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A Life, A Spirit, A Name: 'Pocahontas' Songwriters Reflect On The Disney Animated Classic 25 Years After Its Release

Photo courtesy of Disney

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A Life, A Spirit, A Name: 'Pocahontas' Songwriters Reflect On The Disney Animated Classic 25 Years After Its Release

"The messages of the film have become more urgent and more necessary," GRAMMY-winning composer Stephen Schwartz tells GRAMMY.com in an exclusive interview

GRAMMYs/Jul 18, 2020 - 05:50 pm

"It was courageous and tried to push the envelope of what one can do in an animated feature for a general audience. To this day, it remains a brave and beautiful film," says Stephen Schwartz. Over the course of his career, Stephen Schwartz has composed groundbreaking musicals such as Pippin, Wicked, and the GRAMMY-winning Godspell. But in 1996, he won his second award from the Recording Academy, this time as a lyricist, collaborating with the equally renowned composer Alan Menken on the Disney animated feature Pocahontas. Today, 25 years after the film’s initial release, Pocahontas' strengths have only grown. "We really wanted to deal with racial discrimination and environmentalism, it feels more timely to me than ever," Menken adds. "It was so powerful to reach into the trove of influences that came from early America and Native Americans to give Pocahontas such a unique and powerful color palette."

Prior to Pocahontas, Schwartz and Menken had become friends, though hadn’t yet gotten the chance to work together. Menken had a long line of film hits under his belt, including multiple Disney features; alongside lyricist Howard Ashman, Menken composed the scores to Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. But after Ashman’s death midway through writing Aladdin, Disney linked Menken with other collaborators.

After pairing with Tim Rice to finish Aladdin, Disney suggested Schwartz for their next film. "You can't really fill Howard Ashman’s shoes, but they needed someone who would work well with Alan," Schwartz says. Menken, meanwhile, had long watched Schwartz's work with admiration. "He was a legendary composer, the wunderkind of Broadway back in the '70s," Menken says. "He was very much a standard for bringing pop music into Broadway." Most recently, Schwartz had written the lyrics to the Broadway show "Rags," but had composed music, written lyrics, and even directed. Schwartz was confident that his flexibility would bode well for their work. After a successful interview with Disney leadership and chatting with Menken, Schwartz signed on to the project—even before learning what the film was all about.

Once he understood that he'd agreed to write lyrics for Pocahontas rather than a fairytale-based film like The Little Mermaid—and for an animated Disney film—Schwartz got nervous. "Talking honestly about Native Americans and their encounters with white settlers would be difficult. But the worst that could happen is they'd see what I came up with and I'll get fired," he says.

Menken, meanwhile, was already a veteran of the Disney process, and knew that back-and-forth would be positive and essential. "Arrangement and song structure and lyrics change constantly throughout the writing of any movie, and one of the keys of success is never being precious about that," he says. "If you change something and it's better, that's great. And if you change something and it's not better, you just go back to what you had. There's no downside of being flexible."

Luckily, the first song the two wrote not only didn’t necessitate firing, it proved to be the film’s beating heart: "Colors of the Wind." The reaction from Disney brass was overwhelmingly positive, and the duo knew they’d found a way to convey these sensitive topics in American history—and to do so in a beautiful, honest way.

To reach that place, Menken and Schwartz immersed themselves in research on Native American culture. "I have this slogan: ‘in lieu of inspiration, do research,'" Schwartz says. For Menken, that meant learning as much as he could about traditional Native American music. "The percussive nature of the voices and drums, the beautiful wind instruments all came together," Menken adds. "From there, it was about overlaying a romanticism and a classicism that really characterizes that score."

Schwartz, meanwhile, tracked down books of history of the Algonquin tribes as well as Native American poetry. In the latter, he was fascinated by nature imagery, the way that the poems used metaphors to tell stories. The most significant source of inspiration, though, was a (potentially apocryphal) letter written by Duwamish tribe Chief Seattle to then-President Franklin Pierce. "I remember so vividly the first time I read, ‘There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to listen to the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect wings,'" Schwartz says. "If you look at the lyrics for ‘Colors of the Wind,' you can see how inspired I was by his words. I tried to capture the spirit of this philosophy and the cadence of Native American poetry." In fact, when the song won an Academy Award, Schwartz made sure to credit the award to Chief Seattle in his acceptance speech.

Seeing the final product of "Colors of the Wind" within the film, Schwartz remembers, was a revelation. The duo had written the song around the concept of an impossible metaphor: the visuals of something invisible. But Disney worked its magic. "We were writing about a deep philosophy for the character of Pocahontas and her people, which was in stark contrast to the white men that came looking for gold and saw the land as a basis for exploitation," Schwartz says. "The animators very cleverly turned it into blowing autumn leaves."

Ultimately, "Colors of the Wind" proved significant in defining themes and the central conflict for Pocahontas. Over the three- to four-year process, the film’s directors worked closely with Menken and Schwartz to ensure the themes and character concepts carried through. In fact, towards the end of the creation of Pocahontas, Menken and Schwartz were tasked with composing the music for Hunchback of Notre Dame. "If I had to jump over and write a song for Hunchback and then come back, it could take a couple of days to just see through those eyes again," Schwartz says.

Not only was the song important in the film's production, it proved to have a potent life outside of Pocahontas as well. The song was recorded with pop star/actor Vanessa Williams for the film's soundtrack, and the version wound up becoming a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. After previously being passed over for a Disney role years earlier, Williams cherished the opportunity to become a part of that world. "For me, it’s much more than just a beautiful song that Steven Schwartz and Alan Menken wrote," Williams says. "It's more triumphant when married with the journey that I went through, the triumph after being rejected."

Rather than merely recording the song as it was in the film, Williams worked with producer Keith Thomas on a new take. Thomas had produced Williams’ previous hits such as "Save the Best for Last" and "Sweetest Days." Schwartz and Menken joined the duo in the studio, and suggested that Williams try out a pop and R&B-inflected take on the song, rather than leaning into musical theater. “It's such a beautiful song and I just love that she's a triumphant Native American, which is fantastic,” she explains. “You have to connect to the material and you have to create the moment. It's one of those songs that audiences always connect to.” Williams also had the opportunity to perform “Colors of the Wind” the night it won Best Song Written for a Motion Picture at the Oscars.”I had dancers and aerialists and a revolving staircase to climb up in my Versace gown,” she recalls.

More than a powerful step in her career, Williams was excited by the film's extended representation within the Disney universe. As a centerpiece of Pocahontas, the vocalist always focused down on a single verse: "For whether we are white or copper skinned/ We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains/ We need to paint with all the colors of the wind." To this day, those lines give Williams an extra charge every time she sings them. "I always indicate my arm, my copper-colored skin when I get there," she explains. "I have Native American heritage in my background. I have Native American blood in my veins."

While writing a song honoring the Native American perspective may have been a challenge, Schwartz was unsure as to how Disney would react to songs that more directly addressed white settlers’ deleterious effect on the land and the indigenous people. "I felt we had to directly address the themes of ethnic conflict in 'Savages,' which I had never seen done in animation before," Schwartz says. "And then Ratcliffe, who is I suppose is the villain, sings, ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’ which is a song about rapaciousness." Again, Disney surprised him in its unwavering support of the bold direction. "I found them enormously courageous," Schwartz says. "I kept expecting them to say we were pushing it too far, that it was too controversial, but they really never did that."

The major point of struggle in the film’s composition came in writing a pure love song for Pocahontas and John Smith. Menken and Schwartz’s composition, "If I Never Knew You," was loved by Disney, but when it slowed the pace too drastically in early screenings, the duo suggested it be removed. "It’s a beautiful song, but I anticipated that people were going to come to the table and question whether we needed it," Menken says. "But I surprised people. We sat down at our postmortem and I questioned whether it was necessary and everybody at the table sighed a deep sigh of relief because they were concerned about having to confront me about it." The music was used for the end credits in the initial release, but was actually added back into the film itself when it was re-released for its 10th anniversary.

While neither Schwartz nor Menken may be Native American, they worked to ensure they could bring to light the oppression Native Americans face as well as the beauty of the culture. "I feel strongly that we would all be a lot better off if we were more conscious of how we are treating our earth and that we have a responsibility to the humans that follow us to leave them a habitable planet,” Schwartz says. "Climate change was not something that was as in the forefront in 1992, when we first wrote 'Colors of the Wind,' and 1995 when the film was released. But today, as we see the dire consequence of our failing to take care of our planet, the messages of the film have become more urgent and more necessary."

Menken similarly remains proud of the film’s place in providing more representation for Native Americans. "Pocahontas was so pivotal given contemporary sensitivities about how we depict Native Americans," he says. "This is a musical and a Disney project, so there are elements that are really romanticized in the storytelling, but we had very pivotal Native advisors such as Russell Means. We and Disney wanted to be accurate and balanced in our depiction of the story."

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Stephen Schwartz, Five For Fighting Pen Music For "Harmony" Cop Show

Five For Fighting

Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images

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Stephen Schwartz, Five For Fighting Pen Music For "Harmony" Cop Show

"Harmony": ABC's New Musical Cop Show

GRAMMYs/Nov 3, 2017 - 10:14 pm

Remember that short-lived 1990 ABC show called "Cop Rock" that outrageously saw, for example, a jury, judge and courtroom erupt in a rousing chorus of "He's Guilty"? No? Well, that's maybe not a surprise.

Created by "Hill Street Blues" creator Steven Bochco, the musical and cop drama combination was perhaps ahead of its time. "Cop Rock" only aired for 11 episodes before the network pulled the plug. But now, ABC thinks it's time to give the genre a second chance.

With GRAMMY-winning composer Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked") and Five For Fighting's John Ondrasik on board, ABC has put considerable development resources behind a new show called "Harmony," created with Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige.

The musical show centers on the residents of the appropriately named city of Harmony, N.Y., with, according to Billboard, "the most unique dialect in the world: They sing their feelings and dance their emotions." After a murder threatens the tourist destination, a "repressed" detective returns to the singsong town he left as a teenager to not only solve the murder, but to resolve his own past.

Now that 27 years has passed since "Cop Rock," which TV Guide ranked as the eighth worst TV show of all time in 2002, the network hopes TV viewers will finally be ready for the unconquered territory of solving crimes while singing.

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Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross Wrote Original Score For New Doc
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Photo: Rommel Demano / Getty Images

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Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross Wrote Original Score For New Doc

The GRAMMY-winning duo have written 17 original tracks for Ken Burns' latest documentary on the Vietnam War

GRAMMYs/Aug 21, 2017 - 11:46 pm

Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has a new project forthcoming, and he has reportedly tapped the GAMMY-winning duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to provide the score.

Burns' latest documentary, The Vietnam War, will be broadcast on PBS as a 10-part television event beginning on Sept. 17, and Reznor and Ross' 17-track soundtrack will be released as a two-disc CD and three-LP vinyl package on Sept. 15.

The pair have had much success in film music over the past years, winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the soundtrack for The Social Network, nabbing a GRAMMY nomination for their work on the Gone Girl soundtrack, and winning for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo at the 55th GRAMMY Awards. Their previous documentary soundtrack projects include the Leonardo DiCaprio-narrated Before The Flood, as well as director Peter Berg's acclaimed retelling of the Boston Marathon bombing, Patriot's Day.

Reznor's and Ross' 17 original tracks will stand a long side a curated compilation of contemporary music from the Vietnam War era, selected by Burns and his co-director Lynn Novick. This companion package will be released as a two-disc package entitled The Vietnam War: The Soundtrack, and will include selections by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye.

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Songwriters Hall to honor Jay Z, Alan Menken, Max Martin
Jay Z is the first rapper to enter the Songwriters Hall of Fame

Photo: John Shearer/WireImage.com

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Songwriters Hall to honor Jay Z, Alan Menken, Max Martin

The Songwriters Hall of Fame will soon honor their latest slate of scribes whose songs stay with us

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

On June 15 the Songwriters Hall of Fame will induct new members and bestow special honors, including their highest honor — the Johnny Mercer Award — named after the writer who first taught America to "Accentuate the Positive" as well as a founding member of The Recording Academy.

With his induction, Jay Z earns the distinction of being the first rapper to enter the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The 21-time GRAMMY winner has won the GRAMMY for Best Rap Song three times in his career, including the 2010 award for the modern classic "Empire State Of Mind" with Alicia Keys.

Fellow GRAMMY winner Alan Menken will receive this year's Johnny Mercer Award. Menken's name gives the words "Music by …" extra meaning, whether in the credits of Little Shop Of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, Newsies, or more recently, Sausage Party.

The same can be said for the other songwriters who will be recognized at this year's ceremony. 2017 inductees include GRAMMY winners Jimmy Jam and Max Martin, who was awarded Best Song Written For Visual Media at the 59th GRAMMYs for co-authoring the Trolls tune "Can't Stop The Feeling!" Jam also appeared on the GRAMMY stage this February as a member of the Time for Bruno Mars' Prince tribute. Also fresh off the 59th GRAMMY stage, Ed Sheeran will receive the Songwriters Hall of Fame Hal David Starlight Award.

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