Paving the Musical Road to El Dorado

by Sharon Schatz

There is a little armadillo that tags along with Tulio and Miguel, the lead characters in The Road to El Dorado. "Whenever you see him," explains the film's co-composer, John Powell, "We put churango music in. [A churango] is actually the back of an armadillo shell, which has been hardened out and they string it with five or six strings. It's a very particular sound of South America, obviously, but rather ironic." Irony and inside jokes aside, it is this attention to detail and ethnic flavor that musically brings the world of El Dorado to life. But, the task of matching the music to the film was actually a bit more complicated than simply playing armadillo-made instrumentals over an animated armadillo.

Composer Hans Zimmer (middle) with songwriters Tim Rice and Elton John (left to right). Courtesy of DreamWorks LLC.

The Team
DreamWorks' second traditionally animated feature reunites songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice and composer Hans Zimmer, the Oscar-winning musical team from The Lion King. Powell, who co-composed the Antz score, teamed up with Zimmer on the new film. The Road to El Dorado is a buddy road adventure about two Spanish con men that escape from a ship bound for the New World and find El Dorado, the legendary City of Gold. The movie features six original songs, five of which are sung by Elton John, who narrates the story through song. The sixth song is a duet between the two lead characters, which are voiced by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh. Other character voices include Rosie Perez, Armand Assante and Edward James Olmos.

Marylata Jacob, music supervisor on El Dorado. Photo by Kelvin Jones. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

The musical vision for The Road to El Dorado began about five years ago. Marylata Jacob, who started DreamWorks' music department back in 1995, was the film's music supervisor. Her work began before there was even a script. Jacobs explains, "My role early on in this project was to help executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg decide what styles of music he thought would represent El Dorado. Obviously, El Dorado is a mythical place, but its roots are in Central America, whose influence of music is global. It comes from Europe. It comes from South America and Africa. A lot of things converge in Central America, musically speaking." It was at this early stage that Katzenberg met with songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice to give them a feel for the story.

Finding the Songs
When the script was completed, it was divided into sequences in order to figure out where songs would better further the story than dialogue. Co-producer Bonne Radford comments, "We didn't want to follow the traditional song formula. This isn't so much a musical as it is a movie with music. We were trying to break free of that pattern that had been kind of adhered to in animation and really put a song where we thought it would be great...and get us through some story points."

Once it was decided where the songs would go and what each song was to convey, Elton John and Tim Rice began their task of bringing El Dorado to life musically. Rice wrote the song lyrics and then gave them to John to write the music. John then recorded a demo, which was given to the animators. The artists storyboarded to this temporary version, as the tempo and vocals would remain intact, even though the arrangement would undergo changes to better blend with the feel of the film.

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