Why I Can’t Feel The Love Tonight (Lion King 2019 Music Analysis)

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The original Lion King Soundtrack (John and Zimmer, 1994) was a multi-award winning sensation and went down in history as one of Disney’s greatest soundtracks. Featuring flowing and bold orchestral tracks composed by Hans Zimmer, pop musical numbers from Elton John, and an amazing African chorus orchestrated by Lebo M., the album is a gorgeous ensemble of talent that oozes with texture and breaks the geographical boundaries of musical genres and styles. In 2019, Disney would try to re-imagine the soundtrack (Zimmer and Williams) for its controversial photo-realistic remake. The result of this effort is a mixed bag album which just doesn’t feel the same as the original. This post will critically analyse and compare the new album against its predecessor in an attempt to uncover what made the original soundtrack so magical in comparison, whilst also discussing what new concepts the re-imagining brings to the table.

Perhaps the most effective direct comparison to make between the two albums is a comparison between both versions of Can You Feel The Love Tonight. The most prominent difference, of course, is the new cast vocalists and performances. In the original soundtrack, the main vocals are provided by Kristle Edwards as an almost musical narrator, an unnamed voice surveying the scene, while Toto’s Joseph Williams performs the vocals for Simba alongside Sally Dworsky as Nala. Despite being singer-songwriters by trade, the pair are directed to act while performing, as singing doubles of the cast of the movie, as opposed to performing as ‘themselves’ and merely singing the lines. The product of this is particularly noticeable around the middle of the track, where Simba and Nala internally monologue; Williams is hesitant in his delivery (notice his delivery of ‘…impossible!’), evoking Simba’s emotions, with the same to be said abut Dworsky’s delivery (notice the strain in ‘but what…’). Combined with the performances of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella in their roles as Timone and Pumbaa, the track feels fundamentally part of the film’s soundtrack, existing as part of the flow and diegesis of the film, where Elton John’s rendition of the song for example, is intended to be a standalone pop-ballad track that isn’t underpinned by the film’s narrative.

 

The same cannot be said for the 2019 version of Can You Feel The Love Tonight. While the introduction and conclusion of the track remains the same, with the new film’s Timone and Pumbaa – Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, in this version the main vocal position is assumed by both Donald Glover and Beyoncé – the new Simba and Nala – in a duet. The noticeable effect of this is that there is no clear discrepancy to define the relationship between narration and character performance. On the one hand, this leaves the track feeling less convoluted, free of the metaphorical ‘middle-man’ (Edwards’ nameless voice) that dominates the original; on the other, the song loses some of its defining roots in the diegesis by blurring the line between character performance and vocal performance. This effect is also noticeable when we reach the monologue segment of the track, particularly in Nala’s monologue, where the line delivery is stripped of its original emotional and acting undertones, overtly becoming Beyoncé singing the lines, as opposed to Nala singing the lines (notice Beyoncé’s signature melismatic singing, as she fluctuates between notes on the word ‘inside’ at the end of her monologue). While similar can be said about Glover’s vocal performance of Simba, he notably attempts to be in character in his monologue (again evident in the delivery of ‘…impossible!’), perhaps due to his considerable prior acting experience. While this doesn’t necessarily detract from the track in isolation, as part of the soundtrack of the film, this departs from the diegesis and feels detached from the characters and visuals on screen – the audience hear Childish Gambino and Beyoncé cover the song, as opposed to hearing Simba and Nala sing it. The audience’ connection with and attachment to the characters of the film make the lyrics and delivery of the song more emotional and meaningful, and with the 2019 version of the track’s departure from the characters and diegesis, the track loses this element of ‘magic’.

 

Another notable difference between versions of Can You Feel The Love Tonight, is in the timbre, dynamics, mixing and mastering of the tracks. Much like in the delivery of the vocals, the original track is fundamentally constructed as a part of the film, encompassing the emotions of the scene. While of course for audio-only release, additional processing has undoubtedly been done, the track has still been composed, mixed and mastered to convey the emotions of the moments in the film (where Elton John’s version serves as the more ‘for radio’ version). The most prominent evidence of this is when the track reaches it’s second chorus and modulates for a third, around the one minute thirty mark. The chorus begins with a low-key, warm timbre, with a comparatively gentle drum and African percussion rhythm, a diverse yet soft African chorus that works with the airy strings of the tracks to provide a defined ‘backing’ to the primary vocals. Upon modulation, a cymbal rise transitions the low-key ‘backing’ into a more fore-fronted, high-key and bright shape – the African chorus becomes a near-shouting, intense and powerful element, with the drums becoming much more harsh and driving and the strings dropping out to highlight these elements. In the mix, the vocals go from being defined and pronounced above the tracks backing, to being part of the greater sound, integrated at a similar volume to the rest of the instrumentation. The modulation not only carries the same emotional weight as any key change, it is bolstered by the instrumentation and mixing, which make the track richer and fuller for this emotional moment. Again, the diegesis of the film enriches this moment in the track too, as these choruses are given weight by the lyrical and narrative significance of the moment. The same can be said about the dynamics and mastering of the track also, as evident in the track’s waveform. The second chorus is significantly louder and noticeably fuller than the previous sections, only becoming more full after the modulation (marked by the highest peak in the entire track at 1:51).

original waveform.PNG
Can You Feel The Love Tonight (1994)

By establishing dynamic headroom in earlier sections, the emotional power of the second chorus can be emphasised by utilising this extra dynamic space; the chorus is able to be bigger and louder, filling the track with its emotion and ‘magic’.

In the 2019 version, it’s a different story. While the instrumentation is largely similar – if identical – to the original, the dynamics and tone of the track is almost completely different to its predecessor. The vocals take the forefront of the track, and the song becomes much more about the lyrics and performers than about the feelings and emotions of the scene. This is particularly obvious when directly comparing waveforms.

new waveform.PNG
Can You Feel The Love Tonight (2019)

Firstly, the instrumental is sat significantly in the background, designed more to frame the vocals than be part of the sound, as in its predecessor. The most prominent evidence for this sits at the first line of the song (Timone’s ‘I can see what’s happening…’), which comes in at around the fifteen second mark. Notice the sheer spike in volume against the instrumental introduction that comes before it. While the introduction is somewhat quieter and softer than the rest of the instrumental behind Timone’s lines, the sheer difference is still extremely prominent, not only visually in the waveform, but sonically also; all the vocals harshly cut through the mix throughout the track. This is far from a criticism of the track in isolation, as the goal in many cases of vocal processing, mixing and mastering is to have them slice through the backing track, through volume and equalisation. As part of the soundtrack of the film, however, this presents some problems. A big part of the ‘magic’ of the original soundtrack, as aforementioned, is its full and rich sound, combined with its interesting instrumentation and inclusion of African elements, in favour of filling the track with emotion and soul. While none of these things are necessarily ‘missing’ from the new version, the focus has noticeably shifted away from emphasising these elements in favour of this ‘magic’. Listening to the modulation in this new version, while the instrumental rises in intensity, becoming much more high-key (as in the original), the vocals still cut firmly through the mix, maintaining a segregation between backing and vocal, as opposed to softly falling into the greater sound of the track. This once again strays from the cohesive, roundness of the original, which has a clear forefront of emotion and wholeness; you listen to the track, feeling the feelings of the scene. The product of this is a forefront on the vocals and performers, as opposed to the track as a whole – your attention is again drawn to Childish Gambino and Beyoncé covering the song, as opposed to listening to the greater piece as a whole. Again, in isolation – for example for radio distribution – this is a good thing, as many listeners will likely want to hear Childish Gambino and Beyoncé covering the song, but in the context of the film, this pop processing style detracts from the characters and  emotion of the scene and song, favouring the performers themselves.

An additional factor that eliminates some of the impact of the track is the mastering itself. Mastering is the process of ‘finishing’ the track, balancing the loud and quiet parts, without much effecting the overall dynamics of the track, so that quiet parts aren’t inaudible and louder parts aren’t speaker-destroying. Mastering for film and for audio-only (for example radio and album distribution), while the same basic process, have noticeable key differences. With audio-only distribution, the dynamics (highs and lows in volume and intensity) of the track, while notably still being important, are less crucial. The process is usually much more intense for audio-only distribution, to compress the volume of the tracks out so that listeners aren’t forced to change their volume dial up and down. In film however, dynamics are much more crucial, being an emotional heart of a scene. A simple example of this is in a horror scene – the juxtaposition of quiet, eerie moments and big loud scares is part of what makes or breaks the the entire scene; if this whole scene played out in exactly the same volume, this could strip the soundtrack of its effect. Mastering is still necessary for film soundtracks, but dynamic compression needn’t be as harsh nor intense. As aforementioned, the original track sets a clear dynamic headroom, excess ‘space’ above its average volume, so that this space can be utilised creatively (for example in the second chorus) to emphasise emotions – the effects of the most emotional points in the original track are amplified and changed by the moment being either considerably louder or quieter than others. The 2019 version of the track, however, is much more dynamically flat throughout. While defined highs and lows are still audible (and visible in the waveform), they are significantly less high and low than the original. Comparing the two waveforms, of course most apparent is that the 2019 version is overall considerably louder due to modern mastering techniques, attempting to compress additional loudness without clipping. Aside from this, the dynamics of the pieces are comparable by observing the difference between the quieter and louder moments (for example the quieter trough around the one minute ten second mark in both tracks – the monologue section – versus the much louder second and third choruses from roughly one minute thirty onwards in both tracks). In the 1994 version, the second and third choruses are roughly twice as loud (and sonically twice as full) as the monologue section, emphasising the emotions of the track. In the 2019 version, there is still a distinguishable difference in intensity, but it is considerably less dramatic than in the original track.

 

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NOTE: The waveform is merely a visual representation of this, and should not be taken as gospel, due to potential additional post processing on the different versions and releases of each track (i.e theatrical version vs. album version). I implore you to use your ears to hear, sonically, the concepts I’m discussing.

While louder does not necessarily mean better, the intensity of a moment juxtaposed against another, dynamically different moment is a fundamental part of creating affect in music, particularly outside of pop and other radio-centric genres. Sonically, the second and third choruses of the original track are given great emotional intensity partially through the steep dynamic change compared to previous parts of the track. In the 2019 track, the dynamic change is certainly audible in the backing track (though barely noticeable, if there at all in the vocals), but significantly less dramatic, losing considerable emotional weight. While again this may be beneficial for radio distribution in isolation, the magic and energy of this moment as a part of the film is significantly weakened.

While the ‘re-imaginings’ of most of the original tracks suffer from the same symptoms as Can You Feel The Love Tonight, the 2019 version of the soundtrack is not completely magicless or emotionless. Lebo M., Hans Zimmer and producer Jay Rifkin’s influence on the original soundtrack became the fundamentals of The Lion King’s unique sonic idiolect, which Lebo M. and Rifkin would go on to further develop in Rhythm of the Pride Lands (Morake, 1995). Rhythm was a standalone spiritual successor-turned-sequel to the original 1994 Lion King Soundtrack, focusing on the African roots and instrumentation of the original album, expanding upon the story of the film and the musical style the group created. Zimmer and Lebo M. both returned to continue this work for the 2019 album, and their influence on this version can sincerely be felt, standing out from the rest of the music. Lebo M. brought his signature African style and rich African choir chorus to breathe life into the existing tracks (Circle of Life/Nants’ Ingonyama, for example) both musical and score and bringing Rhythm tracks, such as ‘He Lives In You’ with him. Zimmer expands upon the motifs that brought the original score to life, composing new tracks that feel fresh, yet familiar – ‘Simba Is Alive!‘ notably being a fresh, rich and emotional riff upon the King (Mufasa/Simba) leitmotif of the original. Additionally, Pharell Williams joined the team as producer, whose pop and hip-hop influences allowed for thorough experimentation, combining genres and feelings – just as in the original soundtrack – in an effort create new experiences for the new album. While unfortunately reserved mostly for the credits, the most prominent of these tracks on the 2019 album arguably hold the most ‘magic’ in the whole album. ‘Mbube‘ for example, riffs upon Solomon Linda’s ‘Mbube‘ (the fundamentals of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight‘ popularised by The Tokens – see Malan, 2003 in References for an interesting book about the origins of this track), incorporating Lebo M.’s ensemble African choir with thick texture and depth through the faux acapella style against the blues-y construction of the original Linda recording. What makes this track so ‘magical’ is not only its blues and injected African  influences, but also it’s hip hop and pop influences brought to the track by Pharell Williams. The choir is accompanied by a pop style drum beat, and given life by a trap-style, 808 sub-bass; the result of this is a fresh new take on the track and a listening experience that evokes the playful magic of the genre-bending original soundtrack. The remake of ‘He Lives In You’, feels fresh and interesting also, being sung in Xhosa as opposed to English and incorporating more of the broadway version’s African instrumentation. The pop elements that remain are significantly updated to modern pop, as opposed to synths and gated reverb drums of the eighties/nineties pop style that dominates the original Rhythm recording. It is here that the magic of the original shines through into the 2019 album, evoking the emotions and style that we as listeners and audience members associate with The Lion King. So while the 2019 soundtrack is not entirely magic-less, flecked with glimpses of what made the original 1994 album so fresh, overall however, unfortunately it’s hard to feel the love when there’s not much in this remake left to feel anymore.

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The Importance of Sound in McCabe & Mrs Miller

McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) is no exception to Robert Altman’s genre-bending and unconventional filmography. Altman’s insistent distortion of classical and conventional techniques give all his films a consistent filmmaking style. Referring directly to the film’s soundtrack – in the broader sense, i.e the accompanying audio elements of a synchronised sound film – this essay will consider the ways in which Altman defies the ‘classical Hollywood style’ that had dominated narrative cinema since its conception. The classical Hollywood style of filmmaking was focused on concise portrayal of information above all else – every element of the film would fixate on pointing the audience in the right direction to better understand the narrative. Additionally, films in this style would uphold the conventions of their genres, for the same reason. McCabe & Mrs Miller, however takes a significantly different approach, rejecting the stylistic tendencies of the sea of Hollywood films before it and challenging the conventions of its genre, being proclaimed an ‘anti-western’ by Altman himself (Phillips, 2008).

Altman ensures that every generic aspect of the Western is subverted in McCabe & Mrs Miller, but identifiably so; despite subverting every audience expectation, the film is still discernibly a Western. One of the more obvious ways he achieves this in regards to the soundtrack is the choice to use drastically unconventional music. In contrast to the blaring horn ostinatos and galloping rhythms of classical Hollywood Westerns, such as those by John Ford, McCabe & Mrs Miller exclusively features folk tracks written and performed by Leonard Cohen. Instead of establishing the film with the optimistic Hoedown-esque (Copland, 1942) fanfares that are somewhat intrinsically linked to the themes of manifest destiny and the broad open plains of Monument Valley, Cohen’s somber tracks subvert this expectation and instead angle the atmosphere of the film towards its equally unconventional setting in snowy and rainy forests, pessimistic themes of vulnerability and decidedly anti-Western narrative. In what Scott Tobias describes as ‘mournful interstitials’ (2014) throughout the film, Cohen’s soft, downbeat guitar melodies provide the film with rich atmospheric texture and contrast conventional Western scores, just as the film’s snowy forests directly contrast desert plains. Phillips talks of the stark inversion this decision presents, explaining that through the use of Cohen’s ‘melancholy ballads’, along with unconventional visuals, ‘it is evident that Presbyterian Church contrasts dramatically with John Ford’s Frontier’(2008). In many ways, Cohen’s tracks achieve the same effect epic Western fanfares achieve, musically capturing and enhancing the fundamental emotions that drive the scenes. The first of the three Cohen tracks to appear in the film – ‘The Stranger Song’, which plays over the opening titles – is exemplary of this. Instead of blaring, upbeat brass exuding pioneer spirit and providing a fanfare for the stoic, alpha-male hero figure, the audience is met with pessimistic, somber guitar licks and ballad lyrics that mirror the situation of the protagonist they are soon to meet. The lyrics talk of a man who is yet to find his place in the world, who lives his life on the road, alone, constantly leaving people behind and not looking back. While a lone wanderer is not all too much of a far cry from an archetypal classical Western, the protagonist in the song is described as less of a stoic hero and more a vulnerable man on the run from himself, contrasting the conventions of the genre. By employing this song into the film’s soundtrack to introduce McCabe, Altman subverts the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking and inverts the conventional Western protagonist, reshaping the genre that categorises the film.

Conversely, Altman recognises that the music he omits from the film is equally as subversive as the music he includes. As aforementioned, the film – besides a few diegetic songs – has but three music tracks throughout its entire two hour runtime. The crucial, climactic gunfight that closes the film is a key moment where the omission of music is arguably more effective than its inclusion. The soundtrack feels most alive within the film when the deathly silence envelops our endangered protagonist. Traditionally, in a classical Hollywood Western – and in any classical Hollywood film, to an extent – music is included due to its arguably integral role in the tension and release of a scene. Epic gun fights that are typical of the genre are no exception to this stylistic choice, usually at the very least including dramatic stings and risers to heighten the tensions of the scene. In Howard Hawks’ 1966 acclaimed Western, El Dorado, a tense confrontation occurs when Mississippi threatens the last of his mentor’s murderers with revenge, eventually hurling a knife at one of the men. In classical Hollywood style, tension is heightened by musical cues; upon informing the men that he has killed all of the other murderers, a deep, bassy tuba stab marks the beginning of a musical sting that sonically conveys the danger of the situation. Even in a somewhat tamer scene for the genre, like the aforementioned, a dramatic sting or sometimes a full orchestral accompaniment to the dramatic action quickly becomes the centrepiece of the soundtrack in tense moments. This is even true in plenty of other classical Hollywood films outside of the Western genre. Altman, however, does not shy away from breaking the conventions of the classical style. In McCabe’s climactic manhunt gunfight, the tension of the cat-and-mouse nature of the scene is enough to peak audience attention and drive the dramatic action without the need of cues and stings. Altman’s deliberate omission of a tense backing track to raise the stakes in the audience’ minds is arguably more effective than the inclusion of this technique employed by classical Hollywood movies; the deafening silence of the soundtrack puts the audience intimately close to the characters as they make the few sounds audible in the scene, and ramps up the tension by wedging them right in the midst of the action. Compared to this aspect of the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking that is traditional of the Western, McCabe & Mrs Miller, while subverting convention, is equally as, if not more, effective than its more traditional counterparts.

A great part of a film’s soundtrack is its sound mixing. Classical Hollywood styles of filmmaking favour comprehensible audio mixing, for the sake of dialogue and narrative clarity. Generally to ensure this, primary or main dialogue in a scene will be favoured over all else, with important sounds being secondary, and atmospheric ambience or music where applicable being tertiary. David Bordwell explains the classical Hollywood system for conveying space, discussing composition of shots and blocking of characters and objects, concluding that central characters or significant objects are usually presented centrally in the frame in a balanced environment where audience attention is hardly competed for – i.e important characters tend to be foregrounded against a distinct background, fully in focus with nothing convoluting their presence, to ultimately ensure narrative clarity. He goes on to apply this to soundtracks in classical Hollywood, explaining that: ‘classical sound technique articulates foreground (principal voice) and background (silence, “background” noise, music “under” the action) with the same precision that camera and staging distinguish visual planes’ (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 1985, 50-60). In McCabe, Altman goes against this convention, with sound mixing designed to detract from the subject. On several occasions, inconsequential, ambient, ‘background’ conversations are amplified to the volume of a prominent line of primary dialogue, and vice versa. This is particularly obvious in a sequence where McCabe, checking on the progress of the saloon, asks where the tents are. Immediately this exchange of dialogue begins, the voice of the worker being questioned is soft and distant, despite being centre frame and the significant voice of the scene, from which his speech is literally cut out by McCabe’s question. In response to McCabe’s question, the man starts explaining as his dialogue fades into obscurity beneath the rest of the convoluted soundtrack. Distant laugher occludes the conversation, and an entirely new and separate inconsequential conversation between otherwise irrelevant characters becomes the primary sonic layer. This unconventional sound mixing breaks away from the classical Hollywood style of mixing and shifts attention towards atmospheric texture over narrative progression.

Overall, while McCabe & Mrs Miller intended to bend the conventions of the traditional Western and to break new ground in doing so, the film also attacks the structure that is beneath nearly every classical Hollywood movie, even those outside of its genre. In a feat of experimentation, the film’s soundtrack presents new ways to achieve desired effects, unaccounted for by the overarching style that dominated classical Hollywood. Experimenting with radically different music choice, omission of traditional soundtrack cues and stings and toying with sound mixing techniques to draw attention to the texture of the created world and away from the narrative, Robert Altman’s anti-Western proves that the modal method of filmmaking is not necessarily the most effective one; that conventions can be subverted in creative ways to produce results that rival even the best a genre has to offer – a statement only bolstered by its rather ironic placement in the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Westerns (AFI, 2008).

Bibliography

AFI. (2008). AFI: Top 10 Western. [online] Available at: https://www.afi.com/10top10/category.aspx?cat=3 [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].

Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (1985). The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. Routledge.

Copland, A. (1942), ‘Hoedown’ in Rodeo [musical composition]

El Dorado. (1966). [film] Directed by H. Hawks. Hollywood: Paramount.

McCabe & Mrs Miller. (1971). [film] Directed by R. Altman. Hollywood: Warner Bros.

Phillips, J. (2008). Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema. Stanford, CA: Stanford U. P., 52-68.

Tobias, S. (2014). McCabe & Mrs. Miller: profound pessimism and Leonard Cohen kindness. [online] The Dissolve. Available at: http://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/772-mccabe-mrs-miller-profound-pessimism-and-leonard-c/ [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].