Today, The Lion King is known as Elton John‘s multi-million-selling, Oscar-winning 1994 triumph. Yet there was a staggering number of roadblocks to overcome, including a skeptical old-school studio boss and furious disagreements over the script.
Credit lyricist Tim Rice for making an inspiring collaborative choice, then sticking with it. Rice wanted a “rock presence” for the soundtrack to Disney’s next animated feature, and – having earlier co-written “Legal Boys” for John’s 1982 album Jump Up! – he knew just where to get it.
That’s when the trouble started. Roy E. Disney, then the vice-chairman of the company that bears his uncle’s name, apparently wanted this coming-of-age story to have more of a documentary vibe. And besides that, he wasn’t that into Elton John.
“I wouldn’t call myself a fan,” the late Disney told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “We joke a lot that my knowledge of popular music stopped when Glenn Miller stopped recording. At least that’s what my kids tell me.”
Besides, nobody at the studio thought John would agree to it. A pop star of his magnitude had never lent his name to a Disney project (apologies to Peggy Lee in Lady and Tramp). Rice apparently approached Abba as well, but they were busy working on a musical of their own.
“Funny thing is, when you get established and you’re older, people get afraid to ask you to do things. They say, ‘Oh, he won’t do that.’ Like when Tim Rice called me to do The Lion King in 1993, it changed the course of my career,” John told Famecrawler in 2011. “[Tim said,] ‘Disney said you’d never do this. And you’re a friend of mine and I told them you will.’ I said, ‘Tim, I’ve worked with you before. I love you. Of course I’ll do it.'”
Watch Elton John’s Video for ‘Circle of Life’
They began faxing ideas back and forth, as Rice worked with Disney screenwriters in Los Angeles while John tried out different musical approaches in England. Ultimately, they came up with five new songs for the soundtrack: “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Be Prepared,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Three were eventually nominated for Academy Awards; “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” earned an Oscar for best original song, and the album sold more than 10 million copies to earn diamond certification from Billboard. But their early passes, interpreted by John rather than by the now-familiar actors on the completed project, didn’t go over well.
“In retrospect, I can tell now, they weren’t very excited about the demos,” Rice told the Los Angeles Times. “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. … They felt like, ‘Oh, we’re getting Elton John tracks.’ I knew they weren’t, but they didn’t know that.”
Rice counseled patience. “There was a certain leap of faith,” Disney said back then, “that we should wait and hear the full arrangement.” There were other disagreements, some quite serious, along the way. For one thing, John was wary of “Hakuna Matata.”
He worried that the song, based on hang-loose phrase that had captured Rice’s imagination because of its message and lyrical sound, would mar a legacy of heartfelt songs. “I sat there with a line of lyrics that began, ‘When I was a young warthog,'” John told Time magazine in 1995, “and I thought, ‘Has it come to this?'”
Then there was the film’s initial treatments, which John felt completely misapplied “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Watch Elton John’s Video for ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’
Later becoming a Top 5 Billboard smash, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was the first song Rice and John began work on, and the first to be completed. “You have to have a big emotional ballad — that’s a good place to start,” Rice told Vulture in 2014. “If you feel like you’ve got one strong song locked away, it gets you going for the rest. Having had one big success with [Aladdin’s] ‘A Whole New World,’ [Disney] was keen to get a song that would have the same emotional clout.”
Then the studio went and had a meerkat and that same warthog, both late additions to the film in order to provide comic relief, sing “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” – rather than young lions-in-love Simba and Nala, as shown in the final edit. “Oh, we recorded the whole song,” actor Ernie Sabella, who voiced the warthog Pumbaa, told CinemaBlend in 2017. “It didn’t show up because Elton John said, ‘I don’t want a big, stinky warthog singing my love song!'”
By the time The Lion King was ready for early screenings, John said the song had been edited out entirely. Once again, he pushed back. “I remember [Disney CEO] Jeffrey Katzenberg showing me The Lion King about four weeks before it came out, and it had no ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight,'” John told The Wrap in 2012. “I was so upset, and I told him so. And he put it back in and it won an Oscar.”
More than that, The Lion King became the best-selling soundtrack album to an animated movie in U.S. history, eventually spawning a 2019 remake starring Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Beyonce and James Earl Jones, the latter of whom reprised his original role as Mufasa. It’s also the best-selling vinyl album of the SoundScan era.
John stayed away from these film-specific songs in concert, save for the occasional rendering of “Circle of Life.” Still, a project that almost foundered countless times eventually stood as one of his signature achievements. It opened a new career pathway too.
“The Lion King changed my life,” John later told Rolling Stone. “It gave me the opportunity to write for the stage. It gave me more strings to my bow. After The Lion King, I wrote Aida, I wrote Billy Elliot and I wrote The Vampire Lestat – four stage musicals. Up until that point, I was just doing records, videos and touring. Of course, nobody knew it was going to be this big. I’m so proud to be involved in it, and I have Tim Rice to thank for it.”