Classic Rock and Disney Movies: References and Connections

One of my closest online friends is a huge Disney fan and she gave me the idea to write a post on Disney and classic rock because she noticed that there were quite a few references to classic rock in various Disney movies. And I thought it’s a great idea because I haven’t really seen anyone write about it and I pride myself on writing about classic rock in ways that you might not have thought of before. Earlier this year, my husband and I got a Disney+ subscription and I guess that’s gonna come in handy here! And what a way to relive my childhood!

Now Disney have expanded a lot over the years with lots of acquisitions, two big ones being Marvel and Star Wars, so yes, we’ll be counting those as Disney now. So without further ado, here are all the classic rock references and connections I’ve been able to find in Disney! Because I love Disney movies, I’ll be sharing some facts and information about the various movies referenced. And be prepared for this rabbit hole of a post where everything somehow is connected, trust me!

One note before we begin: Disney have done more than just animated films, but this post will mainly focus on their animated feature films, unless I find something especially cool.

Classic Rock Referencing Disney and Pixar Movies

Steamboat Willie (1928)

Steamboat Willie, which came out in 1928, is considered the debut of Mickey Mouse. Don’t you just love the 1920s/1930s Disney/Fleischer animation style? There’s really nothing like it and because of technological advances in animation, with it all being done by computer, animation really isn’t the same anymore and I notice that a lot in the old cartoon reboots coming out now, no character! The closest I’ve seen to that 1920s/30s aesthetic in recent years is the video game Cuphead. That’s enough of me rambling about cartoons.

Whenever I listen to classic rock songs on YouTube, I check the comments even though it’s not always the best idea, but there are sometimes really insightful comments. I remember seeing one comment on Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie” from someone claiming to be close to the Wilson Sisters that Steamboat Willie was an inspiration for “Dreamboat Annie” and honestly now that I think of it, I can see it.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White, as you may know is not an original Disney story, but a movie based off the 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Disney definitely knew how to take advantage of public domain stories, but when it comes to Disney stuff going public domain, not gonna happen, they’re one of the biggest names lobbying for extension of copyright and Disney will go “is for me?” when it comes to copyrighting everything. That’s enough soapbox!

Snow White is significant in Disney history because it’s the first full length traditionally animated feature film ever, plus it’s Disney’s first animated feature film. It was incredibly successful and if accounting for inflation, it is still the highest grossing animated film of all time, grossing at nearly $2 billion in gross sales. While it was nominated for, but never won an Oscar, Walt Disney still got an honourary Oscar for it, given its cultural impact. Not just any ordinary award, a full sized award with seven mini ones for each of the seven dwarfs. Because WWII had an impact on the film industry, Disney re-released Snow White in 1944, setting a tradition for Disney movie re-releases every decade. Who doesn’t love Snow White? There’s academic value in it too because of its impact and innovation in the industry and you could easily show this in a university film class. Disney set the bar high with this one and Disney dazzled people for decades to come with amazing movies that take you to new worlds! And so the Golden Age of Disney began!

Like a lot of the classic Disney fairytale movies, Snow White had songs in it and one of the most memorable ones is “Whistle While You Work”. The whistling melody can be heard in The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” around 4:30 into the song.

There are some classic rock songs that reference Snow White in the lyrics like Suzi Quatro’s “Official Suburban Superman”, David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie”, Procol Harum’s “Pandora’s Box”, Bob Dylan’s “Sara”, Black Sabbath’s “Never Say Die”, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (also references Neverland from Peter Pan). In 1988, Tom Waits covered “Heigh Ho”.

Mickey Mouse References in Classic Rock

There are some classic rock songs that reference Mickey Mouse, the world’s most famous mouse and the most recognisable cartoon character of all. But before we talk about those songs, here’s a Mickey Mouse fact! Mickey wasn’t the first Disney character at all! The Disney Brothers Walt and Roy started a studio in LA in 1923 called Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio and their first films, the Alice Comedies, were a mix of live action and animation, and because it’s the 20s, they’re silent films. Around that same time, there was a Disney character called Julius the Cat. Universal wanted Walt Disney to come up with a new character, and since there were competing studios with popular cat characters like Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Disney wanted to create something that would make him stand out and so he was like, how about an animated rabbit? Here comes Oswald the Lucky Rabbit! If you look at his design, you see some similarities to Mickey: the big expressive eyes and the shorts he wears. He was one of the first cartoon characters to have a real personality and the films would use a lot of gags and physical humour. Mickey Mouse was Oswald’s replacement because Universal took control of Oswald and Disney wanted something of their own, and for the better! Everyone knows Mickey Mouse, but does everyone know Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?

Now let’s talk about songs that name check Mickey Mouse:

  • (Too Old To) Go ‘Way Little Girl – Janis Ian
  • The Right Somebody To Love – Mamas and the Papas
  • Life On Mars – David Bowie
  • Cruisin’ Summer Germany – Golden Earring
  • Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory – Traffic (Also mentions Donald Duck)
  • Life Is Good – XTC
  • Talk Dirty – John Entwistle
  • Mickey Mouse – Sparks (Also mentions Donald Duck, Pluto, Minnie Mouse, and Disneyland)

As well, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band had a song called “Pluto The Dog”.

Donald Duck References in Classic Rock

There may not be a lot of Donald Duck references in classic rock, maybe not as many as Mickey Mouse, but I think Donald Duck deserves his own section with some history of the character. Donald Duck made his print debut in 1931 in The Adventures of Mickey Mouse and first appeared in film in 1934 in The Wise Little Hen. He has appeared in more films than any other Disney character at over 150 and there’s no need to explain much about his character or what he looks like, you know already. He was introduced as a fiery comic foil to Mickey Mouse with a semi-intelligible voice and there’s a whole Donald Duck universe – his girlfriend Daisy Duck, rich uncle Scrooge McDuck, and his nephews: Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

As for classic rock songs that reference Donald Duck:

  • The Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks
  • Astro Man – Jimi Hendrix
  • Sex Machine – James Brown
  • Give Me News I Can Use – Steppenwolf
  • The Tide Is Turning (After Live Aid) – Roger Waters
  • Betty Grable – Neil Sedaka

Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio was Disney’s second animated feature film and the follow up to Snow White. While the first film took place in Germany, Pinocchio, as you can guess from the name, takes place in Italy and is based on Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fairy tale novel The Adventures of Pinocchio. This was the first animated featured film to win a competitive Academy Award, winning two: Best Music: Best Original Score and Best Music: Best Original Song. Once again, another Disney film that’s considered one of the best animated films ever. Surprisingly, or not if you know your history, the movie was initially a box office failure because of WWII in Europe and Asia, but when the film was re-released in 1945, it turned a profit.

Pinocchio was referenced in Frank Zappa’s “Billy The Mountain” and Tower of Power’s “I Got The Chop (the latter also references Dumbo).

Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo was made to recoup the financial losses from Pinocchio and Fantasia (which became successful after the fact). It’s one of Disney’s shortest feature films, at just a little over an hour long. Very short for a movie, but Disney deliberately did this to keep it simple and make it cheap to release since financially things weren’t so great at this time. In 2019, almost 80 years after its release, a live action remake directed by Tim Burton was released. Around this time, Disney animators went on strike for better pay and working conditions and for Disney to recognise the Screen Cartoonists Guild, later succeeded by The Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839. During the Red Scare Disney told the House Un-American Activities Committee that communism played a big role in the strike. He didn’t like unions and treated workers who were part of the union poorly, he thought those who went on strike were entitled and had a chip on their shoulder.

As for classic rock songs that reference Dumbo, Carole King referenced it in the song “Passing of the Days”.

Visually, the covers of Ghanaian-British Afro Rock band Osibisa’s first two albums have flying elephants on them, could be a nod to Dumbo. Both covers were designed by Roger Dean, who designed a lot of prog rock album covers.

Peter and the Wolf (1946)

Peter and the Wolf is not a feature length Disney film, but a short film based on Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s 1936 composition of the same name. Each character is represented by a different instrument: Peter – strings, Bird (Sasha) – flute, Duck (Sonia) – oboe, Cat (Ivan) – clarinet, Grandpa – bassoon, Hunters (Misha, Yasha, and Vladimir) – kettle drums, and the Wolf – french horn. The composition was obscure in the West before Disney made a film based on it. It was part of Make Mine Music, but also screened before Fantasia, when it was re-released in 1947. It is unknown if Prokofiev knew about the Disney film since by that point the Cold War and Red Scare happened.

After David Bowie recorded Heroes in 1977, he went to New York City to record a narration for Peter and the Wolf. He wasn’t the first or only musician to do this. In 1960, Leonard Cohen recorded his narration. RCA Records commissioned the Philadelphia Orchestra to do the music in 1975. Conductor Eugene Ormandy was sceptical of the choice of narrator and didn’t really know who David Bowie was, and he was even more sceptical when he found out he was a rock star. But they still recorded the music for it. David Bowie Narrates Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was released in 1978. Interestingly enough, Bowie wasn’t RCA Records’ first choice for narrator, they wanted Alec Guinness or Peter Ustinov to do it, but they turned it down and so they went with their biggest music star. Bowie once claimed that his recording of Peter and the Wolf was a Christmas present for his son, Duncan.

Cinderella (1950)

During WWII, Disney were committed to the war effort and produced propaganda films for America, like Victory Through Air Power. And the studio diversified, focusing on live action. Because they were short on money, they didn’t make any big feature length films, but rather focused on making films that were a compilation of short animated segments like Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. And remember, just because WWII ended in 1945, doesn’t mean that things went straight back to normal. Europe and Asia had a lot of rebuilding to do and of course, rationing lasted in some places until the early 50s. And they continued making some more movies made up of short animated segments after the war like Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, and Melody Time. Disney’s most ambitious project right after WWII is one that they like to pretend doesn’t exist – the notorious Song of the South, which had some cool techniques that mixed live action and animation, pre-dating Who Framed Roger Rabbit by 42 years.

To be fair, it’s not a good movie plot wise, but hiding it and pretending it doesn’t exist just increases the mystique of it, people want to look behind the curtain. For years, the Splash Mountain ride was Song of the South themed, notably with the Oscar-winning (yes, really) “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” song. And star of the film James Baskett was the first black man to win an Oscar, winning an Honourary Award for his portrayal of storyteller Uncle Remus. What exactly is the problem with Song of the South? Well, outdated is an understatement, but it’s based on Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories and it takes place during the Reconstruction Era of the United States (1880s), and it’s not a good depiction of black people. As well, as I’m writing this, the movie is 75 years old, a lot has changed in that time!

Anyway, Cinderella marked the beginning of a new era for Disney, the Silver Age of Disney: from 1950-1967 and it was a comeback movie because it was a success when it was released, not a sleeper success. This time, the source material is a French fairy tale by Charles Perrault, but the Cinderella story is a folk tale with Ancient Greek roots, but has been adapted by so many different cultures that there’s multiple versions. There’s even a Brothers Grimm version, which is much darker than the Disney adaptation. Musically, Disney did something a little different with Cinderella, bringing in external songwriters from none other than Tin Pan Alley. The songwriters were Mack David (Hal David’s older brother), Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman.

There’s a lot of songs that reference Cinderella and I’ll probably miss a lot, but here we go:

  • Desolation Row – Bob Dylan (also references Robin Hood)
  • Cinderella Rockefella – Esther & Abi Ofarim
  • Cinderella Sunshine – Paul Revere and the Raiders
  • Come September – Lulu
  • The Doll House- Phil Ochs
  • Watford John – Badfinger
  • Isn’t It Nice – The Hollies
  • Watchin’ It Go – The Everly Brothers
  • Success Story – The Who
  • Cinderella Man – Rush
  • Streetlife Serenaders – Janis Ian
  • Fairy Tale Hero – Marianne Faithfull
  • The Big Money – Rush
  • Cinderella – America
  • Cinderella Undercover – Oingo Boingo

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Another classic that is once again based on works in the public domain: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. This isn’t the first Alice in Wonderland movie (or even Disney’s first attempt at creating an Alice in Wonderland adaptation), far from it! Three silent film adaptations were made in 1903, 1910, and 1915. The first of those was a British production, and the other two were American productions. There was a live action talkie version made in 1931 directed by Bud Pollard. Two more Alice in Wonderland films were released before Disney released their version. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland was a long awaited film and Walt Disney wanted to realise it way earlier than 1951 and started work on it as early as the 1930s wanting to cast Mary Pickford as Alice and make it their first feature film, but because Paramount released an Alice in Wonderland film in 1933, Disney switched gears and released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs instead in 1937. Because of WWII, Disney had to shelve Alice in Wonderland. After the war, they hired Brave New World author Aldous Huxley to write a script, but they didn’t like it because they found it too literal an interpretation. Both Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella were produced at the same time with crews competing on who could get their film finished first. Meanwhile, Disney pulled a Karen move and sued a British director who directed a version of Alice in Wonderland to prevent them from releasing the film in the US because it would hurt Disney’s profits. Not only is the animation amazing and psychedelic before the 60s, there are a lot of songs in the movie, the most in any Disney film. You can see exactly why this movie inspired so many classic rockers since it was probably part of their childhoods. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t an initial success.

There are a lot of classic rock songs that reference Alice in Wonderland. The most obvious one is Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, the title referring to the white rabbit Alice chases down the rabbit hole. The lyrics reference psychedelic experiences, using Alice as a metaphor such as the pills that make you smaller or larger. Grace Slick said she wrote this song to poke fun at parents who read their kids fairy tails and then wonder why they like to get high. In a way, it’s a feminist song because she’s not telling women to wait for their Prince Charming, but to take control of their lives and destinies and follow their curiosity and feed their heads with knowledge.

Another song that heavily references Alice in Wonderland is The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus”. In the movie there is a scene with a walrus. John Lennon’s inspiration for the song was Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, well that and a couple acid trips. He references this song once again in “Glass Onion” (The Walrus was Paul) and “Come Together” (walrus gumboot).

Stevie Nicks also wrote a song about Alice in Wonderland simply titled “Alice”. Folk singer-songwriter Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn” references Alice, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty.

A couple of songs reference the Cheshire Cat: Lou Reed’s “Animal Language” and Fairport Convention’s “Me With You”. And while not explicitly about Alice in Wonderland, I could totally see Kraftwerk’s “The Hall of Mirrors” (references a looking glass) and The Who’s “Who Are You” (reminds me of that one scene with the hookah smoking caterpillar asking Alice ‘Who are you?’) as inspired by it. The Mad Hatter is referenced in Donovan’s “The Trip”, The Lovin Spoonful’s “Coconut Grove”, Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”, T. Rex’s “My Little Baby”, The Stranglers’ “Mad Hatter” . Yes’ “We Have Heaven” references the March Hare.

Tony Stratton-Smith’s Charisma Records (the label Genesis were signed to) had the Mad Hatter as its logo.

Peter Pan (1953)

This film is based on the J.M. Barrie play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Once again, this was a movie that Walt Disney had planned on making since the 1930s, intending for it to be the next movie after Snow White. Since it wasn’t in the public domain, Disney had to bid for the film rights and Paramount got it first. Pre-production work for the film started again once WWII ended. When you think of musicians and Peter Pan, probably the first name you think of is Michael Jackson and his home of Neverland Ranch. However, when it comes to songs, here are some that reference Peter Pan or Neverland:

  • Museum – Donovan
  • Rings of Fortune – T. Rex
  • Mr Motion – T. Rex
  • Bicycle Race – Queen
  • In Search of Peter Pan – Kate Bush
  • Oh England My Lionheart – Kate Bush
  • Centerfold – J. Geils Band
  • Pressure – Billy Joel

Disneyland Opens (1955)

As you all know, Disney are more than just a movie studio. Disney do it all. Besides media/content related things, Disney have a cruise line, hotels, and of course theme parks. Disney do these things incredibly well. You go on a Disney cruise and to Disney theme parks for the Disney experience. It’s a dream come true no matter how old you are. I went to Disney World for the first time when I was 5 and Disneyland when I was 7, I loved it and enjoyed every visit (although I don’t think I’ll go back because I thought the park looked a bit dated and too expensive for what it is, unless you can get a really good deal for being a local). My great grandmother went to Disney World for the first time when she was about 87 and she had a great time even if she couldn’t go on the rollercoasters. I’ve gone to many theme parks: Universal, Six Flags, probably others I can’t remember, but none of them came close to having the Disney experience. Disney may not have the best rides for thrill seekers, but it’s great for the whole family and the rides are all so well thought out and themed and let’s not forget about the shows and parades – you can’t miss those.

Anyway that’s enough of me reminiscing about memories of Disney parks, these songs referenced Disneyland (not always in the most flattering way, but c’est la vie):

  • Ballad of William Worthy – Phil Ochs
  • Ten Cents A Coup – Phil Ochs
  • City of the Angels – Bill Withers
  • Dead Loss Angeles – The Stranglers
  • I Wish It Could Be 1965 Again – The Barracudas
  • Heels of the Wind – Elton John
  • The Elephant’s Graveyard – The Boomtown Rats
  • Lady Cab Driver – Prince
  • Highest Trails Above – Ramones
  • We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

As good of a film 1959’s Sleeping Beauty was, it wasn’t a financial success initially (but was after the fact). The reason for this is that it was Disney’s most expensive movie made yet with a 6 million dollar budget. One Hundred and One Dalmatians was Disney’s comeback and was the 8th highest grossing film in America in 1961. This time, Disney kept costs down by using xerography (a dry photocopying technique) while animating the film. 60 years later, Disney released a live action reboot starring Emma Stone called Cruella. Like a lot of other Disney films, this one was also based on a book, but not an old one, a book of the same name by Dodie Smith published in 1956.

Cruella De Vil is referenced in Queen’s “Let Me Entertain You” and The Replacements covered “Cruella de Vil” in 1988.

The Jungle Book (1967)

Finally we get to the late 60s and by this point, the 60s had come to life and found itself as a decade. I think 1964 is when the 60s really began with the British Invasion marking a new era and seeing lots of fresh faces in music. And because The Jungle Book came out in 1967, there was some possibility of classic rockers being involved, but more on that later because it’s time to talk history. The Jungle Book was Disney’s 19th animated feature film and was once again, based on a book – Rudyard Kipling’s book of the same name. This movie is also historical in that it was the end of an era, the last movie Walt Disney produced. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the final product and how well received it was because he died during production. The movie is renowned for its music – who doesn’t know “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”?

Now let’s talk about the classic rock connections. You know the vultures who sang “What Friends Are For”? Don’t they look like a certain super famous 60s band? Well, Disney wanted The Beatles to play the vultures and sing the song in a Merseybeat sort of way. John Lennon allegedly wasn’t interested, but besides that there were scheduling conflicts. I mean they’re only the biggest band of the 60s! Disney had to find someone else, but they got Chad Stuart of Chad & Jeremy to play Flaps the Vulture (the one with the blond mop top). The sound of the song became a more barbershop quartet one. Not rock and roll, but rather jazz, Italian-American singer Louis Prima played the orangutan King Louie. Funny enough, in 1957 he sang a song called “Robin Hood/Oh Babe”. Originally Disney wanted Louis Armstrong to play King Louie, but they were worried about accusations of racism. Disney’s next film The Aristocats had jazz musician Scatman Crothers play Scat Cat. Here’s one more music connection, and this one is classic rock related, Sonny and Cher were at the premiere of The Jungle Book in 1967. As for classic rockers covering songs from The Jungle Book, Siouxsie and the Banshees covered “Trust in Me” in 1987.

Robin Hood (1973)

Robin Hood, along with The Jungle Book were what my friend was thinking of when she encouraged me to write this classic rock and Disney post and what she noticed was a folk rock influence. Once again, Robin Hood, or rather the legend of Reynard the Fox, is something that Walt Disney wanted to adapt into a film since the 1930s. Sadly, he never got to see it be realised. The movie is a fan favourite and incredibly influential. Zootopia director Byron Howard called it his favourite movie and an influence on Zootopia. It also influenced the Wes Anderson film Fantastic Mr Fox. The furry fandom love Robin Hood and the design of the anthropomorphic animal characters and how each of the animals symbolise characteristics like the sly fox and the royal lion.

Folk musician Roger Miller played the lute playing rooster, Alan-a-Dale. He’s best known for the hits “King of the Road”, “Dang Me”, and “England Swings”.

Here are some classic rock songs that reference Robin Hood:

  • Another Age – Phil Ochs
  • No One Came – Deep Purple
  • Cross-Eyed Mary – Jethro Tull
  • 20th Century Boy – T. Rex
  • Can’t Get It Out of My Head – ELO
  • Lost And Found – Sparks
  • Arizona – Paul Revere & The Raiders
  • Con Man – Golden Earring
  • Blackout – David Bowie
  • (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais – The Clash
  • Songs The Minstrel Sang – Gordon Lightfoot
  • This Is What We Find – Ian Dury & The Blockheads
  • England’s Glory – Ian Dury

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)

In 1977, Disney released The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, a musical anthology film derived from short animated films released between 1966 and 1974: Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. Pooh is not an original Disney character, once again, these films are based on A.A. Milne’s books about Winnie the Pooh from the 20s. Some interesting facts: originally Winnie the Pooh was called Edward Bear and he was based on a teddy bear owned by A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin (he also had a character based on his son in the book). Winnie the Pooh’s name came from a black bear at the London Zoo named Winnie, short for Winnipeg, where the bear’s owner, Harry Colebourn, used to live. Colebourn was born in England and immigrated to Canada when he was 18. Winnie herself wasn’t born in Winnipeg, but rather Ontario. Winnie lived 20 years and died in 1934 at the London Zoo.

There are a few classic rock songs that reference Winnie the Pooh, and they are “The House at Pooneil Corners” by Jefferson Airplane, “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” by Joni Mitchell, and “4:50 AM (Go Fishing)” by Roger Waters.

Aladdin (1992)

Another classic of the Disney Renaissance and Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie will make you laugh. Once again Disney’s taking advantage of the public domain and adapting an old folktale, this time an Arabic one called One Thousand and One Nights. The movie was a big success and won two Oscars for the music and a Grammy, the Grammy being for “A Whole New World”. What can I say? Half the fun with Disney movies is the music. Like you’ll see later in the blog post with The Lion King, there have been spinoffs and a recent reboot (imo don’t waste your time with the reboots). There were some controversies like Arab-Americans being offended by one of the lyrics (“where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face“) in “Arabian Nights” and Robin Williams having some conflicts with the studio over his voiceovers as the Genie being used in marketing Disney products and services without being paid extra for it. Disney apologised and he voiced the Genie in Aladdin and the King of Thieves.

Here are some classic rock songs that reference Aladdin or at least remind me of Aladdin.

  • Gates of Eden – Bob Dylan
  • Long Ago (And Far Away) – Cliff Richard
  • Magic Carpet Ride – Steppenwolf
  • Aladdin Sane – David Bowie (I think it’s a stretch but hey!)
  • Garden of Earthly Delights – XTC

As a bonus, a reference to “You Can Call Me Al” is made in the movie when Aladdin introduced himself saying his friends call him Al.

Pocahontas (1995)

This is a controversial movie because it wasn’t historically accurate and people saw it as something that romanticises colonisation, but people still like it for its songs and animation and associate it with their childhood. Coincidentally, Mike Gabriel came up with the idea for Pocahontas during a Thanksgiving weekend. He wanted to do something similar to Beauty and the Beast, tell a love story (in this case with many creative liberties). It was being developed at the same time as The Lion King and a lot of great animators from Disney worked on it. Critics had mixed reactions, some loving it and some not liking it as much, but it won 2 Academy Awards for its music, which is very memorable. Who doesn’t know “Colours of the Wind”?

Anyway, here are some classic rock songs that reference Pocahontas (the historical figure, not the movie):

  • Fever – Dion
  • Pocahontas – Neil Young

Hercules (1997)

Obviously based on Greek Heracles mythological stories. The movie idea was pitched five years earlier and the original plan was the do a film adaptation of The Odyssey, but it was too long and complicated and didn’t have any central characters, which would be really important for marketing because Disney don’t just do movies. Other contenders were Don Quixote and Around The World in Eighty Days. Merch is a big money maker for Disney and a way for them to keep making money from the movies. I mean how many licensed Disney things (shirts, toys, dolls, backpacks, accessories, costumes, etc) do you see with characters on them? A lot! Hercules has a lot of memorable characters! Here’s a sort of classic rock connection: Donny Osmond wanted to play Hercules, but he was rejected for having too deep a voice. Gerald Scarfe, who worked on Pink Floyd: The Wall, was hired as production designer for Hercules and produced 700 visualisation designs for the characters.

Some Hercules references in classic rock:

  • Elton John had a song called Hercules and it also happens to be his middle name!
  • Sand in My Face – 10cc
  • Living in Another World – Robin Gibb

Other

In 2011, Brian Wilson released an album called In The Key of Disney where he covers songs from Toy Story, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Pocahontas.

Classic Rockers in Disney Movies

The mid-late 70s and early-mid 80s were a time of decline for Disney when it came to their movies. Some might say they lost their mojo, but they bounced back after that. This 10 year period between 1989 and 1999 is called the Disney Renaissance. And by this time, classic rockers were seen as more respected and not just some musicians that kids liked. They had a track record and a lot of experience behind them and Disney even worked with some classic rockers. Some acted in movies and others made music for Disney movies.

Classic Rockers acting in Disney movies

This will be lightning round since the last section was very detailed, but here we go! Also, this is a music blog, not an acting/film blog.

  • Billy Joel played Dodger in Oliver and Company and Huey Lewis performed “Once Upon a Time In New York City”
  • Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo played the singing voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Director Tim Burton is a fan of Oingo Boingo and they first worked together when he and Paul Reubens invited Elfman to write the score for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. Bonus classic rock connection: his bandmate Steve Bartek (also of Strawberry Alarm Clock) contributed music to the ride queue and exit of the now defunct Rocket Rods attraction at Disneyland. One of the songs was a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”.
  • Donny Osmond played Captain Li Shang’s singing voice in Mulan, and you can hear him singing in “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”.
  • In 2017, Paul McCartney made a cameo appearance as Uncle Jack in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Bonus classic rock connection: the inspiration behind Captain Jack Sparrow is Keith Richards!

Classic Rockers making music for Disney/Pixar movies

The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King was a huge success and a great example of how Disney came back and had their renaissance in the 90s, they got their mojo back! People love everything about the movie from the story to the animation to the music. If you haven’t seen The Lion King (I’m honestly surprised every time I meet someone who has never seen it), drop everything you’re doing and watch it now! You’ll love it! Financially it was a success too, being one of the top 50 grossing films, period, no qualifiers like animated or anything. As far as home video sales, The Lion King is #1! Like anything Disney, there’s a scandal! Some say that it’s a ripoff of the 60s anime Kimba the White Lion. Anyway, The Lion King is truly an empire and cash cow for Disney with sequels and spinoffs like The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride and The Lion King 1 ½, a Broadway musical, a spinoff TV series, and a remake (I wasn’t a fan of it, sorry – why remake a masterpiece?). One more fact, not related to music, but Disney made a special Zulu dub of the movie and went to South Africa to cast voice actors. It is the only Disney movie dub made in an African language. Decades later they dubbed Moana in Tahitian, Māori, and Hawaiian.

Now let’s just focus on the music. The music is just as important and good as the movie itself and if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the songs and you’ll be hearing them in your head. The Lion King won two Oscars, both of them for the music. Tim Rice wrote the music along with Elton John. Rice had worked on Aladdin previously with Alan Menken, but he wanted a songwriting partner and Menken wasn’t available. So he invited two flamboyant 70s greats: ABBA and Elton John. ABBA were the original choice, but Benny Andersson couldn’t do it because he was already working on the musical Kristina från Duvemåla. Elton John was very enthusiastic about working on The Lion King because he wanted to write songs that the whole family would enjoy and boy did he do that! The Jungle Book was likely an influence on Elton John’s work on The Lion King. The two wrote “The Circle of Life”, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, “Be Prepared”, “Hakuna Matata”, and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”. Elton John’s version of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” played during the end credits.

Randy Newman’s work with Disney

Randy Newman… a classic rocker? Well he’s been in the music industry since the 60s, starting off as a songwriter at the age of 17! He wrote hits for The Fleetwoods, Gene Pitney, Jerry Butler, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Jackie DeShannon, The Alan Price Set, Harpers Bizzare, The O’Jays, and Irma Thomas. Lots of pop and rock musicians of the classic rock era have covered his songs too. Some classic rockers have played or sang on his albums like Clarence White (The Byrds), Ron Elliott (The Beau Brummels), Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominos), Gene Parsons (The Byrds), Chris Ethridge (Flying Burrito Brothers), Glenn Frey (The Eagles), Don Henley (The Eagles), Bernie Leadon (The Eagles), Andy Newmark (Sly & The Family Stone), Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac), and Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac). So I think that gives him some classic rock street cred.

Randy Newman has done the music for so many Disney movies and has been doing film scores since the 70s! You could probably write a whole blog post his work with Disney, it’s that extensive, but here are just a few of the Disney movies he did the music for: Toy Story (all 4 movies), James and the Giant Peach, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc (and the sequel, Monsters University), Cars, and The Princess and the Frog. He has been nominated for 22 Academy Awards and won 2 Academy Awards, 3 Emmys, and 7 Grammys.

Tarzan (1999)

Tarzan is the last of the Disney Renaissance films. It was the first film adaptation of the 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan of the Apes. And you know what that means… There’s gonna be some classic rockers referencing that book, don’t worry, the list will come after some background info on the movie and the music. The movie was a big success and was the second highest grossing animated film of 1999, only behind another Disney movie (Pixar), Toy Story 2, not bad to lose to Toy Story 2! Still, Tarzan was the first Disney movie to open at #1 since Pocahontas, released in 1995. The budget was a staggering $130 million, breaking records, that is until Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within came out in 2001. The songs were by none other than Phil Collins. You know him for his work in Genesis as a drummer and singer and his successful solo career. Phil Collins didn’t just write the songs for the film, he also sang them, which was a really unconventional move for Disney because they usually had the characters singing the songs. Director Kevin Lima didn’t want Tarzan to sing because he didn’t think it was fitting. Some people compared the choice of Phil Collins for Tarzan to Elton John for The Lion King. The best known songs from Tarzan are “Son of Man”, “Strangers Like Me”, and “You’ll Be In My Heart” (which won the Oscar for best original song). Phil Collins also did the music for Brother Bear.

Now time for the lightning round of classic rock songs that reference Tarzan (the original source material that is!)

  • Mighty Mighty Man – Bobby Darin
  • Cowboy Yodel – Wanda Jackson
  • Apeman – The Kinks
  • The Girl You Think You See – Carly Simon
  • Primitive Love – Suzi Quatro
  • Diamond Dogs – David Bowie
  • Hotel – 10cc
  • It’s a Jungle Out There – Harry Nilsson
  • The Mad Mad Moonlight – Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel
  • Blood on the Rooftops – Genesis (what a coincidence! is this a prophecy?)
  • On The Air – Peter Gabriel (Bonus: if you want a Little Mermaid reference of sorts, there’s “Flotsam and Jetsam” from the same album)
  • Ms Rheingold – Peter, Paul and Mary
  • Frustration – Soft Cell
  • House on Fire – The Boomtown Rats
  • Overpowered By Funk – The Clash
  • Tarzan and Jane – Sparks
  • Chelsea Monday – Marillion

Trevor Rabin’s music scores

Like Randy Newman, Trevor Rabin transitioned to writing film scores and doing music for movies. He got famous in the 70s in his birth country of South Africa as a member of Rabbitt, basically the biggest rock band in South Africa at that time. South African rock bands were hit pretty hard by anti-Apartheid boycotts so the only choice for a South African musician who wants international fame is to leave the country and that’s what Trevor Rabin did, going to England first, then to America. Interestingly enough, he scored a feature film called Death of a Snowman (aka Soul Patrol) in the 70s, early on in his career. In 1982, he formed Cinema with former Yes rhythm section Chris Squire and Alan White, but later they ended up reforming Yes and recording a couple albums. Trevor Rabin wrote the band’s biggest hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart ” and this was a comeback for the band.

After leaving Yes in 1994, he moved onto film scores and did a bunch of them. Here are the ones he did for Disney: Con Air, Armageddon, Gone in 60 Seconds, Remember The Titans, National Treasure (and the sequel), and Glory Road.

Piglet’s Big Movie (2003)

This was the third Winnie the Pooh feature film and this one focuses on Piglet, as you can tell from the title. He is ashamed of being so small because he feels like he’s useless and he runs away into the Hundred Acre Wood and his friends try to find him. Pop/soft rock/folk singer Carly Simon wrote and sang the soundtrack and her children, Sally and Ben Taylor sang on the soundtrack as well. These songs have a folk/soft rock sound and might be a good way to introduce kids to folk and soft rock.

Classic Rockers who inspired Disney Characters

We already discussed Keith Richards being an inspiration for Captain Jack Sparrow, so here are a couple other examples of classic rockers inspiring Disney characters.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

As well as having Sting singing “My Funny Friend And Me” and Tom Jones singing “Perfect World”, there were some mummy characters based on Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Lemmy. They didn’t make the film, but if they were in the movie, they would have been the antagonist, Yzma’s sidekicks.

Moana (2016)

This Disney film that takes place in Polynesia is based on stories of the demigod Māui. Disney did a great job casting Hawaiian, Samoan, and Māori actors with actors of these ethnic groups playing the major roles in the film. Director John Musker read about Polynesian mythology and was fascinated with the stories of Māui and he wanted to make a film about it and so he and director Ron Clements went on research trips to Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti to learn about the cultures of the people there and get a feel for the scenery. Half Māori, half Jewish actor and director Taika Waititi wrote an early script for the film, but he decided to go back to New Zealand to work on What We Do In The Shadows instead.

As for the classic rock connection, Jemaine Clement was half of the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, who went on to have a radio series on the BBC and a TV series on HBO. There was a Flight of the Conchords episode called “Bowie” where one of the characters, Bret, has Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie visit him in a dream telling him not to worry about his body image and to get an eyepatch. Their song “Bowie” (aka “Bowie’s in Space”) is where the due imitate David Bowie and his many styles and eras over the years parodying “Space Oddity”, “John, I’m Only Dancing”, “Let’s Dance”, “Sound and Vision”, “Changes”, and “Life On Mars?”. You’ll just have to see it because they also parody Bowie’s music videos and performances:

Once again Jemaine Clement brings back his David Bowie impersonation when he played Tamatoa the treasure-hoarding coconut crab. The song “Shiny” is sang in the style of David Bowie and how fitting because what’s David Bowie without his glitter and flashiness?

Marvel

Classic rock is a great choice for superhero movie soundtracks and Marvel movies have that, but also these characters have been around for a while and there are some classic rockers who love reading comic books and so they reference superheroes and other comic book characters in their songs. Let’s keep this short and sweet since this post is mainly Disney, but because Marvel is part of Disney now, I think it deserves a mention:

Songs that reference various Marvel superheroes (or at least have titles that sound related)

  • Spider Man – Cliff Richard
  • Fool’s Overture – Supertramp (Spiderman)
  • No Quarter – Led Zeppelin (Thor, but I’m pretty sure they’re just talking about the god)
  • There’s a band called Thor’s Hammer from Iceland
  • Iron Man – Black Sabbath
  • Teenage Dream – T. Rex (Silver Surfer)
  • Wind Quartets – Tyrannosaurus Rex (Silver Surfer)
  • Surfing With The Alien – Joe Satriani (the title refers to the Silver Surfer)
  • Catch Me Now I’m Falling – The Kinks (Captain America)
  • Paradise City – Guns ‘N’ Roses (Captain America)
  • Powerman – The Kinks (Luke Cage is also known as Power Man, but The Kinks’ song pre-dates the character by 2 years and I think it deserves a mention anyway)
  • Iron Fist – Motorhead
  • Cymbaline – Pink Floyd (Doctor Strange)
  • Mambo Sun – T Rex (Doctor Strange)
  • Superbird – Country Joe and the Fish (Doctor Strange)
  • Magneto and Titanium Man – Wings

Marvel movies with Classic Rock soundtracks

I was never much into superhero movies and they’re not really my favourite, but Guardians of the Galaxy opened my mind thanks to that soundtrack, and the soundtracks for both movies are a no-brainer for classic rock fans! It’s great, straight out of the 70s! Mostly classic rock, but some R&B in there. There’s a lot of Marvel movies, but we’ll mostly look at MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) stuff to keep it simple, unless I can find stuff outside it that’s particularly interesting.

If you’re a big AC/DC fan, you’ll love the Iron Man 2 soundtrack album, which is completely made up of their songs (but the movie has songs by other bands like The Clash, Queen, and The Average White Band). It wasn’t the first time AC/DC did a soundtrack for a movie, Who Made Who was the soundtrack for Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive. Doctor Strange didn’t have a classic rock soundtrack, but “Interstellar Overdrive” was included in the film. The movie’s director, Scott Derrickson, is a fan of Bob Dylan and wanted to include one of his songs, but couldn’t find a fitting moment. He wanted to put “Interstellar Overdrive” in the credits, but the cost would have been too high for the budget so Michael Giacchino composed something clearly psychedelic inspired. Spider-Man: Homecoming has songs by The Ramones, The Rolling Stones, and Traffic in the movie. Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi would have loved Queen to do the music for the soundtrack had Freddie Mercury still been alive, but the score was done by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (90s kids might recognise him because he and his brother, Bob, composed the music for Rugrats). Led Zeppelin’s fitting “Immigrant Song” was used in the movie too. Ant-Man and The Wasp uses “Everyday is Like Sunday” by Morrissey and “Spooky” by Dusty Springfield. Captain Marvel used Heart’s “Crazy On You”. Avengers: Endgame has a lot of classic rock bangers in the soundtrack like Traffic’s “Dear Mr Fantasy”, The Kinks’ “Supersonic Rocket Ship”, The Rolling Stones’ “Doom and Gloom”, Steppenwolf’s “Hey Lawdy Mama”, and Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”.

Not a Marvel movie, but WandaVision has music by The Beach Boys (“Help Me Rhonda”, The Monkees (“Daydream Believer”), and Jimi Hendrix (“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”).

Star Wars

There’s not a lot of classic rockers referencing Star Wars since the movies came out in the late 70s and early 80s, so well into the classic rock era, but here’s what I could think of.

Sure, Brian May had no idea about Star Wars in 1974, but “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos)” has to be mentioned like I mentioned “Powerman”. Is this a prediction? Personally, I’d rather picture it being about a Star Wars Stormtrooper than a WWI German Stormtrooper.

Of course, we have to mention Weird Al here because he parodied a lot of classic rock songs and he wrote two Star Wars parody songs. “Yoda” is a parody of “Lola” and the lyrics are based on the events of The Empire Strikes Back from Luke Skywalker’s point of view. He wrote the song in 1980, but it took 5 years to get permission from both George Lucas for Star Wars and Ray Davies for the song. Still, it’s one of Weird Al’s best known parodies. Legally, Weird Al wouldn’t need permission because parody is covered under Fair Use laws, but because he likes to maintain good relationships with musicians and other creatives and he’s very considerate to them, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, he gets permission anyway.

The other very well known Star Wars parody Weird Al did was “The Saga Begins”, a parody of Don McLean’s “American Pie”. This parody was released in 1999 and summarises the plot of The Phantom Menace through Obi-Wan Kenobi’s point of view. Weird Al wrote the song based on spoilers he found online. Lucasfilm rejected his request to go to an advance screening, but he went to a charity pre-screening and only made some minor alterations to the lyrics after that. Lucasfilm told Weird Al that George Lucas smiled when he heard the parody. Don McLean himself approved and liked the parody, to the point of almost accidentally singing Weird Al’s lyrics instead of his own in concert because his kids loved the parody.

So that marks the end of this fun little adventure down the Disney rabbit hole! It’s been a lot of fun researching and writing this and I don’t think I’ve had this much fun researching one specific topic since the times I wrote about historical fashion and androgyny and the history of music videos. If you liked this Disney deep dive, I think you’ll like those two posts too! Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments because I love reading what you have to say and feel free to share this post with your Disney and classic rock loving friends!

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Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!

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