Composer Hans Zimmer is seated at the mixing board at the Sony scoring stage, head bobbing to the music being performed by 107 musicians just a few yards away. He’s wearing a vintage “Lion King World Tour” T-shirt, frayed at the collar.
On the giant screen behind the orchestra, two lions are bounding across the African veldt. As the ensemble finishes playing cue 5M31, Hans tells conductor Nick Glennie-Smith, “I like the feel — one more time, from the beginning,” while Jon Favreau, director of this new, all-computer-imagery “Lion King,” says simply, “That was pretty cool, Hans.”
Twenty-four years ago, Zimmer won an Oscar for his score for the original animated version of “The Lion King.” Since then, he has written such influential scores as “Gladiator,” “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” — yet when Favreau asked him to re-create his music for Disney’s elaborate new version, and to supervise production of all the Elton John-Tim Rice songs (one of which, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” also won one of those 1994 Oscars), he couldn’t say no.
“I always thought ‘The Lion King’ brought people together,” Zimmer says a few weeks later via phone from London. In fact, when he played a seven-minute suite from the score live at Coachella in 2017, he found himself “extraordinarily moved” by the crowd reaction, which, he says, “made me realize not only was there something to it, there was something great about performing it.”
Zimmer reunited many key members of his original “Lion King” team, including conductor Glennie-Smith, orchestrator Bruce Fowler, arranger Mark Mancina and, perhaps most significantly, vocalist and African music consultant Lebo M. “For Jon,” Zimmer explains, “it was important that we would steer this movie more towards Africa, that we would be more authentic.”
Conceding that all of the percussion in the 1994 movie was actually played by him on synthesizers in his studio, Zimmer decided that this year’s would be done by real percussionists. So he assembled a “drum kit circle” including the renowned Sheila E and his longtime drummer, Satnam Ramgotra.
Meanwhile, Zimmer recruited his friend Pharrell Williams to produce most of the familiar Elton John-Tim Rice songs, from “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” to “Hakuna Matata.” Zimmer himself produced the opening number, “Circle of Life,” with its iconic opening cry by Lebo M.
Two new songs have been added to this edition, one by John and Rice (“Never Too Late”) for the end titles, another (“Spirit”) by Beyoncé for a key scene involving her character, Nala.
“She took this movie very seriously,” Zimmer says, “and just presented us, right at the last moment, with a truly beautiful song that was absolutely perfect for a key scene. She talks about her soul and her spirit in song form. We’d actually done something else in that place, but how can you say no when a masterpiece is sent to you?”
Zimmer also insisted on diversity within the ranks of his musicians, so Disney agreed to his unusual and expensive plan. Supplementing the usual L.A. session players was the New York-based, predominantly African-American Re-Collective Orchestra, along with former Re-Collective members who have gone on to other symphony jobs in Detroit, Kansas City and elsewhere. All were flown to L.A. for the nine days of recording at Sony.
The diversity extended beyond color, orchestra contractor Peter Rotter said. Gender balance and LGBTQ factors weighed in too. And after two days of rehearsal, Zimmer says, “everybody was listening to everybody else, and I began thinking, this isn’t a diverse orchestra, this is a unified orchestra.”
Choral forces, too, were unusually diverse. While Lebo M was in South Africa, recording specific flavors and colors to be added to the score, choral contractor Edie Lehmann Boddicker assembled a 24-voice “African” choir (mostly African-American but with other international voices including Israeli and Indian) and a 24-voice “classical” choir, later merged together into what she calls an “epic” 48-voice choir for the large-scale moments of the movie.
Lebo M had returned by the early May recording sessions in L.A., and he “was our muse,” reported Lehmann Boddicker (one of seven singers who performed on the original film). “We all fell in love with Lebo. He would give us pronunciation, ideas of lines to sing — it was all so organic.”
Zimmer’s grand plan culminated in a final day where the orchestra played through the entire score, with the film projected behind them, before an invited audience of craftspeople who had spent three years on the project. “We performed the movie as if it was a concert,” Zimmer says.
“The Lion King” is especially personal to Zimmer because he considered the original a requiem for his father, who died when Zimmer was 6. “Jon brought a heart and a sensitivity and an emotional connection to this film,” he says. “Twenty-five years later, when the world is in serious danger of collapsing, this is a film that deals with nature in a grand and, at the same time, really personal, way.”