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Disney targets families with classic tune tracks

Mouse employs Presley, Hiatt for current pix

HOLLYWOOD — Disney is paving the musical route less taken this summer: Releasing an animated film with a soundtrack of licensed songs, and following it with a live-action feature that boasts all originals on the soundtrack disc.

With its Elvis Presley-dominated musical landscape, “Lilo & Stitch” uses all vintage songs, something that has never been done in Disney’s history; “Country Bears,” with its John Hiatt tunes, marks an approach the studio hasn’t used in a decade — since 1992’s flop “Newsies.”

“What I like is that it says there are no rules,” says Disney exec VP Chris Montan, who handles music for all the Mouse House’s animated features. “If you don’t stay ahead of your audience, you get stale fast.”

With “Lilo & Stitch” a certified hit — 191,000 CDs sold in four weeks, according to SoundScan — Disney’s attention is turning to a tougher sell: the Hiatt tunes that comprise the all-original score on “Country Bears.”

The album, featuring performances by Hiatt and rock vets Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt and Brian Setzer, hits stores July 23, three days before the pic opens in theaters. With a few key retailers unaccounted for, nearly 150,000 units had been ordered.

Only one of Hiatt’s compositions, though, is targeted to the movie’s pre-teen core audience — “The Kid in You” as sung by Krystal Marie Harris, the 21-year-old vocalist whose lone claim to fame is being the first artist signed to the Backstreet Boys’ label. The Disney Channel is already playing her video.

“We did not want to take the music into a pop (‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys) realm,” says Bill Green, exec VP of music, Walt Disney Motion Pictures & Television.

Hiatt’s name was tossed into the “Bears” lair after director Peter Hastings decided to take a classic rock ‘n’ roll approach rather than the bluegrass jamboree of the Disneyland attraction. While Hiatt is hardly a household name (he’s made more inroads recently leasing his recordings rather than signing with a label), his songs have done well for other performers: “Thing Called Love” by Raitt, “Riding With the King” by Eric Clapton and B.B. King, “Have a Little Faith in Me” by Jewel, among others.

“Had we gone with someone like Elton John,” Green notes, “we would have had to push back the movie a year. John (Hiatt) was in the right ballpark because people have had hits with his music. He was a perfect fit.”

Hiatt delivered a dozen songs after reading the script; nine of them are in the film. He warmed to the idea because “movie soundtracks have always been where old A&R people — actual music fans — go. You don’t see the same corporate sentiment.”

“Lilo & Stitch” needed some of that corporate sentiment from the get-go, specifically convincing RCA to lease to Disney five Elvis Presley master recordings. “RCA was really smart in recognizing early on that we were exposing Elvis’ music to a whole new generation” Green says.

MCA Swedish act the A-Teens recorded the Presley hit “I Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which was serviced to Radio Disney and, in video form, the Disney Channel; it has yet to be decided if Disney Records will take the tune to pop radio. Wynonna Judd, who recorded “Burning Love,” hit the talkshow circuit to promote the disc as well.

But will audiences relish the idea of ursine singers the way they’ve responded to a record-playing alien?

“I have to admit,” Hiatt says, “it’s very startling to hear my voice come out of a bear.”

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