Music has always been a powerful force in Mark Mancina’s life. A few years ago, his mother stumbled upon a diary she kept while he was a toddler, and she often noted that playing music had a profound effect on young Mark—it soothed him when he was cranky, and at other times it engaged and inspired him. “From as far back as I can remember,” says Mancina, “there was never a question to me that I was going to make a living in music. I just didn’t know how—music attorney, teaching music, I was going to find a way. Nobody could tell me differently.”
Throughout his 20s, Mark played in bands across Southern California, often working six nights a week while spending days recording demos in hopes of landing the elusive record deal. Sometimes it was a grind, often it was a blast, but money was never plentiful. A bit of a hustler at heart, Mancina began studying newspaper ads and showing up unannounced at the featured businesses, asking if they’d like him to write the jingle for a catchy radio ad. This profitable side job led to his first break in the movie business, which turns out to be less glamorous than it sounds: “I was writing the music to these hunting documentaries,” Mancina says. “They were pretty gory.” On the positive side, he is now conversant on how to gut a deer.
Mancina segued into low-budget science fiction flicks, drawing upon his knack for writing instrumental melodies that teased the emotion out of the music. In the early ‘90s, his work somehow came to the attention of Hans Zimmer, the German film composer and music producer who has won four Grammys, two Golden Globes, and an Oscar. Zimmer was putting together the music for The Lion King and summoned Mancina for an interview, in which a lifetime of disparate musical experiences finally paid off: “Hans says, Can you arrange songs? Yes. Score a film? Yes. Write lyrics? Yes. Okay, you’re hired.”
The Lion King came out in the summer of 1994 and was a blockbuster success. (Mancina would also play a large role in the stage adaption, one of most successful musicals of all time.) Mancina wound up arranging and producing three beloved Elton John songs for the movie: “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” and “Hakuna Matata.” Mancina’s contributions earned him a Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children and two American Music Awards for Best Pop Album. Five days before The Lion King was released, Speed hit theaters, and Mancina produced the original motion picture score for the moody Keanu Reeves-Sandra Bullock action movie. It turned out to be another huge hit. “It took me 15 years, but I was an overnight success,” says Mancina, now 58.
He has continued to work both career tracks, scoring numerous adrenaline-drenched action films and writing melodic songs for a handful of animated Disney movies. He particularly enjoys the collaborative process of the musicals, in which the songs are often the star of the show, but Mancina recognizes how potent music can be when paired with live-action. “An example I often use is from Training Day,” he says, citing the movie for which Denzel Washington won an Oscar for playing a crooked cop. “In the final scene he’s in the middle of the street, screaming because he’s been shot and no one is coming to help him. Without music it’s still a strong scene, because Denzel is such a great actor. But when I scored it, the entire environment somehow changed. The music was somewhat regal and twisted, like befitting a fallen king. It enhanced his performance, and for the viewer it made it more psychological and emotional. It almost created a weird empathy for what is a pretty evil character. That’s what music can do—it makes you feel more. It’s a pretty powerful weapon, and you have to use it carefully.”
Mancina now works his magic from a small cottage-turned-recording studio tucked into the heart of Carmel-by-the-Sea. He is presently at work on the latest Disney project, Moana, incorporating ancient Polynesian rhythms and chanting into the songs. Mancina has lived locally for nearly a decade along with his wife and daughter, who is now 13. “Being a composer can be a lonely life,” Mancina says, “but there’s so much inspiration here. I can walk to the beach, or go to Point Lobos, or just stroll the streets of Carmel and look in the windows and people-watch. Everyone is always in a good mood here. In Santa Monica, you’d walk outside and everyone’s smoking and complaining about something in the industry.”
It’s a funny image, and might even someday make a good song. “You can turn anything into a song,” Mancina says, “as long as you have the imagination for it.”
By Alan Shipnuck | Photos by Manny Espinoza