Alan Menken

Rating: 8.2

Number one was a success, number two was a success, why not go for three? Disney has never been one to miss out on a money-making opportunity, and this one had great artistic potential as well. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were enough to cement the Howard Ashman - Alan Menken reputation, and Aladdin was all that was needed to turn that reputation into legend. Unfortunately, Ashman would not live to see the far reaching effects his work would have, and his death of AIDS at age 40, part way through the production of Aladdin, is the one sobering part of the otherwise lighthearted and exceptionally "fun" Aladdin. Tim Rice was brought in after Ashman's death, and there have rarely been bigger shoes to fill. While Rice's lyrics are exceptional, the whole production process changed with Ashman's death, and Rice, knowing very well the tall order of finishing a Menken/Ashman project, frequently deferred to Menken on important decisions. While this shows an excellent respect for Ashman, and perhaps is the best thing Rice could have done, it is far different than the workflow Menken was used to. As the booklet included in The Music Behind The Magic package says, "Ashman's forceful personality and dynamic vision were stamped so deeply, not only on the projects but on the people working on them, that even a writer of Rice's stature felt the need to tread a bit lightly" and "Despite his top-notch track record, Rice very much saw his role in this as being adaptable and subservient to the project-in-progress. This, in turn, meant that Menken - who more often than not deferred to Ashman in terms of choices about where songs would go in a story and what their thematic nature would be - had to assume more leadership than he had been accustomed to". While an excellent chance for Menken to step out, the over-all product suffers, albeit only slightly.

The album begins nicely with "Arabian Nights", and Bruce Adler does a very good job singing the part of the the merchant narrator. His Eastern vocal ornamentation is convincing, yet he keeps his singing firmly enough implanted in Western sensibilities, and it never sounds too foreign. Menken's music, making extensive use of the most simplistic of Eastern rhythms, also never sounds forced into that style. Though obviously far from authentic, the music does an admirable job of riding the fence between an Eastern sound, and still making sense to its Western audience. One note on the words of this song, however: The original release had the words "Where they cut off your nose if they don't like your face". These have been replaced in many versions with "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense" for the sake of political correctness. Though by themselves the replacement is not a problem, the following line "It's barbaric, but hey, it's home" makes no sense coming after the changed words. Though it does not detract much from the listening experience, it is worth noting for those it would concern. As a general rule, the earlier releases should have the original lyrics, but, if it does not bother you, either are fine. Robin Williams comedic introduction, presented on the track "Legend of the Lamp" is much less of a detraction than dialogue usually is on a soundtrack, and the flow is not especially interrupted by this interjection.

"One Jump Ahead" is a song written after Ashman's death, which was meant to be a song like "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim", but would fit with the drastically changed story-line. Though perhaps not on the same level with it's inspiration, it certainly is a fun and crazy song, and Menken incorporates jazz elements creatively. Brad Kane, who does an admirable job on "A Whole New World", doesn't quite seem to have what it takes to do as story-oriented a song as this. His singing style soars in that ballad style genre, but sounds a little forced here. Basically the opposite of Robin Williams, who's talking-singing combination works wonderfully for his songs, but could never have a powerful emotional impact (although we may never get a chance to find out). "A Whole New World" is the obviously radio-aimed song, but it still works better in the film than most of those type of attempts. If you would like a sampling of some of the most optimistic singing ever recorded, listen to the job Lea Salonga does on this song. Rarely has someone been able to capture so much happy, excited, optimistic character in a voice, and she and Kane seem to feed off of each other for the song. Rice's lyrics, while certainly modern sounding, fit the over-all modern feel of the film. Menken wrote a nice melody, and most of the orchestration works. The one problem is the piano. Most of what it does the whole song is play either the melody or arrpegiated chords. While certainly very common, it is uncreative, and the song suffers slightly from it.

Robin Williams has two showpieces (besides the introduction), and, though much credit should be handed over to the musical and lyrical writers, he takes full advantage of them. Full of character, animated yet never forced, exuberant and in-your-face, as well as, well, anything his character calls for (and it calls for a lot). "Friend Like Me" is by far the most jazzy song on the album, and the chromatic melody works great, even though Williams only infrequently actually makes use of it. "Prince Ali" is one of my favorites on the album. Up-tempo and lively, yet with much pomp and bravado, Williams introduction of the "prince" must go down in history as one of the most impressive ever.

The orchestral score that Menken composed, obviously to back and not usurp the songs is very good. Not on level with Beauty and the Beast, it is still excellent. There are moments of tender delicateness, as in "Street Urchins", "To Be Free" and "The Kiss", and there are moments of danger, adventure, adrenaline, and epic-ness, as in "Jafar's Hour", "The Ends of the Earth", and "The Battle". While never reaching the sort of emotional climax created in less than half that number of score tracks on the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack, the underscore is still a fun ride, and holds up under repeated listening. As for the pop rendition of "A Whole New World", I think I have made myself sufficiently clear on how I feel about these additions. Suffice to say that, no matter how unbelievable, the pop rendition is actually worse than the one in Beauty and the Beast, though it seems less sacrilegious since the quality has a little less far to drop in Aladdin in order to reach that depth.

At the beginning of the review I talked of Ashman's death, and how Rice coming in as lyricist changed things. A fascinating (but a little expensive) out-of-print optional purchase for Menken or Ashman fans is a set, already mentioned, called The Music Behind The Magic. Providing four discs with many previously unreleased tracks, it gives wonderful insight into The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and, most interestingly, Aladdin. After Ashman's death the story of Aladdin ended up changing dramatically, thus many incredible songs written by the Menken/Ashman duo were thrown out. No one will be able to say that one way would have been better, but in my opinion Aladdin could not have been any less of a hit had the original songs and story been used. The fourth disc of the set is made up entirely of unused Aladdin materiel, besides an early demo of "Friend Like Me". "Babkak, Omar Aladdin, Kassim", "Proud of Your Boy", "How Quick They Forget" and "High Adventure" easily rival the songs used on the film, and are immensely entertaining even in their demo quality.

Aladdin is fun and clever. It is more modern sounding than Beauty and the Beast, but mostly this is done in a jazzy and entertaining way, and not a grating, repetitive pop song way. But because of the glimpse we have been afforded by The Music Behind The Magic, we can not help but wish for more from Aladdin. Very solid, there was more possible from the creators. One has to wonder if a Beauty and the Beast rival was in the works. Instead, we have an excellent and consistently entertaining effort that spends its entire time bordering on real greatness, but rarely crossing that line.

-Colin Thomson

Track List:
Arabian Nights
Legend of the Lamp
One Jump Ahead
Street Urchins
One Jump Ahead (Reprise)
Friend Like Me
To Be Free
Prince Ali
A Whole New World
Jafar's Hour
Prince Ali (Reprise)
The Ends of the Earth
The Kiss
On A Dark Night
Jasmine Runs Away
The Cave Of Wonders
Aladdin's Word
The Battle
Happy End In Agrabah
A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)

1 comment:

Melange said...

Wonderful soundtrack, this one. Oddly enough it will always be connected in my mind with a girlfriend of mine in my 20s. We enjoyed watching the movie .