the eighth biggest domestic opening to date. The scope of the ordeal ahead was never lost on Lebo M. He’s transitioned from the first voice audiences heard from the screen to helping countless actors channel the essence of The Lion King on the Broadway stage and, now, back to where it all started. “I immediately knew that we’re embarking on a challenge greater that is greater than any other challenge, recreating a film that is now a classic and music that is now classic,” Lebo says of the first director’s meeting he attended for the remake. “Fortunately, the approach and the attitude was that we are going to create this with a bigger vision and a bigger sense of how the soundtrack should be.”