By Terrance Turner
July 17, 2019
Last night, ABC aired its prime-time special on “The Lion King”, the live-action retelling of the classic 1994 animated film. The special featured intriguing details about the making of the original film and its adaptation to the stage. ABC also included interviews with the voices behind the current version: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Alfre Woodard, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, among others. But the most memorable voice was that of the film’s Nala: Beyonce Knowles-Carter.
The special premiered the official music video for “Spirit”, the first single off the Lion King: The Gift, an album of original music inspired by the film. (Spin magazine writer Tosten Burns points out that this album is separate from the actual Lion King soundtrack, which came out last week.) In an exclusive interview that aired during the special, Beyonce called the album “a love letter to Africa”.
“Spirit” begins with two men chanting “Long live the king” in Swahili. Beyonce gently delivers the song’s opening verse, which escalates to a stirring chorus. Her sultry voice is joined by a choir, and the song begins to build. By the second chorus, she and the choir are at full-throttle, backed by a driving beat and synchronized handclaps.
“Your destiny is coming close,” she sings. “Stand up and fight.” Suddenly, the swelling arrangement drops to a whisper in the bridge — hushed vocals and soft piano. “So go into that far off land, and be one with the great ‘I AM’. A boy becomes a man,” Beyonce sings, in a gorgeous falsetto that rises higher and higher. By the three-minute mark, she’s in the stratosphere, displaying her incredible range.
That stunning moment leads to a rousing, gospelly finale. Beyoncé belts out the final choruses in impassioned, melismatic fashion, powerfully combining with the choir. Their voices swell as the song continues, rising even higher for a dramatic key change. Beyoncé returns to a gentle, delicate head voice for the song’s final bars.
“Spirit” was written by Ilya Salmanzadeh, Timothy Lee McKenzie, and Beyonce. Salmanzadeh is a Swedish-Persian producer and songwriter; McKenzie is a Grammy-nominated British songwriter who performs as “Labrinth”. The two sent a rough demo to Beyonce, who loved it. “She started helping us write the rest of the record,” McKenzie told ABC News. He described the moment as “incredible.”
McKenzie said Beyoncé is meticulous in her work: “She’s a perfectionist and she’s a Virgo, like my wife. Virgos are serious perfectionists.” He added: “She cared about everything that was in the record. She cared about what piano we were going to use. Is there enough bass? Not many artists care that much.” But despite her perfectionism, Beyoncé wasn’t demanding, he said.
“A lot of artists in her position, they can be divas and they can be hard to deal with. Her energy and the messages she sent to us in terms of saying thank you for contributing to ‘The Lion King’ — she sent really beautiful messages. I was really kind of surprised to see that someone in her position still has that humility.”
The song itself is noteworthy, but the music video, which premiered last night, only amplifies its quality. Beyoncé explained the video in an interview for the ABC special. “The concept of the video is to show how God is the painter, and natural beauty — and nature — needs no art direction,” she said. “It’s the beauty of nature, the beauty of melanin, the beauty of tradition.”
“Spirit” was filmed at Havasu Falls, a waterfall within Arizona’s Grand Canyon. The Arizona Republic reported that on July 8, a location manager called the head of Arizona’s film office, asking for permission to film at Havasu. The man he called was Matthew Earl Jones, director of Arizona Film and Digital Media. (Jones is the nephew of actor James Earl Jones, who voiced Mufasa in both “Lion King” films.) Mr. Jones put the manager in touch with the Havasupai Tribal Council, who quickly granted the request. The shoot took place just two days later, with Beyoncé flying in by helicopter.
The request’s approval came as a surprise to Jones, given that permits are hard to come by. But the Council was glad to oblige Beyoncé. A Council spokeswoman said that given Bey’s support of water rights worldwide, “we were particularly pleased to be able to accommodate her request.” The video offers spectacular views of the waterfalls and accompanying scenery.
Beyoncé is shown seated, wearing a voluminous, ruffled dress of lilac and red. Early on, there’s an appearance by her daughter Blue Ivy Carter, who walks up (in lavender ruffles) to take her mother’s hand. The Havasu Falls appear about a minute in; draped in dramatic royal blue, Beyoncé begins the chorus in front of the waterfall. Throughout the four-minute video, scenes from the film are interspersed with shots of Queen Bey. Clad in colorful, flowing costumes, Beyoncé performs the song with an array of dancers in various desert locales.
In less than 24 hours, “Spirit” has amassed 5.3 million views on YouTube. It is currently #1 in YouTube’s “Trending” section. Beyonce’s album will debut the same day as the film. “The Lion King” hits theaters on Friday, July 19. Watch the “Spirit” video below.