D23: The Happiest Music on Earth
Behind the Scenes with Disney Music President, Chris Montan
The coolest people on the planet are found at D23 Expo. In those hallowed halls at the Anaheim Convention Center, you’ll find Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Aladdin, Simba, Buzz & Woody, Mulan, Hercules, Elsa & Anna, and perhaps best of all, Chris Montan—the man who gives voice to all our favorite Disney heroes.
You may not know Chris Montan by name, but you and your family members certainly know his work.
Chris Montan currently serves as president of Walt Disney Music and oversees the musical soundtracks and scores for all Disney and Pixar animated feature films, all Disney Theatrical stage productions, as well as the music for Walt Disney Theme Parks and Resorts worldwide. Additionally, he’s executive music producer for all of the Studio’s animated features and works closely in the story process as well as helping to select musical talent.
Chris joined Disney in 1984. Since then he’s brought us unforgettable soundtracks for films like Toy Story, James and the Giant Peach, Mulan, Enchanted, Tangled, Brave, and Frozen, as well as Broadway music for shows like The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and The Originals—just to name a few. Under his guidance the Studio has garnered an unprecedented 42 Musical Academy Award® nominations, and soundtracks from ten of the Studio’s theatrical releases have been certified multi-platinum.
Pretty impressive, right? That’s why, when we heard the magnificent Mr. Montan was going to be at D23 Expo, we pestered him to give PopFam readers a little behind-the-scenes musical tour through Disney Music Land. Here’s what he had to say:
When was the moment you first discovered the power of music?
It’s hard for me to recount any particular moment when I first felt the power of music, as I don’t remember anytime when it was not in my life! I do recall seeing Lawrence of Arabia in a big Cinerama Dome theatre when I was about 10, and the power of Maurice Jarre’s main theme really bowled me over. Certainly hearing the Beatles for the first time on the radio was also life changing.
In your own words, what is Walt Disney Music?
I have numerous thoughts about what Disney music is, and what some of its key characteristics are. When I give talks, I often start off by asking the audience, “What are your ten favorite Paramount songs” At first they look blankly, and then they start to laugh as they realize where I am going; I then ask them what their ten favorite Disney songs are, and their hands shoot up.
Walt Disney songs to me are most importantly an integral part of the storytelling of the movie they are first heard in, whether animated or live action. The lyrics are always universally relatable, and most important, their melodies are memorable and timeless. They are “built to last” as opposed to being trendy and therefore eventually sounding dated. "Part Of Your World" sounds as good today as it did when I first heard it in 1988, and my guess is it will still sound great in 2040! We make a commitment that our songs will be important to the overall story-drive of our films, so they resonate for our audiences much more than typical movie songs which are often primarily used as marketing vehicles.
You recently completed The Legacy Collection; The Lion King. What are five behind-the-scenes secrets you can tell us about this fantastic compilation?
One of my favorite aspects of working on The Legacy Collection; The Lion King was the opportunity to reassemble our directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, our producer Don Hahn, our composer Hans Zimmer, and our music producer Mark Mancina twenty years later to share all our war stories. We worked together over a three year period so there were many stories to tell:
1) The time that we took "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" out of the film as we were making it, and we showed it to Elton John who rightfully told us we were making a huge mistake and that we needed to re-instate it. (Luckily we listened to him!)
2) Finally being able to put ALL of Hans' great score for the film on the CD. That was really important to us all.
3) Hearing many of Hans' demos for his score cues brought back many great memories; especially the ones which became the basis for some of the songs that are in The Lion King stage production.
4) The first time I read our producer Don Hahn’s liner notes for The Legacy Collection it brought back so many memories of the ups and downs that we experienced in making the film and the music.
5) It also reminded me how powerful the music was and is and how it still resonates twenty years later!
Tell us a favorite story from any of your other Disney Music projects.
One story I often tell is working with Phil Collins on the music for "Tarzan."
I went to visit him early in our process when we only had a treatment. I told him it was too early to write songs as we were still shaping our story. Of course, a week later he called me and said he had something that he would like to play me over the phone. He then proceeded to play an early version of "You'll Be in My Heart."
As I listened I thought the chorus was great, but I thought the verse of the song could be stronger which I proceeded to tell him. He said, “Right, I’ll call you back." The next day he called and played me the song with the newly rewritten verse and it was exactly the version that went into the film—and eventually won the Best Song Oscar.
What would you say is the most important thing in life—and how does that show up in your work?
I think there are two key components that influence my work at Disney. One is the importance and the power of family with all its connections. We really try to celebrate family in everything we do.
The other would be tolerance and the willingness to consider and support all points of view. We want our films and their music to appeal to all people worldwide, and we don’t want to feel that anyone would be excluded from enjoying our creative work.
What’s one question I haven’t asked yet, but should have asked?
The one question you didn’t raise would probably be my background before coming to Disney in 1984. Up until that time I had been a songwriter and a recording artist. I believe those experiences helped me immeasurably in developing and producing the music for animation and the stage for the past thirty years.
To close, finish this sentence: “As president of Walt Disney Music, I promise parents…”
As President of Walt Disney Music I can tell the parents in our audience that our music will appeal to all ages. It doesn’t mean that we create solely for a younger audience—in fact we seek to reach the members of each generation in a family. That way an aunt can share the love of a song with her niece, or with her own brothers and sisters. If the melody is not great it doesn’t go in the film, and that’s a promise!
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