Ever since it was even speculated that Beyoncé would star in the live-action version of The Lion King, fans have been salivating over what role she would play in the soundtrack.
But The Lion King isn’t just any old film with some songs attached to it. For a whole generation – my generation – those songs served as a soundtrack to our lives, particularly our childhoods. The joyous “Hakuna Matata”, the Oscar-winning love theme “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, and of course the legendary “Circle of Life” are deeply revered masterworks, and any attempt to interpret the collection they belong to was destined to be met with intense scrutiny. If there was anyone who could positively contribute to the musical legacy of The Lion King, it would be Beyoncé, the greatest entertainer of her generation. After lots of secrecy, her musical participation in the film was clarified with the announcement that she would be executive-producing an album inspired by the film called The Gift, and the lead single from the album and the official soundtrack would be her original song “Spirit”.
Praising Beyoncé’s vocals on a song feels redundant at a certain point; you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to hear her deliver a less-than-flawless performance, regardless of the genre. But what she does on “Spirit” is worthy of notice and celebration. She delivers her best recorded vocal performance in years here, an astonishing feat made more so because of how complex and intricate a performance it is. She uses every shade and texture of her voice to deeply passionate effect: her hypnotic lower register, the elastic richness of her middle, and the sweet, angelic quality of her upper range. Between her emotional phrasing and Olympic leaps across the scale, the sheer amount of work she puts on this track is staggering. The final chorus is a stirring, soul-shaking highlight, and one of the greatest vocal moments of her 20-plus career. It’s a moment made to be performed at the Oscars.
The only thing that might disrupt such that legendary moment-in-the-making is “Spirit” itself. As one of the few original songs to join with one of the most beloved soundtracks of all time, “Spirit” had a lot to live up to, and it may not even be fair to compare it to the stunning achievements of Elton John and Tim Rice. It is inevitable and, unfortunately, this new song just doesn’t reach the heights of “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, or even“He Lives in You” from the Broadway musical. “Spirit” is not bad, but it’s unremarkable, particularly in its production and lyrics. It’s certainly a big song, but it doesn’t feel cinematic enough. The culprit may be that template pop beat, which distracts from the genuinely lovely African and gospel-influenced arrangement. It might also be the lyrics, which follow a standard inspirational template that feels only tangentially connected to the film. It’s why, as impassioned as Beyoncé’s performance is, “Spirit” doesn’t fully connect the way it should. The song kicks it up a necessary notch with an admittedly killer key change at the end, but the emotional rush it yields is too late to register.
It’s a shame that “Spirit” doesn’t meet the heights that Beyoncé does singing it. Even without the context and sky-high expectations of The Lion King, “Spirit” is just a nice song with an exemplary vocal performance. Besides giants like “Circle of Life”, it falls considerably short. Honestly, it’s a disappointment that raises concerns, not just about how the legendary soundtrack will be interpreted, but whether the film itself can live up to its animated counterpart. Considering how crucial the music is to the whole experience, it’s worrisome that what should’ve been a lion’s roar is more like a loud mewl.