Jeffrey Katzenberg Encouraged Great Work From Elton John, Hans Zimmer, John Powell and Other Composers

The executive has collaborated closely with singers and musicians who work in film

Jeffrey Katzenberg Elton John
AP Photo/Michael Caulfield

Elton John, who with Tim Rice wrote the songs for Disney’s “The Lion King,” remembers Jeffrey Katzenberg showing him a print of the movie only a few weeks before its June 1994 release.

It didn’t contain “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” one of five they’d written for the film. “I said, ‘Jeffrey, what’s happened to the song?’” Katzenberg responded that the filmmakers couldn’t find the right scene for it. “Jeffrey, every Disney film has a great love song in it,” John told Katzenberg. “You have to find a place for it.”

Katzenberg went back into the cutting room, found a spot for the tune, and it wound up winning the Oscar for song. As a result, says John, “Jeffrey helped change my life and career. Until then, I was just a musician who hadn’t even written a musical.” He’s now working on his fifth stage musical and considers Katzenberg “like family.”

The songs of the Disney and DreamWorks movies may be among Katzenberg’s lasting contributions to American popular culture.

During his decade at Disney, Katzenberg was at the forefront of the so-called Disney Renaissance, first meeting songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman during production of “The Little Mermaid.” After that, Menken says, Katzenberg was “extremely hands-on” during the creation of the scores for “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Pocahontas.”

“No question, he was captain of the ship,” Menken told Variety. “He drove the agenda. He got up earlier than anybody else, set the meetings, and had smart and detailed reactions to scripts and songs.

“He was the best executive I ever worked with, just a brilliant man, efficient and an amazing multi-tasker.”
Menken won eight Academy Awards for his songs and scores for Disney movies made under Katzenberg’s reign at the studio. And all four of the soundtrack albums went platinum.

Composer Hans Zimmer goes back more than 25 years with Katzenberg. He won an Oscar for “The Lion King” and has scored and/or produced the music of at least a dozen of the DreamWorks films including “The Prince of Egypt,” the “Madagascar” films, and the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise.

“I never thought of him as an executive,” Zimmer says. “I always thought of him as a voice that would offer ideas. He was intensely passionate about animation, more than anybody I had ever met.

“Jeffrey takes risks. And through the years, he has always been an enabler of my most outlandish ideas. He would come down to our studio, where we make music, and he very quickly became part of the band.”

According to music supervisor Chris Douridas, who has consulted or supervised on several DreamWorks films including “Shrek 2” and “Over the Hedge,” Katzenberg is equally interested in the choice of artists to perform the songs. “He’ll bring them into his environment and show them storyboards, talk through the project, get their ideas, or he’ll go to them. He’s very much involved in getting the creative community excited about what he’s up to.”

That included conversations with Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz, who wound up with an Oscar nomination for “Accidentally in Love” for “Shrek 2”; plus working with Rihanna on the concept album for “Home,” and Justin Timberlake, who produced the soundtrack for DreamWorks’ upcoming “Trolls.”

Songwriter Stephen Schwartz’s three Oscars are also for Katzenberg-launched projects, two for “Pocahontas” at Disney, one for “The Prince of Egypt” at DreamWorks.

Writing from Vienna, where he is preparing a musical, Schwartz says: “What I always found most amazing about Jeffrey, and have tried to emulate myself, was his ability to zero in totally on a specific project, despite the fact that he had just come from dealing in a completely different project and would be heading to yet another. His clarity and insight were always helpful and inspiring.”

Composer John Powell has worked on eight DreamWorks projects, including “Chicken Run,” “Shrek,” the “Kung Fu Panda” films, and his Oscar-nominated score for “How to Train Your Dragon.” He explains Katzenberg’s role in finding the right music: “He’s the audience. He responds with a very open, simple approach. ‘Do I enjoy this? Is this telling the story? Is it making me laugh, or making me sad?’

“He reacts. He’s probably been doing this since the minute he started with animation. I’m a big fan of animation, so I’m a big fan of Jeffrey’s. He absolutely loves music. I remember on ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ at the end of a day with Hans and me and Henry [Jackman], he said, ‘Thanks so much for letting me play with you guys.’ After that, I always called [our meetings with Katzenberg] playdates.”

Adds Zimmer: “If you’re really in a tough spot on a movie, it’s Jeffrey you want right by your side. He will protect your creative process. That’s all you can ever ask for.”