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Unwrapping the music in 'Tangled': It all begins with Joni Mitchell, says Alan Menken

November 24, 2010 |  8:30 am

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A few moments into "Tangled," a would-be princess breaks into song. Yet there's no orchestra and no singing squirrels, and "When Will My Life Begin?" is many moons removed from the typical grand, sweeping musical prologue that serves as curtain-raiser for most animated kids movies. Indeed, the Rapunzel in "Tangled" is one who practices the acoustic guitar, and the two-and-a-half minute guitar-driven number she sings to launch the film has a decidedly singer-songwriter vibe. 

The Rapunzel character may date back centuries, but the digitally created version in Disney's 50th animated feature appears to have been updated for the Taylor Swift generation. Composer Alan Menken, who first worked with Disney on 1989's "The Little Mermaid," says his musical inspiration for Rapunzel dates back a little further. 

Menken recalls that it was Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" that eventually led him to the upbeat melody and jangly feel of "When Will My Life Begin?" It was, in fact, the first direction Menken took with the song, and one that Disney finally green-lighted after Menken presented the studio with five other options.

"On a gut level, '60s folk rock felt like a fresh, interesting place to go to," Menken says. "I ran it by Disney to see how that interested them, and '60s folk rock was one of the ideas brought up. As is typical with Disney Animation, everyone loves to discuss lots of choices, and not just go, ‘Yes, let’s do that.’ We discussed it against other musical choices, but at the end of the day we decided to try the opening number in that style. Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Jackson Browne -- that’s all music that I love, and it was a bit of that mix."

"Tangled" has had a rather knotted-up production path. Ed Catmull, who along with John Lasseter oversees Disney Animation, spoke with The Times recently about the film, and noted the Rapunzel story underwent a "total restart" in 2008. In an effort to give it a more contemporary feel, the initial directing team was replaced by the "Bolt" duo of Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, and all prior work was scrapped. 

The changes affected Menken's work as well, who describes a sort of princess-by-committee feel to making the film. Here's Menken's summation of the last three years: "We want a classic fairy tale like 'Beauty and the Beast.' Then we wanted anything but the classic fairy tale like 'Beauty and the Beast.'" 

ALAN_MENKEN_MANDY_MOORE_6_ "When we were writing the songs, we’d come in and took a lot of input in our meetings with the directors and the writer," Menken continues. "It was a very collaborative, and at times a rough-and-tumble dynamic. It was quite incredible. We’d have these huge meetings. The directors, the producers, the writer and 35 other people around a gigantic table. John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Pixar and Disney. I’ve never seen a meeting that was that collaborative."

Though the characters in "Tangled" do break into the occasional song, they're fewer and farther between than they were in last year's "The Princess and the Frog." With limited exceptions, the songs aren't used so much to tell the story. They exist more to reveal character traits. "Mother Knows Best," for instance, sung by the film's emotionally manipulative villain Mother Gothel, is a way to illustrate how the character cunningly controls Rapunzel.

"This was not song-driven," Menken says. "When it’s not song-driven, it’s more of a trick to have characters break into song. It took a lot of work to achieve that balance. This is not a classic musical. It could become one, but this is a hybrid."

Menken, who has won Oscars for his work on Disney's "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "Pocahontas," notes that the Mandy Moore-sung "When Will My Life Begin?" underwent a bit of retooling itself. Initially, the song was longer, stretching over the whole prologue of the film, as the tune was used to set up the entire trapped-in-a-tower fairy tale. Instead, the Glenn Slater-penned lyrics could easily work outside the film, as the nods to the story of Rapunzel don't overpower the cut.

"There was a tendency to want to put the kitchen sink in every song," Menken says. "The opening number could have covered all kinds of material. It could have covered Rapunzel happy with her life in the tower, but also the influence of Mother Gothel, and also what Rapunzel is afraid of. We had a crazy amount of input. There was a whole negotiation in terms of balance."

The 2010 documentary "Waking Sleeping Beauty" looks at the revitalization of the Disney animated feature, focusing in large part on the songs of Menken and his musical partner at the time, the late Howard Ashman. The pair were recommended to then-Disney executive Jeffery Katzenberg by Hollywood mogul David Geffen, and soon began work on “The Little Mermaid.” Menken, who composed the full score for "Tangled," references "The Little Mermaid" when asked how "Tangled" pushed him out of his comfort zone.

"In 'The Little Mermaid,' I went into recording sessions with the director, who was hearing the cues for the first time," Menken recalls. "We worked on music at the sessions. That does not happen anymore. Now every cue is demoed to the point of a full synth orchestration. We had months of fine-tuning this score before it ever reached an orchestra. That was quite an adjustment for me, but at the end of the day, I was very happy with it."

The endless board meetings and princess-action hybrid experiment appears to have worked. The Times' Kenneth Turan gave "Tangled" a positive review. "Whether you like stirring adventure or sentimental romance, traditional fairy tales or stories of modern families, musicals or comedies, even blonds or brunets, 'Tangled' has something for you," Turan writes. "Sampling so many animation touchstones has its risks, but once 'Tangled' calms down and accepts the essential sweetness of its better nature the rewards are clear."

For all its swift cuts and witty banter, "Tangled," says Menken, is obviously a Disney creation in many ways, right down to its potentially frightening villain.

"The whole creation of this movie I was concerned whether or not young audiences could absorb Mother Gothel as a Disney villain, or whether she will she just induce nightmares," Menken says. "She’s such a dangerously manipulative woman.

"But Disney films were dark," Menken continues. "They were always dark. You have people saying that Disney means light and for kids, and it does not mean that at all. It means fantasy and storytelling on a very classic level. It appeals to kids, but Disney can be very adult at its core."

-- Todd Martens

RELATED:

Movie review: 'Tangled'

Disney Animation is closing the book on fairy tales

Michael Giacchino on the 'emotional time bomb' of 'Up'

Jenny Lewis gets a dose of Disney optimism with 'Bolt'

Randy Newman explores the sounds of New Orleans for 'The Princess and the Frog'

Images, from top: A scene from "Tangled," with Rapunzel and Flynn Rider (Walt Disney Animation); Mandy Moore with Alan Menken (Getty Images)

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