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Pop Star Phil Collins Reaches New Heights as Movie Composer

Pop Star Phil Collins Reaches New Heights as Movie ComposerIn the eyes of his 10-year-old daughter, Phil Collins is held in high esteem.

As the composer of five songs for the forthcoming Disney animated feature "Tarzan," he recently recorded a tune with the hottest teen group in the land, 'N Sync.

" 'N Sync is her favorite band," he says of his daughter Lily, "and I got her tickets to a concert in L.A. at Christmas. Two weeks later I was able to say, `Guess who I'm working with?'

"She came to the session and she was in seventh heaven."

"Tarzan" -- one of the summer's most eagerly anticipated releases, featuring the voices of Tony Goldwyn ("Ghost"), Glenn Close, Minnie Driver and Rosie O'Donnell -- is reason enough for Lily to be proud of her papa. "She told me she saw the trailer in the cinema. She stood up and said, `That's my dad!' She's very loyal like that.

"She's one of the few fans I've got left," Collins says, laughing.

In truth, there's no shortage of Phil Collins fans. In three decades of making music, the London-born singing drummer has successfully tended his creative muse and stock portfolio alike.

SOLO SUCCESS IN '80S

From the theatrical mushroom-rock of Genesis and the jazz fusion of Brand X, he moved into a solo career in the 1980s, scoring enormous hits with bonbons such as "One More Night," "Sussudio" and "Take Me Home."

"Sometimes people like me purely for the `Sussudios' and `You Can't Hurry Loves,' " Collins says. "I do what I do for me and what gets me going, and I just hope they go with me."

Now 48, with two kids in their 20s in addition to Lily, Collins figures that plenty of his fans are also parents. But that's not why he agreed to write for "Tarzan."

"There's only a certain amount of time left for me, or anybody my age, doing that kind of (pop-star) touring," he says. "You want to move into something more demanding."

Collins has had several hits tied to movies, most notably "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)." He points out that friends such as Eric Clapton and Peter Gabriel have dabbled in music for the movies as well. "We kind of put limitations on pop music because we never thought it'd be taken seriously and last this long.

"Speaking personally, I am just interested in far too many kinds of music to get stuck in one place," Collins says. Writing for the movies gives him some wiggle room.

The "Tarzan" soundtrack, in stores Tuesday -- a month before the film is scheduled for theaters -- features a trademark Collins love song, "You'll Be in My Heart," which is already a huge hit on radio. More experimentally, the soundtrack includes one song pairing polyrhythms with storytelling symphonies ("Two Worlds") and another, the scatting "Trashin' the Camp," that's a cheery commotion of percussion, horns, voices and a recurring typewriter bell.

They came to him quickly. "With four of the five songs," Collins says, "the skeletons were written within two weeks of me getting the job four years ago. I took pretty much a gut reaction to the (film) treatment."

But the ambitious scope of the "Tarzan" project has made his commitment more extensive than might be expected for just five songs. "It's been four years on and off -- more on than off."

Collins recently finished a shoot for the "You'll Be in My Heart" video, directed by Kevin Godley of 10cc and Godley & Creme. It's a Phil Collins video, with no "Tarzan" animation.

The movie showcases his songs as narrative drivers, not as splashy musical numbers for the characters to perform. That's a departure from recent Disney blockbusters such as "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast."

OLD-TIME HEART

"Tarzan" recalls an earlier heyday of Disney's animation studios, Collins says. "It's a film with a lot of heart, and the last few films ("Hercules," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame") have been quite cold. They were a little brittle from a color point of view, a little dark from a story point of view.

"Whereas this one has got many moments where you sort of catch your breath."

A former child actor -- at 14 he starred in the musical "Oliver!" -- Collins says he grew up with the Disney classics. "When I was a kid it was `Snow White,' `Cinderella,' `Sleeping Beauty.'

"They were already old films when I was a kid, I hasten to add," he says.

He didn't dwell on them in preparation for "Tarzan." In fact, he was urged to disregard any obvious Disney traditions. "Anything like `Jungle Book' and `Lion King,' if I had any brief at all, it was to avoid things like that.

"At one point, on `Son of Man' -- `Son of man, one day you will be king' was the original last line I had for the chorus. We lived with it for years, and then someone said, `Of course, you're going to have to change that because of the word `king.' " He settled for "Son of man, a man in time you'll be."

Collins has a short but well-regarded resume as an actor, including the lead role in the British train-robbery picture "Buster" and the black comedy "Frauds." From those experiences, he says, he learned to temper his expectations.

"I found when I was trying to act it didn't matter that I was a big pop star," he says. "You just go in at a lower level."

© The San Francisco Chronicle, by James Sullivan

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