If you’re like me and can sing every word to every song on the original ALADDIN soundtrack (whether your kids want you to or not), you might be excited to see the new live-action version of the film that soars into theaters on Friday, May 24. I am! And I was fortunate enough to attend the global press conference for the film on May 19, 2019, at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., where the film’s director Guy Ritchie, Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken, production designer Gemma Jackson (she designed HBO’s “Game of Thrones”!) and several cast members came together to share their journeys and experiences while making this highly anticipated film. Lucky for us, they had a lot to say about the music of the film.
- Will Smith (“Genie”)
- Mena Massoud (“Aladdin”)
- Naomi Scott (“Jasmine”)
- Nasim Pedrad (“Dalia”)
- Navid Negahban (“Sultan”)
- Director Guy Ritchie
- Composer Alan Menken
- Production Designer Gemma Jackson
There was also a significant amount of new Aladdin merchandise on display at the press conference. So many baubles and beautiful things — to wear, to play with, to admire — it was a veritable Cave of Wonders, and we’ll show you as much as we could get our hands on. But first, the music. Sarah, this one’s for you!
The Baby Grand Piano-Sized Elephant in the Room
When we arrived, the ballroom was set up with a large, wide stage for the press conference with the above-mentioned talent. Echoing the gorgeous production design of the film, it was dressed with rich design touches: lush turquoise armless chairs and loveseats, each with a round, tufted gold velvet throw cushion or a rectangular throw pillow crafted from orchid silk with gold accents, all of which was set off by the large gold Aladdin logo — newly reimagined with filigree details on the sweeping line of the A — on the curtain behind them. This attention to detail really set the mood. And as wonderful as all that was to look at in anticipation of the press conference to come, the exciting elephant in the room was a beautiful black grand piano located just in front of the well-appointed stage.
A piano in the room could mean only one thing, right? Were we to be treated to a live performance of some piece of the music of Aladdin?! I won’t make you wait like we had to to find out: IT DID!
Before the press conference officially started, Alan Menken himself (who won 2 of his 8 Oscars for his work on the music for Disney’s original Aladdin animated film back in 1993) was welcomed to the stage just for us! As he approached the piano, someone near the front playfully asked why hadn’t brought his Oscars with him, and Menken jumped right in to joke that they had stayed at home with someone looking after them, as they get rambunctious. He then sat down at the piano and said, with a smile in his voice, “I’m going to take you on a little trip through Aladdin’s songs and some of my other songs. I think you’ll know some of them.” Know some of them by heart, he could have said!
He proceeded to delight us with a 9-minute medley of the songs we all know and love from the movies that he wrote for. Snippets of most of the songs from Aladdin (“Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me,” “One Jump Ahead,” “Prince Ali”, and Jasmine’s new song for the live action film, “Speechless, ” co-written with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) were expertly interspersed with pieces of the iconic songs of the Little Mermaid (“Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World”), Beauty and the Beast (“Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast”), Pocahontas (“Colors of the Wind”), Hercules (“I Can Go the Distance”), Tangled (“I See the Light”), Enchanted (“That’s How You Know”), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (“Out There”) and coming back full circle to end with “A Whole New World” from Aladdin.
Menken moved so easily from one song to the next, singing and accompanying himself on the piano. It was a such a treat and an inspiring way to set the tone for the panel discussion to come.
Will Smith on Getting into the Genie
Among long-time fans of the movie, there has likely been some hand-wringing over how someone could step into such an iconic role as Robin Williams’ Genie. It seems Will Smith himself did some hand-wringing, as well, but let us in on the way he overcame it and found his own path to the Genie.
WILL SMITH: “For me, coming into this, first starting with fear, it definitely started with fear, what Robin Williams did with his character was, he just didn’t leave a lot of room to add to the genie. So I started off fearful. But then when I got with the music, it just started waking up that fun childlike silly part of me. This was the most joyful experience of my career.
“The song that got me over the hump of yes, I can play Genie, was “Friend Like Me.” I went into the studio the first day, and I really wanted to play with it to see if I could add something to it. And literally 30 minutes in the studio, and starting to play with it and finding that in that 94, 96 BPM range, that range is right old school hip hop. So I grabbed the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President” [from 1972], which is a really classic old school hip hop break beat. And I had them throw that break beat under there. And I messed with that and I messed with Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul” [from 1987] under “Friend Like Me.” And I was like ‘oh my God. I’m home, I’m home.’ And then I started playing with the hip hop flavor and then the Genie was really born in my mind from the music. I understood once I played with “Friend Like Me.”
ALAN MENKEN: “It was great. Absolutely. I say this a lot. I liken myself to an architect. I design a house that others are going to live in. And Will, you threw a hell of a party in that house. I just loved it. Once he did that, I just go, just back off and let him do what he does. Because it’s so good. “
When you see the film, make sure to stick around for the credits because all those people who worked on the film deserve to be honored, PLUS you’ll get to hear a very fun, fully hip-hop version of “Friend Like Me” from Will Smith featuring DJ Khaled. It’s that “hell of a party” Alan Menken mentioned.
Naomi Scott on the new song, “Speechless”
Moderator Dani Fernandez’s first question for Naomi was, “What was it like doing that scene and also how do you feel that song resonates today?” Naomi touched on what this new song meant to her and how it feels very fitting for the world we live in today, and relatable for anyone who’s ever felt silenced.
NAOMI SCOTT: “So the fact that [Alan Menken and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the latter two known for their work on LA LA Land, Dear Evan Hansen and Greatest Showman] wrote a song and I get to sing it, first of all, I was like wow. That’s already surreal. But also then when I heard it and just the words and the lyrics and how timely it was, the message behind the song and the idea of not going speechless, that everyone has a voice, doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what your gender, your voice matters. And speaking out against injustice matters. Not just standing by and being a spectator.”
Naomi also said she sang some of the song live on set, which she categorized as a completely different type of challenge.
NAOMI SCOTT: “It was really emotional because I wanted it to feel raw. And I wanted it to feel like it’s what she’s going through in that moment. “
Making Something New: One Jump Ahead
The cast talked a bit about what it was like to work with the director, Guy Ritchie, a well-known, respected filmmaker, who was directing his first Disney film. Ritchie was hailed as the most collaborative director they had ever worked with, who truly wanted the input of the actors and creative staff, and loved to work together to really challenge themselves to find something new around every corner with this production. Alan Menken brought up a certain instance of Guy’s process in action.
ALAN MENKEN: “A perfect example might be “One Jump Ahead,” right? “One Jump Ahead” is one of those songs in the animated movie which is almost choreographed. Like “one jump, ahead of the breadline.” It’s very sweet, very clever, very stagey. And Guy wanted to get to the truth underneath it, to go, “who is Aladdin in this?” more than just a guy performing, as Guy said, “jazz hands.” And so we tore that song apart. We tried it this way, we tried it that way to get the swagger into it. And he challenged me and the whole music team to go to a different place. We went to some pretty extreme places. And then what we came back to, it feels like “One Jump Ahead” to me but it feels very real.”
After an hour with the filmmakers and cast, it was clear that they had an absolute blast conceiving and making this film. The camaraderie displayed at the press conference and their chemistry onscreen were inspiring. These creative people really seem to enjoy each other’s company and genuinely admire each other’s talents.
Merchandise Photo Gallery
But what about the merchandise? Fear not! Gaze upon this bounty of licensed goods, including Funko Pops, clothing for the whole family, beaded purses that cost thousands of dollars and so much more. What’s on your wish list?
While the music is a huge part of the film and the merchandise will help you hold onto some of that movie magic, there is so much more to enjoy in this vibrant new trip back to Agrabah. Make sure to check out Disney’s ALADDIN at a theater near you on Friday, May 24.