Random Tracks: Elton John’s “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”

In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958.

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Elton John- “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”

PEAK: #4 on August 6, 1994

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)

When Disney decided in 1991 to release a more adult contemporary friendly version of the title ballad from Beauty and the Beast, one of the biggest problems they had was not being able to afford big-name singers to participate. One of the singers on “Beauty and the Beast,” Celine Dion, is a big name singer now but in 1991 was just starting out with only one Top 5 hit to her credit. For her singing partner, Disney picked Peabo Bryson, a smooth R&B journeyman with minor pop chart success. For their next pop cover of “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, Disney paired Bryson with fellow mid-level smooth R&B star and prior duet partner Regina Belle.

For Disney’s next animated film, 1994’s The Lion King, they not only got a major singer to perform the pop version to their big ballad but also to work on the soundtrack. When lyricist Tim Rice approached Disney’s president Jeffrey Katzenberg about his desire to write songs for movies, he specifically requested to have Elton John as his writing partner. Disney granted Rice his wish but was brought in to write the songs for Aladdin after lyricist Tim Menken died where he eventually wrote “A Whole New World.” After Aladdin, Rice and John got to work on the music for The Lion King including its love ballad which through Elton John became another massive hit and an Oscar winner for Disney. It’s also better than the previous radio versions of Disney ballads.

When Elton John came onto The Lion King soundtrack, he was already a living legend who was still enjoying pop chart success. After coming back in the ‘80s, John continued making hits into the ‘90s scoring a #1 in 1992 with his appearance on George Michael’s live cover of his own “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” (Elton John’s 1974 original “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) Not long after John was back in the Top 10 with “The One” and its title album was a #8 hit going double platinum. (“The One” peaked at #9. It’s a 6.)

Working together long distance in pure ’90s fashion, John and Rice faxed over all their musical ideas eventually coming up with several Lion King songs including “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” In Tim Rice’s telling, Disney execs weren’t all that excited about Elton John when they heard his demos. To Disney, the demos felt like Elton John songs rather than songs that would work within the context of The Lion King. To get the songs across, Rice just re-recorded the demos with other people singing. For “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” Brad Kane and Lea Salonga, the Aladdin and Jasmine singers from Aladdin, performed the song. Another issue came with the usage of the song in the film with Disney wanting it to be more of a comedic song sung by the characters Timon and Pumbaa before being used to soundtrack Simba and Nala falling in love after John wanted the film to have a big romantic song.

Full confession: I have not seen The Lion King. While I grew up watching many popular Disney films, The Lion King was never in any rotation in my life. Instead, it’s a movie I’ve known through its cultural ubiquity whether it’s the songs, the images, or the massively popular Broadway adaptation. I eventually will watch the movie but from what I can tell “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is a song about falling in love and wanting everyone to experience that feeling with you. Sung in the movie by Kristie Edwards, Joseph Williams, Sally Dworsky, Nathan Lane, and Ernie Sabella, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” has the majestic sweep typical of Disney songs thanks to Hans Zimmer’s score with an African style beat and chanting to match the film’s setting. With the voices building throughout, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” really does make you want to feel the love tonight. 

I bring up that John’s version of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is miles better than the pop versions of “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Whole New World” and that mainly has to do with how it sounds. For the previous two ballads, Walter Afanasieff was brought in to transform them into radio hits and while he was good at that, his style of early-‘90s gloop is very of its time and not exciting for me to listen to. For “Feel The Love Tonight,” John brought in Chris Thomas, a producer who worked on several of John’s ‘80s hits as well as having a pretty wild producing career all around which you can discover on his Wikipedia page.

In Thomas’ hands, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is still a ballad but one that’s richer in its production making it sound a lot better. There are some early-‘90s touches like those weird synth effects that feel dated but overall the song has a pretty timeless feel that helps it rise above “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Whole New World.” The music is largely played by Elton John’s regular band members who played on so many of his classic hits. Some big names appear on the backing vocals including Freddie Kreuger actor Robert Englund, the Rick roller himself Rick Astley, John’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” duet partner Kiki Dee, and singer Gary Barlow of the British pop group Take That, one of those groups that had a bunch of hits at home while making zero impact across the Atlantic.

Altogether, the piano, the orchestra, the oboe, the memorable chorus, Elton John’s tender singing, and the choir of backing vocals give “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” a very cozy warm blanket feel. It’s the kind of song that can always find comfort in when you need it. The lyrics to John’s version are changed from the movie version which is presumably done to make the song feel more universal as is the case for the appeal of most Disney ballads. Even with the changes, John still sounds good here. He doesn’t sound out of place considering these kinds of romantic and theatrical ballads have been a big part of Elton John’s success going back to his beginnings in the ‘70s. Another thing I like about the song is the funny music video where Elton John alongside playing the piano in a dark room appears in Lion King scenes through a very cheap-looking hologram with his hologram flickering throughout.

When The Lion King was coming together, Disney wasn’t thinking much of it at first. To them, their big money was on Pocahontas and viewed The Lion King as a movie to hold people over to the big hit. Ultimately, they would be in for a big shock as The Lion King became an absolute smash grossing about $312 million enough to be the #2 film of 1994 with only Forrest Gump outgrossing it though if you count its re-releases, The Lion King has now outgrossed Forrest Gump overall. Its soundtrack spent nine weeks at #1 eventually being named the best-selling album of 1994 while also being certified as diamond. It even spun off another Elton John hit with his version of “Circle of Life” peaking at #18 in October 1994.

In the tradition of “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Whole New World,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” won the Oscar for Best Original Song beating out other Lion King songs “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata.” In his acceptance speech, John, who also performed the song at the ceremony, dedicated the award to his grandmother who had died the week before the ceremony.

Five years after the massive success of The Lion King, John and Rice reunited one more time in 1999 to create a concept album based on the opera Aida which would be adapted into a Broadway musical a year later. Alongside John, some big names and late-‘90s hitmakers came on including Sting, Tina Turner, Lulu, Janet Jackson, James Taylor, Shania Twain, Spice Girls, Kelly Price, Boyz II Men, and Dru Hill. Like The Lion King, the big hit off of Aida was an Elton John ballad with the LeAnn Rimes collaboration “Written In The Stars” which went to #29, not as big a hit as “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” but noteworthy in that it’s John’s last Top 40 hit until just last month with the Dua Lipa collab “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix)” (LeAnn Rimes’ highest-charting single, 1997’s “How Do I Live,” peaked at #2. It’s a 5. “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix)” has so far peaked at #7. It’s an 8.)

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jadakiss and Eddie B interpolating “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” on their 2009 collaboration “Hangover:”

(As a lead artist, Jadakiss’ highest-charting single, 2004’s “Why,” peaked at #11. As a guest, his highest-charting single is the 2002 Jennifer Lopez and Styles P collab “Jenny From The Block” which peaked at #3. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the largely faithful cover of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” that Brian Wilson released in 2011:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for Lil Dicky’s 2013 Lion King-themed song also called “Lion King,” which features a snippet sample of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight:”

(Lil Dicky’s highest-charting single, the 2018 Chris Brown collab “Freaky Friday,” peaked at #8. It’s a 1.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2017 Saturday Night Live skit where Tiffany Haddish as Cardi B sings “Can You Feel The Love Tonight:”

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: I haven’t seen the hugely successful 2019 live-action adaptation of The Lion King but going from Tom Breihan’s review of it in the AV Club it sounds like a very heavy and boring copy and paste remake so doesn’t sound all that exciting. Anyways, for that movie, cast members Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Billy Eichner, and Seth Rogan perform “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” Here’s the video for the 2019 version:

(Beyoncé and Donald Glover as Childish Gambino will eventually appear in the Ones of the ‘10s.)

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