×

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

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.”

More Film

  • Andy SambergVariety Sundance Studio presented by

    Andy Samberg Calls Hosting the Oscars a 'Bad Gig' -- That He'd Still Consider

    Andy Samberg has been a reliable favorite hosting awards ceremonies, in recent years emceeing the Independent Spirit Awards, the Emmys and the 2019 Golden Globes with Sandra Oh. So it’s only natural to wonder if Samberg would consider taking the reins on the Oscars, which will return again this year without a host. “They have [...]

  • Shirley

    'Shirley': Film Review

    Shirley Jackson was a real person, a writer best known for her twisted short story “The Lottery,” although the version presented in Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” feels more like a character from one of her own novels. Featuring “The Handsmaid’s Tale” actor Elisabeth Moss in the title role, this queer, hard-to-quantify psychological study isn’t a biopic [...]

  • Us Kids

    'Us Kids': Film Review

    The nonstop drama of the Trump White House has succeeded, among other things, in largely pushing gun control from the forefront of the news cycle — no doubt to the relief of the NRA and its allies, despite the continued frequency of U.S. mass shootings. As a result, and perhaps unfairly, Kim A. Snyder’s “Us [...]

  • Logan Paul Ninja Spree

    How Logan Paul and Ninja Helped 'Spree' Cast Capture Influencer Culture Gone Wild

    When it came to depicting the gonzo nature of influencer culture, “Spree” stars Joe Keery and Sasheer Zamata and director Eugene Kotlyarenko did a deep dive into the haves and have-nots of the internet. “Spree,” which premiered Friday at Sundance Film Festival, follows a rideshare driver named Kurt Kunkle (Keery) who will stop at nothing [...]

  • The Go Go's at Chicagofest in

    'The Go-Go's': Film Review

    In the terrific documentary “The Go-Go’s,” there’s a tasty clip of the band playing an early club gig in 1979, when they were part of the L.A. punk scene. They wear bushy black hair and pale white makeup (with rouge!), as if they were trying to be mannequin versions of Darby Crash, and they have [...]

  • A PERFECTLY NORMAL FAMILY

    Watch the Exclusive Trailer of Rotterdam/Goteborg Entry ‘A Perfectly Normal Family’

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the international trailer of the Danish film “A Perfectly Normal Family,” due to compete both at Rotterdam’s Big Screen Competition, and at Göteborg’s Nordic Film Competition. Malou Reyman’s debut feature has been a hot property for sales agent New Europe Film Sales, ever since it was sneak peeked [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content