Music in the movies: Alan Menken

News Glen Chapman 16 May 2011 - 11:14
Alan Menken

With Disney’s Tangled due out on DVD and Blu-ray next week, Glen looks at the work of its composer, the talented Alan Menken…

Alan Menken has produced some of the finest soundtracks in the history of Disney, and played a large part in its resurgence in the 90s. With Tangled out next week on DVD and Blu-ray, I thought now would be an ideal time to look at his collaborations with the studio over the years, and celebrate his work.

The Little Mermaid

Menken teamed up with his Little Shop Of Horrors partner Howard Ashman to provide one of the finest Disney feature soundtracks ever. Their efforts here saw them win both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Score, as well as winning the Academy Award for best song for Kiss The Girl and the Golden Globe in the same category for Under The Sea.

A lot of thought and attention clearly went into the production of the score and soundtrack, as it oozes quality from every pore; the songs have a beautiful, lyrical coherence with the narrative of the film, and the score ranges from sweet and evocative to dark and scary. This, along with Little Shop Of Horrors, really showed the emergence of a new talent in composition and song writing, and marked the start of a successful relationship with Disney.

Beauty And The Beast

Following up his work on The Little Mermaid couldn’t have been an easy task, but Menken, along with Alan Ashman, created another hugely memorable soundtrack for Beauty And The Beast. The songs here carry the same levels of sophistication in terms of driving the narrative as The Little Mermaid.

Overall, it’s a marginally weaker score than its predecessor for me, but still ranks among the finest scores and collection of songs to accompany a Disney film. Ashman sadly died shortly after completing work on Beauty And The Beast, which was a huge loss to both his family and friends, but also cinema. He wrote some of the finest and most memorable musical numbers in film.

Aladdin

The original plan was for Menken and Ashman to team up once again for Disney’s take on Aladdin, but due to Ashman’s death, Tim Rice was brought in to help Menken with the lyrics. Ashman and Menken worked on three songs before Ashman passed that made it into the film; Arabian Nights, Friend Like Me and Prince Ali.

The songs are all of a high standard, and are performed brilliantly by the cast - Robin Williams in particular - but for me, the score itself is a different class. There’s a sense of adventure and excitement running throughout that captures the spirit of the film perfectly. Like the film that follows in this list, lyrics were changed as initial passes were found to cause offence.

Pocahontas

With Menken’s earlier work earning plenty of Oscar attention, his continued collaboration with Disney was pretty much a given, and the score and songs for Pocahontas certainly didn’t disappoint. Some would argue that his work here doesn’t quite match the quality of its predecessors, but given the fact that they still represent some of the finest and most memorable soundtracks in Disney’s excellent collection of films, it’s nevertheless far better than the themes from rival studios’ animated features.

Stand out track Colors Of The Wind was a top ten hit in America, and the album itself shifted in excess of two million units. There are some amusing alternative lyrics, full of dark humour, that were changed to make them more palatable and less offensive for a family audience the film was targeted at.

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame

Obviously, the source material here is a little dark, so it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise that the Disney film wasn’t all sunshine and kittens, but despite its darkness, there’s a strong message about acceptance at its heart that is very positive.

The score itself also faced criticism, with many feeling that it was one of the factors that made audience members so scared. Of course, all great scores should draw out the required emotions of a film, so this indicates how effective it is.

In terms of the films of Disney’s new golden age, which saw Menken’s finest work and some of the studio’s best work for years, The Hunchback isn’t regarded as a classic. But for me, it’s one of best, and far better than Pocahontas. The score is fantastic, as are the opening songs, which set an ominous tone. I do think the comedy numbers hurt the overall tone of the piece, but I fully understand why they’re included.

Hercules

Hercules received good reviews, and made over three times its budget, but it wasn’t the smash hit that some of its predecessors were. This is a shame, because some of the vocal work is incredible (particularly James Woods’) and the soundtrack is also great. It didn’t win any major awards like some of his previous efforts, but Menken and collaborator David Zippel wrote a number of excellent tracks for the strong cast to perform. Go The Distance is the song that stands out, and there are a number of versions around, but the best is the one performed by Roger Bart.

Enchanted

Another in a long line of successful collaborations between Menken and the house of mouse, this time they moved away from animated features and into the realm of live action. Still, many of the key Disney themes are prevalent throughout Enchanted, particularly with the score and the song element of the soundtrack.

This is a score that many won’t reach for first, given the quality of Menken’s other work with Disney, but the score represents some of the composer’s finest work, which was recognised by the Academy, as he was nominated for Best Score, as well as receiving two nominations for Best Song for the film.

It’s a classic orchestral score in every sense, and film geeks should get a kick out of the stuff that’s referenced throughout. This isn’t just a collection of influences, however, and is very much its own thing – and quite a brilliant thing at that.

Tangled

I loved both Tangled and the supporting soundtrack. Disney has attempted to return to its strengths of late with last year’s The Princess And The Frog, but I don’t think that it captured the classic Disney sensibilities to the same extent as Tangled.

Tangled’s score and soundtrack really doesn’t have a weak moment; it’s packed full of evocative and touching songs that help to make the film so memorable. Menken was assisted by Glenn Slater here, who helped pen lyrics, and Mother Knows Best is, for me, the finest track – it really is fantastic, and strikes a balance between melodic and narrative sophistication, as well as being equal parts sweet and sinister. 

See Also:

Sponsored Links