Monthly Archives: May 2010

Soundtrack Collection: American President to Angels & Demons

The American President

The American President (Marc Shaiman, 1995): The main theme from Rob Reiner’s well-regarded romantic drama is one that many listeners are apt to recognize, even if they don’t know where it came from.  Since the film’s release, it has been pretty frequently used in commercials for other movies and as accompaniment for various sporting events or patriotic presentations.  It is a stirring melody that successfully manages to be simultaneously romantic and patriotic.  The main theme is worked pretty regularly into the rest of the score, which has a romantically melodic quality throughout.  The 7 1/2 minute finale cue, “President Shephard”, is particularly stirring and emotional.

An American Tail

An American Tail (James Horner, 1986): This Don Bluth directed hit was the first animated feature that Steven Spielberg produced.  James Horner wrote the score as well as co-writing the film’s four songs with songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.  The story is about Russian immigrant mice in New York in the late 1880s and Horner provides the score (and songs) with an appropriately ethnic sound.  The music tends to be fast paced with lots of focus on violin.  The cue “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” has an interesting gospel-style opening featuring a choir performing the famous words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

The songs are fun, although not as memorable as what would become typical with animated features in the 1990s.  The duet “Somewhere Out There” is the best known song from the film.  In the movie it is performed by Fievel (the main character) and his sister, in rather charmingly off-key vocals.  James Ingram and Linda Ronstadt performed a pop version of the song, which was actually a pretty big hit at the time, over the end credits.  Familiar voices in the cast included Christopher Plumber and Dom DeLuise, each of whom had one featured number (“Never Say Never” for Plumber and “A Duo” for DeLuise), each of which is a very entertaining showcase for the performer.

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (James Horner, 1991): Horner returned to score the sequel to An American Tail.  The film was not very well received (it didn’t help that Universal released it the exact same day that Disney opened Beauty and the Beast), but I think that both film and score tend to be somewhat underrated. 

As the title implies, the sequel is a western and Horner’s musical approach reflects that.  While the main themes from the first film are reprised (particularly early on), much of the score is in a traditional western style, complete with the occasional harmonicas and fast paced string melodies.  The opening overture emphasizes this shift by opening with a reprise of melodies from the first film before transitioning into some of western-style music written for the sequel.  Horner seems a bit more comfortable in this musical style and I think the second film’s score is actually stronger than the first.

The sequel isn’t as much a musical as the first film, but it does include three new songs by Horner and Will Jennings.  Two of the new songs, “Dreams to Dream” and “The Girl You Left Behind”, are performed in the film by Cathy Cavadini, who provides the voice for Fievel’s sister.  Obviously hoping to repeat the big pop hit from the first film, Linda Ronstadt performed a version of “Dreams to Dream” over the end credits and her version opens the CD.  The third new song, “Way Out West” is performed by the whole cast and also is a key new theme in the score.  Early in the soundtrack (and film), Cavadini does sing a short reprise of “Somewhere Out There”, although it is played for laughs as it is quickly interrupted by items being thrown at the character. 


Amistad (John Williams, 1997): The album of Williams’ score to this Spielberg drama about a 19th century slave revolt on-board the titular ship opens and closes with the choral song “Dry Your Tears, Afrika”, which is one of his most striking compositions.  The song opens with rather haunting wordless female vocal humming and then transitions into full choral piece with African-style rhythms and vocals.  The song also has a strong underlying orchestral melody.

The melody from the song remains a primary theme through the remainder of the score.  African rhythm instruments, pipes, and both wordless and African language vocals are used regularly throughout the first half of the score, but with fully orchestral melodies regularly joining in.  This mix of instrumentations is unusual for Williams, but the score is still very recognizably his work. 

The lengthy cue “Middle Passage” scored the darkest sequence in the film, depicting the shipboard life of the slaves and then, finally, their revolt.  This cue opens with some very haunting, mostly non-melodic music and then transitions impressively into a full vocal and orchestral re-statement of “Dry Your Tears, Afrika”, providing a hopeful ending.

The second half of the film is largely a courtroom drama and Williams switches to a more straightforward orchestral style for much of that portion of the film.  This shift is first heard in the cue “Long Road to Justice”, which still uses the same themes from earlier in the film, but in principally a brass rendition, giving it a kind of regal, American-patriotic sound. 

The 1990s were a particularly strong period of creativity for Williams and the Amistad score is one of his most impressive compositions of that era.


Anastasia (David Newman, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, 1997): Trying to compete with Disney’s animated musical hits in the 1990s, 20th Century Fox hired Don Bluth to head up their newly-created animation division.  The first film they created was this highly entertaining musical which featured songs from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team responsible for the Broadway musicals “Ragtime”, “Once On This Island”, and (later) “Seussical”.

The songs are Broadway-style and work exceptionally well.  The opening number “A Rumor In St. Petersburg” is an elaborate, full-company (led by Kelsey Grammer and Jonathan Dokuchitz) production number that does a good job of entertainingly establishing the storyline.  Broadway star Liz Callaway was brought in to provide the singing voice for the title character and she is extremely well used in the two ballads “Journey to the Past” and, especially the haunting and stirring “Once Upon a December”.  Jim Cummings does a great job with the fun villain song “In the Dark of the Night”.  Grammer, Dokuchitz, and Callaway work together on the getting-it-done song “Learn to Do It” and, finally, Bernadette Peters leads the ensemble in the final production number, “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart)”.

The film’s voice cast included Angela Lansbury, but oddly she isn’t given a full song in the film.  On the album (and in the film) she only briefly sings on a couple of reprises of “Once Upon a December”, both of which are actually incorporated into the score cues.  I can’t help but wonder if she had a song that ended up on the cutting room floor as it seems strange that Lansbury would be hired for a musical but not given a song, particularly just a few years after Beauty and the Beast.

The album also includes the pop song (still written by Ahrens and Flaherty) “In the Beginning” performed by Donna Lewis and Richard Marx which plays over the end credits.  There are also fairly bad pop versions of “Journey to the Past” performed by Aaliyah and “Once Upon a December” performed by Deana Carter.  Both are extremely inferior to the Liz Callaway performances.  Finally, perhaps in an attempt to be multicultural, the last track on the CD is a Spanish version of “Journey to the Past” performed by Thalía.

The orchestral score was composed by David Newman and receives a fairly generous (for an animated musical) 22 minutes on the soundtrack.  Newman does incorporate Flaherty’s melodies into the score, but also provides a considerable amount of original music of his own.  The score has an elegant style that is in-line with the Broadway origins of the song score.  The score has lots of brass, percussion, and strings as well as occasional choral music.   The most dramatic and impressive of the score cues is the 6 minute “Prologue”, which underscored the opening sequence of the film.  The rest of the score builds off of the themes established there and continues to be very good, but that opening sequence gave Newman the meatiest sequence to score.

Angela's Ashes

Angela’s Ashes (John Williams, 1999): Alan Parker’s film adaptation of Frank McCourt’s well-regarded memoirs of his childhood in Ireland in the 1930s was one of the most bleak films to receive a John Williams score.  Williams’ score is melodic and not excessively downbeat and, in fact, played a major role in lightening the events in the film enough to make it a more watchable experience.

The score has a classical sound, with lots of strings and frequent piano and violin solos.  The soundtrack opens with “Theme from Angela’s Ashes” which, as the title suggests, introduces the main theme from the film.  The cue starts with a solo piano presentation of the theme which is later joined by full orchestra.  During the rest of the score, the main theme is most frequently presented via solo piano.

Starting with “The Land of Limerick”, Williams introduces some very effective solo harp to the score.  Considering the fairly strong ethnic and period elements to the film itself, it is surprising that this is really the closest thing to a ethnic color in the score.  Williams certainly doesn’t even come close to trying to create an ethnic connection with the music like he did with Far and Away, the last time he had done a film centered around Irish culture.

The American release of the soundtrack to the film contains a considerable amount of narration from the film overlaying the music.  There are very few score cues on the CD that do not contain at least some narration and it really can be pretty distracting.  Fortunately, the UK release of the soundtrack does not contain any of the narration and is fairly easy to obtain.  The link above is for this import version.

Angels & Demons

Angels & Demons (Hans Zimmer, 2009): The score for the sequel to The Da Vinci Code does re-visit some of the themes from the previous film, but is stylistically quite a bit different from the previous.  While the first score was mostly fully orchestral, this one contains a lot more electronics probably to emphasize the more technology-based focus of the story (at the time I’m writing this, I haven’t had a chance to see the film although I have read the book it was based on). 

Typically for Zimmer’s work on a thriller, the score emphasizes base and percussion quite a bit creating a fairly edgy sound.  The score makes extensive use of choral music as well, sometimes to pretty impressive effect as in the opening cue “160 BPM”.  In line with the religious themes of the story, the music sometimes has a classically spiritual style to it as well, such as in parts of the lengthy cue “Air”.  Solo violin is used frequently in the score and Joshua Bell is featured as the soloist. 

Soundtrack Collection: Amazing Stories

Amazing Stories Anthology One Amazing Stories Anthology Two Amazing Stories Anthology Three

The soundtracks to Steven Spielberg’s mid-80s anthology series Amazing Stories warrant their own blog post due to the number of different scores by different major composers.

Amazing Stories ran for 2 seasons from 1985 to 1987.  The idea behind the series was that Spielberg would use his movie-industry influence to attract top talent, particularly directors,  to produce half-hour stand-alone episodes made with feature-film production values.  Spielberg directed the pilot episode (“Ghost Train”) as well as an hour-long episode (“The Mission”) later in the first season.  Other major directors that did episodes of the series included Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Burt Reynolds, Paul Bartel, Danny DeVito, Irvin Kershner, Tobe Hooper, and others.

The big name directors that worked on the series also brought along some of their feature film collaborators, often including their composers of choice.  Because of this, the scores for the series represented pretty much a who’s who of the major film composers working during that time.  Spielberg brought along John Williams to write the main title theme for the series as well as to score the two episodes that he directed.  Other composers that worked on the series, and are represented on the available CDs, include Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman & Steve Bartek, Georges Delerue, Bruce Broughton, David Shire, Billy Goldenberg, Lennie Niehaus, Craig Safan, David Newman, Thomas Newman, Johnny Mandel, Arthur B. Rubinstein, John Addison, Leonard Rosenman, Michael Kamen, Fred Steiner, and Pat Metheny.

Amazing Stories Re-recordings

During the series’ original run, I kept hoping that a soundtrack album with some of the music (at least the John Williams music) would be released.  I was disappointed that the series concluded its entire two season run without any such album showing up.  The first time that any of the music was released on CD was in 1999, when Varese Sarabande commissioned re-recordings of the scores from 2 episodes (John Williams’ “The Mission” and Georges Delerue’s “Dorothy & Ben”) performed by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra conduced by Joel McNeely and John Debney.  In addition to the two episode scores, the album also included re-recordings of Williams’ main and end title themes.

In 2006, Intrada released the first of three 2-disc volumes featuring the original recordings of music from the series.  The three volumes present the scores of 31 out of the 45 episodes of the series.  While there probably are enough scores left for a 4th volume, the scores by major, well-known composers (with one major exception) have all been released making another edition pretty unlikely.  The one major score that is still missing is Danny Elfman’s score for Brad Bird’s animated “Family Dog” episode, although a short suite from it is included on Elfman’s “Music for a Darkened Theater, Vol. 2” compilation disc.  Intrada was unfortunately unable to locate the master tapes for that score.  In fact, the release of volume 3 was delayed for several months due to that search.

The scores on the Intrada CDs are not in the order that the episode aired, but instead are organized to try and provide the best album presentation.  They chose to have John Williams’ two scores bookend the releases, with “Ghost Train” opening volume 1 and “The Mission” closing volume 3.  Wanting to have other in-demand scores from big name composers open each volume, they placed Jerry Goldsmith’s “Boo!” at the start of volume 2 and Alan Silvestri’s “Go to the Head of the Class” at the beginning of volume 3.

As you might expect, each volume opens and closes with Williams’ main and end title themes and disc 2 of each sets opens with short “bumper” versions of the theme that were used for transitions to or from commercial breaks. 


Amazing Stories was the first TV series that I wanted to retain so I could re-watch the episodes.   During its original run, I actually recorded every episode on videotape (Beta, no less!) and did re-watch favorite episodes occasionally back in the late 80s or early 90s.  A while back, Universal released a DVD set of season one, so I have watched some of the episodes more recently that way.  No DVDs of season two have been released, although the episodes are available from Netflix via their instant streaming service.

I still haven’t seen many of the episodes since around the time of their original run back in the mid-80s, though, so my memory of them is pretty spotty.  My comments on much of the music will therefore be somewhat disconnected from how they work in the episodes.

After the break are my comments for each of the episode scores available on the albums.

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Soundtrack Collection: Alien Nation to Always

 Alien Nation

Alien Nation (Jerry Goldsmith, 1988, rejected): Jerry Goldsmith was hired to score this science fiction drama and even completed composing and recording his score.  Before the film’s release, the decision was made to replace his score with one by composer Curt Sobel.  In 2005, Varese Sarabande released a limited edition CD of Goldsmith’s rejected score as part of their CD Club series.  No album of Sobel’s replacement score has ever been released.

The Goldsmith score is entirely performed on synthesizer, giving it a futuristic, other worldly quality.  This was one of only a handful of times that Goldsmith did an entirely electronic score and it has an experimental sound to it, although still very recognizably reflecting Goldsmith’s musical style. 

Much of the score centers around a very distinctive and memorable main theme.  Since Goldsmith’s score was not used in Alien Nation, he later re-worked that main theme for The Russia House, where it was given more of a jazz and orchestral treatment.  That film’s soundtrack is available as well and it is very interesting to hear the same theme in such different contexts.

All About Eve

All About Eve (Alfred Newman, 1950): The score to Bette Davis’ most famous film was paired with Newman’s Leave It To Heaven on a CD released by Film Score Monthly as part of their Golden Age Classics series.  Newman spent many years as the music director at 20th Century Fox and composed numerous memorable film scores as well as conducting or overseeing many others.  In recent years, it has been great to see the soundtrack specialty labels finally making more of his music available.

This is a very warm, fully orchestral score that includes many quiet, emotional moments as well as some occasional brassy fanfares.  The soundtrack contains 30 minutes of music, mostly presented in very short cues.  The longest cue on the album is about 2 1/2 minutes and many are less than a minute in length.  The album is mostly presented in monaural, but the last two tracks (“All the Eves” and “Encore”) are repeated in remixed stereo versions as well.

All Fall Down

All Fall Down (Alex North, 1962): Film Score Monthly released this as part of their Silver Age Classics series, paired with a lengthy suite from North’s score to The Outrage.  This is one of North’s more gentle scores, with melodic themes and a jazzy sound.  Horns, including the saxophone, play a dominant role here.  There also are some very gentle piano melodies that frequently come into play.  I’ve always had a fondness for simple piano melodies that are then joined by full orchestra, a technique that North uses pretty effectively several times in this score.

This is a tender, sensitive score from a composer whose scores I have sometimes felt tended towards the cold side, in spite of technical brilliance.  Because of the obscurity of the score and my somewhat ambivalent feeling towards North, I don’t remember listening to this score much before, although I’ve had the album for quite a while.  It is really a very pleasant score and I’m glad to re-discover it.

All the King's Men

All the King’s Men (James Horner, 2006): This recent adaptation of the classic novel and film was one of the biggest box-office and critical disappointments of recent years.  As a result, James Horner’s score was largely ignored, but it is actually one of the composer’s better works in recent years.

The score tends to be stirring and dramatic, with very melodic, fully orchestral themes.  The lengthy early cue “Bring Me the Hammer and I’ll Nail ‘Em Up” (several cues are titled after notable quotes from the film) is particularly stirring and is an example of the kind of emotionally-driven music that Horner tends to excel at as a composer.  Horner establishes a primary theme that is presented in a number of interesting versions.  Piano solo versions are heard fairly often and an intriguing solo violin version opens the cue “Adam’s World”.

Horner’s most famous successes have generally been with scores for large scale epics and action films, but throughout his career he has pretty regularly taken on these smaller, more character-driven dramas and those often have been the sources of some of his best scores.  This one is very underrated.

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Soundtrack Collection (Alexander, Alice & Aliens)


Alexander (Vangelis, 2004): I’m not really much of a fan of Vangelis and haven’t seen the film (I’m not much of a fan of director Oliver Stone either), so I’m not really sure why I ended up buying this soundtrack.  It is possible I received it as a gift or it might have been really inexpensive.  What is surprising to me, though, is that I like quite a bit of this score, although it descends a bit too far into weirdness as it goes on.

This is an extremely active, fast-paced score with lots of brass and percussion.  Choral elements, including some that more closely resemble chanting, come into play pretty frequently as well.   In particular, “The Drums of Guagamela” is a thrilling cue that really does get the blood pumping.  Other parts of the score have a haunting, medieval style, including the use of some more archaic instrumentation.  While there are a few calmer cues, particularly “One Morning at Pella” (which comes right after “The Drums of Guagamela” on the soundtrack), for the most part this isn’t a score to listen to when you want to relax.

Alice in Wonderland (Disney animated)

Alice In Wonderland (Oliver Wallace, 1951): The soundtrack from Disney’s classic soundtrack series for Disney’s animated feature has a bit of an unusual format. The score by Oliver Wallace is interwoven fairly tightly with quite a few songs that were written by a variety of composers and lyricists.  Because of this, the songs are not generally given separate cues on the album.  Instead, the cues are organized logically based on their position in the film, with score segueing seamlessly into songs and vice versa.  Due to the available source materials, quite a few parts of the soundtrack include occasional sound effects as well.

Lewis Carroll’s unusual writing style provides quite a bit of opportunity for clever songs and this film has more than most of the other Disney animated features of the era.  A few of the songs from the film are very well known, particularly “All In the Golden Afternoon”, “The Unbirthday Song”, and the title song.  These songs pretty frequently appear in Disney compilations and are pretty instantly recognizable.  The less-familiar songs are effective as well and this is an entertaining album to listen to.

Wallace’s score fits very well with the songs and does a good job of tying everything together.  While the film itself tends to take silliness to a higher level than most other Disney features, Wallace doesn’t really use a lot of silly-sounding music, instead allowing a somewhat more straightforward score provide musical support.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Alice in Wonderland (Danny Elfman, 2010): At the time that I am writing this, I have not yet had a chance to see Tim Burton’s recent live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.  I doubt I will get a chance to see it now before it comes out on video, but I expect I will make an effort to quickly see it once it it does.  I’m a huge fan of Danny Elfman and particularly his score for Burton’s films, so I bought this soundtrack album as soon as it was available.

The score is really great.  It is charming and melodic with a style that is pretty unmistakably Elfman’s.  The album opens with “Alice’s Theme”, a charmingly bombastic original song written by Elfman and performed with an operatic female vocal.  The song is kind of strange and unworldly, which seems to me to be a pretty good fit to an Alice in Wonderland theme.  The song’s melody (and occasionally some of the vocals) is used throughout the score.  Several cues on the soundtrack are directly billed as reprises to the song.

Musically, Elfman’s score is one of the brighter ones that he has done for a Burton project, but still has some pretty dark edges to it.  The score is very string heavy, but with some liberal use of brass and percussion to emphasize the more action-oriented passages.  Elfman brings in a wordless choir at a number of points, which helps to establish the other-worldly quality to the music. “Alice’s Theme” is the one really strongly established and repeated theme, although the entire score is fairly melodic.

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Soundtrack Collection (Ace Eli through Aladdin)

Ace Eli and the Rodger of the Skies

Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies (Jerry Goldsmith, 1973): This fairly obscure Goldsmith score was released by Film Score Monthly, paired on a CD with Goldsmith’s music for the TV series “Room 222”.  The score is from a film that is largely forgotten and unavailable on video (and was badly panned during its release), although it is somewhat notable for the “Story by” credit, which was Steven Spielberg’s first for a theatrical movie.

The score is highly melodic with an old fashioned Americana sound.  The main “Ace Eli Theme” is presented alone with a fast paced, ragtime style, but the theme is incorporated into other parts of the score with some other varied styles, including some more purely orchestral versions.  Several tracks have a carnival-atmosphere style while others have a bit of a country feel. There are some quieter, more gentle melodies as well.  The tracks “No Pony” and “Night Talk” are particularly good examples of Goldsmith’s more sensitive side.

Probably due to the obscurity of the score, and extensive re-cutting and re-scoring done before the film’s release, the album was put together from some pretty widely varied source elements.  Parts of the score were only available in monaural elements, so the album shifts back and forth between stereo and mono.  A few score cuts are presented as bonus tracks because the only available sources were either incomplete or damaged.

A fairly generic pop/country song entitled “Who’s for Complainin’?” is also included as a bonus track along with an instrumental version that was used as a bit of a score.  This song is written and performed by Jim Grady and the liner notes indicate that it replaced Goldsmith’s main and end title music.

David Raksin at MGM

Across the Wide Missouri (David Raksin with Al Sendrey, 1951): This score was released by Film Score Monthly as part of a 5-disc boxed set entitled “David Raksin at MGM”, which features 13 of Raksin’s scores.  Disc 1 contains a first-time release of the complete score that Raksin wrote for this western as well as bonus tracks containing revisions and additional music from studio orchestrator Al Sendrey to accommodate some significant re-editing of the film.

The score is a rousing western score with fast paced action cues as well as a folk-music style approach for the more melodramatic portions.  Raksin incorporates the classic folk songs “Shenandoah” and “Skip To My Lou” in various parts of the score and also composed his own original main themes that stylistically resemble folk melodies.  An alternate version of the main title cue includes vocals on “Shenandoah”, but otherwise the songs are strictly presented as instrumentals.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Michael Kamen, 1988): This film was among Terry Gilliam’s most entertaining and accessible films, although it ended up as a victim of studio politics (it was a pet project of a departed studio chief) which kept it from ever getting wide release or much in the way of financial success.

Michael Kamen delivers a very lively, varied and often amusing score that was one of the best of his career.  The globetrotting nature of the score allows for a good variety of themes and styles ranging from the vaguely Middle Eastern style in “The Sultan” to the action music for the various war sections.  One of the strangest tracks is “On the Moon” which transitions from other-worldly music that sounds like it comes out of a science fiction movie into basically nursery rhyme music, some of which features a kazoo soloist. A major highlight is the very impressive waltz featured in “Vulcan and Venus”, an original Kamen composition for the film that sounds like it could have been by Strauss.

The first half of “The Sultan” is “The Torturer’s Apprentice”, an opera that is performed during early scenes of the film.  This humorous song has lyrics by Eric Idle (set to Kamen’s music) and sounds a lot like something out of Monty Python.

The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective

The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective (Henry Mancini, 1986): After a series of disappointments that culminated in the major failure of The Black Cauldron, this film is widely considered to be the start of the revival of Disney animation eventually leading to their enormous successes in the 1990s.  The animation division was in such bad shape in 1986 that Disney actually licensed the soundtrack rights to The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective out to Varese Sarabande instead of releasing it through Walt Disney Records.  This is despite the fact that the movie’s score was composed by no less than Henry Mancini.

I admit that I’m not a fan of the film, which I find fairly tedious, but Mancini’s music is great fun.  This was Mancini’s only contribution to a Disney animated feature, which is a bit of a shame since the melodic and lively style that Mancini is best known for is an excellent fit.  The main title track introduces a very catchy and memorable main theme that is a central component of the rest of the score.  Another major highlight of the score is “Big Ben Chase”, the very exciting action/chase music Mancini provided for the film’s finale.

Like most Disney animated films, this one does include a few songs.  “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” and “Goodbye So Soon” are both sung by Vincent Price, who provided the voice of the film’s villain.  The songs are generally as much fun as you would expect from the combination of Vincent Price and Henry Mancini.  The other song from the film is “Let Me Be Good To You”, a catchy saloon-style song which is performed by Melissa Manchester.  For some reason, none of the songs from the film have typically been included in Disney music compilations or shown up in theme park shows, so they will likely be unfamiliar to most fans unless they know the film or the soundtrack well.

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