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South China Morning Post
Cover: Monday Focus
Juy 5, 1999

When Disney came calling, Phil Collins mustered his courage and swung into a different musical direction, he tells David Cohen
On the surface, it seems that Phil Collins has very little to prove. He is respected as one of the best drummers alive, he is popular, with a couple hundred million records sold worldwide, and he has been honored with 6 Grammy awards.
But when Walt Disney Pictures asked him to write the music for their animated film Tarzan, Collins was nervous.

"Yeah, well, it's big shoes to fill, the musical history of Disney," says Collins "There's classic songs, you know? I thought 'I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I'm that good.'"

It has been four years since that initial meeting, four years in which Collins overcame his early doubts to become one of the film's key collaborators. Ultimately, to his own surprise, he became a kind of musical narrator for the film. He also became the first pop star to actually sing on the soundtrack of a Disney animated film, breaking with one of Hollywood's longer running traditions.

If Tarzan is a new direction for Disney, it is also one for Collins. He is leaving the frenetic world of rock tours for a more calmer, more settled life.

But back in October 1985, when he was first approached about Tarzan, there was little calm to be had, anywhere. Collins was intimidated by the Disney legacy, but directors Chris Buck and Kevin Lima were intimidated, period. "We were very nervous about meeting the rock star and everything," remembers Buck of that meeting at Collins's lakeside home in Switzerland. "We thought, oh man, he's just going to blow us off."

In fact, they quickly discovered that Collins has very little rock star attitude. As Collins himself shrugs, "People are always shocked when someone rings my doorbell and I answer the door. When people ring me up, I answer the phone. I'm not difficult to find."

Buck and Lima had another edge, too, if they had known it: Collins was chafing for a chance to write a film score. In fact, he had been chafing for 9 years. He has had some big hits on film scores, including "Take a Look at Me Now" on the film Against All Odds. But while rockers like Dire Straights' Mark Knopfler had been hired for film scores, Collins had never been able to land a scoring assignment.

"It's been slow and difficult getting people to give me a chance, because I'm a non starter as far as a film composer is concerned," he says without rancour. "Yes, I can write the song for the end of the movie, but not the basic score. And everyone is reluctant to give a first time writer that chance."

Eager as Collins was, he was happier once the two directors reassured him that they knew what they were asking for. "They explained to me that 'we don't want you to do what (Beauty and the Beast composer) Allen Menken did, otherwise we'd be getting him to do it. We want you to do what you do.'"

"So that was okay, I could understand that then. I'll just do what I do and see if that works."

The meeting ended with a relieved Buck and Lima heading back to California with Collins on board. "They said 'thank you very much. We'll be in touch. And here's the book.'" The book, of course, was Edgar Rice Burroughs's 1914 best-seller Tarzan of the Apes. "I went away and went out on the boat, middle of the lake, turned the engine off, had a glass of wine and started reading." he remembers.

It is no surprise that he had not read the book before — the Tarzan story is best known today from films, not from Burroughs's books. In fact, after more than 40 films and at least 2 Tarzan television series, Tarzan is one of the world's most beloved film characters. But Tarzan himself was one thing about the project that did not give Collins pause.

"I wasn't fascinated by Tarzan as a kid," he admits. "I hadn't seen a Tarzan movie all the way through. I'd seen clips on movie programs. I knew about him obviously, because being a worldly person, you sort of get around. It just hadn't touched me to the same extent to be intimidated, at least."

He soon discovered that the book is rather darker than most film versions of the story. Tarzan's life growing up among the apes is dangerous and full of challenges. He knew that some of the grimmest scenes would not make into this film, but he knew the filmmakers were deliberately going back to the book for inspiration. He made many notes about 'emotional beats' where he thought there should be music.

Early on, his own notes were about all he had to go on. The script was still just a treatment, Disney's animators had not even started work yet, and there was nothing to look at but a few sketches. "So you just write on gut reaction, and within two weeks of my getting the job, I had written more than the bones, of four of the five songs, just on gut reaction to what I felt."

In fact, Collins was ahead of his collaborators. As producer Bonnie Arnold remembers, "He was so in touch with the ideas of the film that he actually inspired us. He was sort of in touch with what we were supposed to be doing before we knew."

Collins was laboring unaware that the Disney team had something of a secret plan for him. They suspected that they did not want their nearly-naked lord of the apes to burst into song on cue, but they knew they wanted Phil Collins songs in the movie.

"We had his demos, and we'd put them up against the picture, and instead of our characters singing, it was Phil's voice we really fell in love with," says Chris Buck. They went to Disney's powers-that-be and proposed that Collins sing instead of the characters. He would become the film's narrator, a kind of rock 'n roll Greek chorus commenting on the action. Disney had never done anything like it, but Collins's demos carried the day.

"I give good demo," he says. "That's one thing I do. The directors started to fall in love with my demos. It's not what I intended. When I deliver these things, I kind of say this is how I think the track should sound. I don't just do it on a piano and voice. In fact, the versions in the film are my demos with overdubs."

"The bad side effect of that is that (the demo) becomes what you like, and it's very difficult to beat that. Even when I do demos on my own, and I go into the studio and try to do song again, it's never quite as good as the demo. Which is why throughout all my solo career, I've used my demo. Every song you've heard on the radio has been my demo, with other overdubs. It's just the way I like to work. It's control."

Still, when Buck and Lima proposed to Collins that he do the film's singing, he did not exactly leap at the chance. "I said I don't think this is a good idea at all," he remembers, "because I thought in the same way that when you see a pop singer trying to act, you know there's all this baggage that you have. The audience has to try and forget that he's a singer. I thought that would be the musical equivalent of my voice suddenly starting. It's strange, it's VH-1 or MTV or something."

"So I said I don't know. I won't say no, but I think it's a strange idea. I don't want people stopping in their tracks and being distracted from the film." In fact, the Disney team's instincts were correct. Audiences have been pleased that Tarzan does not burst into song, and as Buck explains, "Phil's singing actually becomes the emotional voice of Tarzan. He sings about Tarzan's journey. You can learn about it through Phil's songs. It's a nice use of music, in that it's one sound that really ties the film together."

Eventually, Collins wrote the music and lyrics, produced the recordings, sang and played the drums. He became so important to the film that Disney asked him to record the songs in other languages. "I said I'm game. I love doing things I've never done before, because that's how you learn, that's how you stretch. That's why. And sometimes you fall flat on your face and sometimes you don't."

Since he lives in the French part of Switzerland — with a French-speaking girlfriend — he took on the French first. "I foolishly thought it would be easy," he says, rolling his eyes. Eventually, after struggling with the French translation, he sang in Spanish, German Italian, and Castillian Spanish.

"Then they wanted me to do Japanese," he sighs. "I said it's not the language that scares me, but I've got a life. I can't, I can't... "

Part of the problem was that he had written the high notes on vowel sounds he could comfortably sing high in English. Once translated, the high notes became different sounds, and he was struggling to hit them. He was simply exhausted from so many days in the studio. "So I kind of drew the line. I mean, I felt bad. I feel like I'm chickening out, like I'm not doing all I should do, all I could do."

Besides, at this stage in his life, though, Collins has other ways to spend his time. He has had a little success as an film actor, but has put any thought of more time in front of the camera. Nor is he eager for another grand world tour.

"To be quite honest," he says, "I don't want to be away from home that much. I really like where I live, I love who I'm with. But I'd love to write music for films. I can do that at home, and that appeals to me much more than going on tour."

In general, he is concentrating on more personal projects. There was Tarzan, of course, and "A Hot Night in Paris," the latest album from The Phil Collins Big Band, his 20 piece jazz ensemble that has performed with Tony Bennett. For Collins, the chance to perform big band standards has been another step into a quieter life.

"Like the music for films, it's something I always wanted to do. You know, these things come around at periods of your life when they're right. It gives me an opportunity to carry on working and playing, but not necessarily in that mainstream, the cattle market of MTV."