It's a bold claim, to be sure. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was just one of many films released during the Disney Renaissance, and it was far from the best performing. And nowadays, while you might hear "Part of Your World" or "Let it Go" as someone's ringtone, you'll probably never hear "Hellfire" (although if that is your ringtone, rock on).
Hunchback celebrated its 20th birthday in June, and the lack of a diamond-studded platinum uber-edition supports the notion that Disney is trying its best to forget about the black sheep of its children. But the fans of the film will not forget it, which is why it continues to pop up on listicles and opinion blogs around the internet. And no part of the film is more praised than its villain Frollo, and his aforementioned song.
Now I, like so many of my fellow millennials, woke up one day and realized, "Holy cheese and crackers, this song is dark!" It was sometime in college, when I was studying such things like theology and film music. This resulted in two papers, several late-night movie fests, and an increased interest in Latin church music. Not necessarily in that order. But I now feel qualified to share with you a list of reasons why "Hellfire" is not just an amazing villain song, but possibly the best-executed Disney song of all time.
Okay kids, the word of the day is "duality." Arguably the overarching theme of the whole film (monster vs. man, inside vs. outside, and all that), it's especially important in the context of this song. Here's why:
- The actual title of the song is "Heaven's Light/Hellfire." While both halves can be interpreted as separate songs, it was written as one piece. Quasimodo sings the first half, Frollo sings the second.
- They are defined by their actions. When Quasimodo sings, he is creating, carving a model of Esmeralda. When Frollo sings, he destroys, casting Esmeralda's scarf into the fireplace. The two roles of creator and destroyer have heavy religious connotations.
- There are several references to bridges: one sits beside Quasi's model of Notre Dame, and the audience crosses over another to reach Frollo in the palace of justice. The chanting between halves also serves as a musical bridge.
Duality continues deep into the musical composition and lyrics of the song, but Alan Menken made some very deliberate choices when it came to the orchestration. I'll try not to get too musically technical. Let's take a look:
- Major and minor. Even if you've never studied music, you know that there are songs that sound happy and there are those that sound sad. Compare the two halves of "Heaven's Light/Hellfire" for an example. The fascinating bit is that the triumphant 3-note pattern that plays as Quasi rings the bells at 1:10 is the major key version of the word "hellfire" as sung by Frollo. This shows the connection between the two characters, as well as their differences.
- Listen to the different instruments used in the first and second parts of the song. Quasi is backed by mostly airy woodwinds and chimes, while Frollo sings over a heavy full orchestra and choir. Quasimodo's voice is also higher and lighter, while Frollo's is deeper and darker. Two guesses which is more heavenly and which is more hellish?
- Drums, drums in the deep! I'll admit, I only caught this one while listening to the soundtrack in my car. It's hard to hear in the film, but as Frollo sings, "God have mercy on her," you can hear the executioner's drums from later in the film. The suggestion is that by choosing the path of evil, Frollo is signing his death certificate.
- What's with all the Latin? Sung by the priests of Notre Dame during the bridge, and by the choir during "Hellfire," the words you're hearing are all part of the "Confiteor." This is a prayer of confession used in the Catholic church. When the mysterious red figures pop up, they sing, "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa," which translates as, "My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault," combatting Frollo's insistence that it's not his fault.
So far, we've established that "Heaven's Light/Hellfire" has certainly got the makings of a great song. But what makes it a great Disney film song? A fantastic film song should have inspiring visuals to match the music and complete the scene. Does "Heaven's Light/Hellfire" accomplish this?
- The artists of the film have long since admitted that color is an important part of the whole film. In their eyes, blue represents good, and red represents evil. With Quasimodo singing against a heavenly blue night sky, and Frollo bathing in the hellish red glow of his fireplace, I'd say colors are super important to the scene.
- Speaking of colors, we witness Frollo constantly turn away from blue. At the beginning of "Hellfire," he turns away from the balcony to face the fire. And most striking is when he sings, "God have mercy on me" at 4:35, and then changes his mind. He turns his back to the wall, which begins to switch to blue, representing how he's, uh, burned his bridges to Heaven in his decision to burn Paris.
- When the red-robed figures appear at 3:11, Frollo is surrounded by a coffin-shaped pool of light. Pretty obvious symbolism right there.
Stars, out in the darkness. When Quasi is singing, he does it to a twinkling background of stars. The audience is meant to interpret that as "heaven's light." At the beginning of Frollo's half, when he stands at his balcony the stars are gone, covered by clouds. His only connection to celestial bodies is in Esmeralda's scarf--a visual representation of his corrupted understanding of heaven.
So there you have it, the highlight reel of "Heaven's Light/Hellfire." It's a musically complex song bolstered by deep, if simple, themes and powerful imagery, and it's yet to find another match in the Disney oeuvre. But what do you think? Have you been convinced, or do you need to hear a few more points to make your decision? Let me know in the comments below!