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A Whole New World: Will Smith on the Reimagining of Music and More in Disney’s ‘Aladdin’

A Whole New World: Will Smith on the Reimagining of Music and More in Disney’s ‘Aladdin’

This past weekend at the Aladdin Press Conference in Beverly Hills, California, one thing that stood out was the discussion of music.

Everyone knows the best part of a Disney film are the songs that find their way on screen. There are, undoubtedly, classic Disney songs that everyone can bring to mind. Presumably, a good chunk of them is by the great composer Alan Menken. Not to mention, some that come to mind may be from the original animated version of Aladdin, and rightly so because those songs are amazing. Since the announcement of Disney’s journey to make live-action versions of some of their most beloved classics, one thing at the forefront of everyone’s minds was the songs and singing adaptations of the beloved classics.

The day started with a live performance by Disney Legend Alan Menken on a gorgeous black piano. He sang and played a medley of some his standout Disney songs over the years. It was a childhood dream come true.

In the medley and introduced to the live-action film was a new song called, ‘Speechless’; The song is performed by Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine in the film. The new song should resonate strongly with viewers. The song was written by Alan Menken and, from La La Land and The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. During the panel discussion, Naomi Scott described the song as, “Timely, the message behind the song of not going speechless, that everyone has a voice, no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter what your gender, your voice matters.” She continued by saying, “Speaking out against injustice matters and not just standing and being a spectator.”

It was very emotional for her she explained. It was also emotional for some fans who saw the movie the day before in an advance screening. There were people in the theater sobbing during that performance. A cool reveal during the conference was that some of Naomi’s performance of ‘Speechless’ was done live. “I wanted it to feel raw and show it’s what she’s going through at that moment. We did some of it live as well which was a different type of challenge.”

Another challenge with this song was finding a way to incorporate it with the original songs. It raised the bar for the music team. Alan described the situation as a welcomed challenge. “Once that song was in place we go, how do we set that song up, how do we create the moment where she would actually break into it that worked with the story and organically lead into it? There was a division of the song into two parts. The first had the lyrics, ‘I don’t want to remain speechless’ and the second part of the song had the lyrics, ‘I won’t remain speechless’. The song originally had a pop vibe to it, so the challenge then was to add the Aladdin flavor to it so it vibed with the rest of the score. Naomi is a singer in her own right. She generally sings in the R&B style. So the combination of pop and R&B worked well for the film.”

As Alan expressed to Naomi, “Your R&B and pop inflections make it perfect within the context of the story and arrangement and all that. It’s exactly the right balance.” It was clear in the performance on-screen that Naomi brought a good mix of both singing in character as a little bit of her own flare.

A classic song in the film that got reworked by the music team and one of the actors was “Friend Like Me” performed by Will Smith as Genie. Will’s first reaction to being in his first Disney film was, “Disney Magic is real.” He continued by explaining, “There’s something that Disney did in the design of these stories that at the core of these stories is something that shocks the inner child within you and forces it to come alive and smile and appreciate the moment.” A fear that a lot of Disney fans had, including Will, was fear of what he would do to the Genie character after the brilliant performance of Robin Williams. The song that got Will over his fear was, “Friend Like Me”. Will did his thing in the studio booth and came out with a great reimagining of the song. Will explained it best at the press conference:

“I went into the studio the first day and I really wanted to play with it to see if I could add something to it. And literally 30 mins in the studio, I started to play with it and finding that 94 to 96 bpm range, we were ultimately playing in there. I think it was a little bit faster than that, but that 94 to 96 bpm range is right old-school hip-hop. I grabbed The Honey Drippers: ‘Impeach the President’, which was a really classic old-school hip-hop breakbeat, and I had them throw that breakbeat under there. I messed with that and I messed with Eric B. & Rakim: ‘I know you Got Soul’ under ‘Friend Like Me’. I was like, oh my gosh, I’m home. Then I started playing with the hip-hop flavor and the genie was really born in my mind from the music.”

To get insight into Will Smith’s collaboration into the music process of a fan favorite song has to be the highlight of the day. You could tell that Will was really into this moment and how profound it was for him during the process. Alan Menken expressed that he backed off a bit and let Will do his thing with the song seeing the creative genius that lurked behind. “I liken myself to an architect when I design a house that others are going to live in,” says Alan, “and Will, man, you threw a hell of a party inside that house. I just loved it.” It was awesome to hear a great talent like Alan Menken express a sort of admiration for a musical talent like Will Smith. They are from two very different backgrounds of music and the collaboration is brilliant in Aladdin.

The music in the live-action version of Aladdin is fantastic. It was great to get some insight into the collaborative process between the cast and the music team. The press conference gave some perspective that ultimately makes me hope that everyone enjoys the film and sees the fresh spin filmmakers tried to make while staying true to the original. As Will says, “I started off fearful, but then when I got with the music and it just started waking up that fun childlike silly part of me and this was the most joyful experience of my career.” Let’s all walk away from the theater a little bit more joyful after seeing the film.


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Aladdin hits theaters Friday, May 24.

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