Underrated Soundtracks – Alan Menken, Hercules (1997)

Hercules is the greatest film in Disney animation history, but that’s a story for another time. Hercules has the greatest soundtrack in animation history, but – oh no, I’ve got time to get to that one right now.

I’m aware of the classics – all too aware – me and my ex-girlfriend would belt out ‘A Whole New World’ spontaneously (I hear she does that with another guy now *weep*), it takes two seconds to get a room of people singing ‘The Circle Of Life’, and Beauty And The Beast is a classic because of its essential soundtrack. None of this I begrudge specifically – I just find it galling that you get laughed out of a room for suggesting ‘Go The Distance’ outstrips them all. Disney nerds are the meanest.

Which is bonkers, because it’s their most cohesive soundtrack to date – (composed by Alan Menken, the man responsible for Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas… that guy’s a wizard) the film is what it is because of the writing AND the soundtrack. Try and imagine Hercules without the deliriously inspired Greek Chorus / Gospel Choir, try and imagine the film without that sweeping, epic score, try and imagine a world where we haven’t heard Danny DeVito sing.

Composer Alan Menken, 

Dave Zippel, the man behind the lyrics for Mulan and Tarzan, is a madman with the pen, was identified as a wordsmith that had fun with his writing. What I’d give to be a fresh-eyed soul watching Hercules for the first time, and experiencing the pump-fake of hearing Charlton Heston’s god-like narration become The Gospel Truth I. There’s an irreverence throughout this film, but here in particular, that rivals Pixar’s self-knowing inventiveness.

That song thrums with creative shifts in pitch, tone, and storytelling (‘though honey it may seem impossible, that’s the gospel truthhhh!’). Those ladies are heaven in a bottle, and each time they put their pipes to the test it’s genuinely unforgettable. Quite unlike the new additions to the Beauty and the Beast cash grab / remake.

The directors test DeVito’s pipes ‘One Last Hope’, which again, I cannot applaud enough, – his grumpy, jaded trainer Philoctetes taps his way through a training song that warms the cockles of my grumpy, jaded heart (‘I’m down to one last hope and I hope, it’s you!’). An inevitable love song is flecked with enough real-world cynicism to give it a stomach-twisting oomph, wherein Meg refuses to admit she’s in love (’No chance, no way, I won’t say I’m in love!’). ‘Zero To Hero’ is probably the best of a great bunch from my girls in the Gospel Choir (‘Who put the glad in Gladiator’), and the closer, ‘A Star Is Born’ is the song that would play at the gates of heaven, if heaven were a real thing and we weren’t random iterations of DNA convincing ourselves that souls are real, and that we have a purpose (lol).

As with most things in life, all those words are merely a preamble to something that pertains to Michael Bolton. ‘Go The Distance’ is a thematic cocktail of bravery, destiny, and self-belief. It’s the latter that rings true to this day – Herc is not only considered a freak, but considers himself a freak – he’s somewhat bumbling, he doesn’t fit in, and he, quite simply, wants to belong. Which probably pertains to many of us. It’s the song that humanises a demi-god, the son of Zeus, prey to the same faltering in self-love as everyone else. Menken’s finest work. Horns emote in the background, gongs sound, fingers dance across keys, and you start to get the sense that this song exists outside of a film, that it exists outside of what it was written about, and becomes something much, much more. More than a song which doubles as a euphemism for Aladdin wanting to bang Jasmine, anyway.

Credits
Composer: Alan Menken
Lyricist: David Zippel
Vocalists: Lillias White, LaChanze, Roz Ryan, Roger Bart, Danny DeVito, and Susan Egan

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