Saturday Matinee #110: "A Whole New World: The Recording Sessions" (November 25, 1992 & October 5, 2004)
Published February 9, 2013
by Albert Gutierrez
Music is not always an aural experience. Walt Disney proved this in his 1940 concert feature, Fantasia. This great experiment used music as the narrative with animation supporting its story. However, sometimes music doesn't even have to tell a story. The experience of watching a performance can resonate with viewers as much as the song itself. This is why live concerts, operas, and musicals are still enduring and popular venues of entertainment. Music becomes unique unto that experience, it can never be duplicated or repeated in such a way again. The very nature of "live performance" would not allow that. Yet sometimes, we can capture those moments in time, and revisit them as often as we want. One such example is a recording session of the 1992 Academy Award-winning song "A Whole New World," from Disney's animated classic Aladdin.
On November 25, 1992, Disney Channel broadcast the television special "The Making of Aladdin: A Whole New World," which went behind-the-scenes during the making of Aladdin. One of the highlights was footage from a recording session with Brad Kane and Lea Salonga singing "A Whole New World." The television special intermixed the pair singing in the sound booth with moments from the actual film. Thus, we would alternate between seeing Kane and Salonga singing, which transforms into Aladdin and Jasmine. Pencil sketches and other footage were shown as well. As a child, I saw portions of this special, and the recording session material became ingrained in my memory.
Twelve years later, I was both surprised and delighted to re-view this footage again, in a different form, on the Aladdin: Platinum Edition DVD. One of the supplements in this packed set is "A Whole New World: The Recording Sessions." This four-and-a-half minute piece opened with contemporary interviews from composer Alan Menken, singer Lea Salonga, and supervising animator Glen Keane. Menken offered general thoughts about music, followed by Salonga's memories of being shown storyboards and character sketches to help them understand the song. Keane's comments were not about Scott Weinger, the voice actor for Aladdin, but of Brad Kane, the singing actor. Once all three made their comments, the piece then transitioned to the footage I had seen as a child: Kane and Salonga singing "A Whole New World."
Unlike the Disney Channel special, we get no film clips. We see the entire song, as sung in the studio. The camera shows us not just Kane and Salonga, but we see conductor David Friedman leading the orchestra, we see Alan Menken standing over the sound board, with various others in the cramped room. It is essentially putting the viewer in the center seat of the session. They are shown every aspect of it, they see Kane smirk at the camera, Salonga wave her arms as she sings "soaring, tumbling, free wheelings." Salonga heaves a sigh of relief by the end of the song. "Not bad for a start!" she remarks. Not bad, indeed. In fact, it might have gone too smoothly.
When I first viewed this supplement, I thought that the film crew had captured an alternate performance of the well-known song. I was listening to a familiar song, married not to the visuals of the film, but to shots of Brad Kane's enthusiasm and Lea Salonga's excitement. My experience with the song changed, and for some time, I felt this "alternate" performance was just as good - if not better - than what we hear in the film. As it turned out, this performance was not a "live on film" preservation at all, but a cleverly edited piece that does emulate one. I muted the video, synced it with the CD soundtrack, and found it to be the same final master mix that was used in the film.
Suddenly it all made sense. It was too convenient for the cameras to have captured every plausible angle during one performance. The film crew had instead filmed a variety of angles during a variety of performances that day. And these weren't raw performances, but Kane and Salonga lip-syncing to something they likely had already done months earlier. The editors had cleverly used the song with the appropriate visuals and staged performances to create a moment that looked entirely live.
A part of me was disappointed, but also rather impressed. Surely they fooled others beyond me in thinking this was a captured-live performance. And even if it is not a "live" performance, it is still a different experience with the same song. It's the equivalent of a music video, which functions under the same methods: the singer lip-syncs their song in a particular setting, while telling a story. And this is what we see here. The story being told is not the desert romance in the Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle pop version. Rather, it's about two kids, coming into a recording studio, and nailing a performance in one take. Salonga's "Not bad for a start!" is now seen as both a genuine remark in the moment, but also as a line of dialogue. It conveys the relief, the anxiousness, and the eagerness to do it all again, and do it better.
Truthfully, I grew to further appreciate this featurette/music video once I realized what it really was. No, we don't get a complete, uninterrupted, alternate take of "A Whole New World." But we still get to see the inside of a recording studio, we still get to see Kane and Salonga having fun, and we get a story. It's a perfect example of music being more than what we hear. We see it, we feel it, we understand it. The song remained the same, but the story changed, as did our perception.
As mentioned earlier, this "Recording Sessions" video was presented in two edits. The Disney Channel special presents it with film clips and other artwork. That version is only available on a VHS tape (included in the 1993 "Deluxe Collector's Edition" VHS set) and on the Japanese "Deluxe Edition" CAV LaserDisc.
The version that we looked at this week can be found on Aladdin's 2004 "Platinum Edition" DVD, which is also available in a Gift Set seen below. Both editions of the DVD have been out of print for years, but the film is due to make its high-definition Blu-Ray debut next year. 2014 will definitely be the "Year of Aladdin." We'll see the film come to Blu-Ray, while its stage musical makes its Broadway debut at the New Amsterdam Theatre.