“Speechless” — Naomi Scott

The expression “they don’t write ’em like that any more…” is, if anything, an understatement when it comes to describing “Speechless”, from Disney’s new live-action “Aladdin”.

Naomi Scott’s performance is just breathtaking, but we’ll get back to that in just a moment.

First of all, we’ve got to acknowledge the role of Hollywood songwriting royalty in creating a song as brilliant as “Speechless” for her to sing in the first place.

The music comes from the peerless Alan Menken. He’s clocked up eight Oscars over the years for either Best Original Song or Best Score and his past successes include writing the music for a range of modern classics such as “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty And The Beast” and “Pocahontas”…as well as the 1992 version of “Aladdin”.

But the Disney Corporation really pushed the boat out for “Speechless”. In addition to a composer of Alan Menken’s quality, they drafted in Benj Pasek and Justin Paul…the Oscar-winning composers and lyricists behind “La La Land” and one of my favourite musicals of all time, “The Greatest Showman”.

I’m a big fan of musicals generally, and the last few years have been exceptionally good for people who share that interest. Musicals seem to be cool again in a way they probably haven’t been since “Grease” finished its run at the cinema in the late 1970s.

But even among the great songs written for the silver screen in the last few years, “Speechless” stands out as one of the very best.

In fact the new “Aladdin”, slightly re-written with a more empowering role for Princess Jasmine, is an inspiring piece of work all by itself.

It’s easy to scoff…and you’ll notice it’s mostly men who do — draw your own conclusions…but girls get bombarded with subtle and not-so-subtle messages about how they’re supposed to behave every day while they’re growing up.

Messages which are often the exact opposite of the messages given to boys… including how they shouldn’t put themselves forward, how they are expected to play a subordinate role to men and how being too determined or forthright is seen as a negative trait. I could weep.

Although the world is a more equal place than it was when I was growing up, there’s still a long way to go before men and women, and boys and girls, are really treated as equals by everyone in society.

Which is where we start with the story of “Aladdin”.

The Sultan wants his daughter, Princess Jasmine, to marry a “suitable member of royalty”, to extend his dynasty by forging an alliance with another eminent family and joining together their two kingdoms for eternity.

Naomi Scott, playing Princess Jasmine, is just expected to go along with the idea and carry out her father’s wishes unquestioningly.

Thankfully, in this version of the story, Princess Jasmine is made of sterner stuff and refuses, showing the Sultan that she’s more than able to rule the country in his place and also perfectly capable of choosing her own companion without her father’s interference.

Honestly, I’ve never felt quite so much like leaping to my feet in the cinema and cheering as I did when Princess Jasmine won through in the end.

Which is the whole point of “Speechless”…the tale of a young women who is being expected to do what she’s told and who feels her voice is never listened to…

Written in stone
Every rule, every word
Centuries old and unbending
Stay in your place
Better seen and not heard
But now that story is ending

Being disenfranchised is just about the worst feeling there is.

Not just having people disagree with your opinions…although sometimes that’s bad enough…but to have your voice completely ignored, your ideas to be treated as not even being worth a moment’s consideration.

Yet it’s all around us, if we choose to look, if we’re prepared to listen, if we’re prepared to accept that other people have perspectives on life we don’t necessarily share.

In fact, if we put our prejudices on one side and think about what they’ve said deeply enough, we might even come to the conclusion that our original view was mistaken.

Breaking through in that situation is tough. It takes a very special sort of determination to speak out when you know your opinions won’t be welcomed, and when the likelihood is you’ll get belittled and ridiculed to make sure you don’t dare speak out ever again…

I won’t be silenced
You can’t keep me quiet
Won’t tremble when you try it
All I know is I won’t go speechless

Let the storm in
I cannot be broken
No, I won’t live unspoken
’Cause I know that I won’t go speechless

Bullying and intimidation is how horrible people try to control others. If someone steps out of line, especially someone junior to them or less powerful than they are, they unleash every weapon they can think of to make sure they never dare speak out again.

“I won’t live unspoken” is a brave statement for someone to make. Bullies don’t like defiance as a rule, and tend to double-down on anything that might look like resistance.

In the interests of gender equality, I should mention that the person I saw humiliating others most comprehensively in that way was a former female boss of mine who delighted in driving more junior men and women working for her into tears of frustration and inadequacy.

I didn’t stay long in that job, and spent a lot of time bringing people’s confidence back up again after they’d been through a particularly torrid monthly performance review meeting with her. But people tended not to forget one of her roastings and rarely wanted to repeat the experience.

In the movies, somewhat more often than in real life, there’s usually a ‘happy ever after’…

But I won’t cry
And I won’t start to crumble
Whenever they try
To shut me or cut me down

I won’t be silenced
You can’t keep me quiet
Won’t tremble when you try it
All I know is I won’t go speechless

Not giving up when it’s easier to give up than to keep going is a quality I admire more than almost any other.

It takes a degree of inner strength which parents, the education system and employers mostly want to squeeze out of us.

One reason “Speechless” is such a great song is the way Naomi Scott gets those feelings and emotions across as she sings her big number.

I must admit I’d never heard of Naomi Scott before seeing her in “Aladdin”. That’s not too surprising, admittedly, as there are so many TV channels and streaming services these days that nobody can keep track of everything.

What is a lot more surprising is discovering that there’s a singer as good as Naomi Scott around who I hadn’t come across before…all the more so when it’s someone who’s been given the biggest song to sing in the biggest film of the year. What a revelation she was singing “Speechless”.

The benchmark in recent years for performing “marquee” songs from a movie was probably set by Idina Menzel with “Let It Go” from “Frozen”. To be fair, that was also an exceptional performance.

But…and I’ll whisper this very quietly…I think “Speechless” actually tops “Let It Go” in the movie song stakes.

Idina Menzel is a fabulous technical singer. I don’t want to take anything away from her. But she’s a singer I admire, rather than enjoy. In that sense, she’s a bit like opera or David Bowie or Pink Floyd…I can admire them all for their creative work, but I wouldn’t willingly go out of my way to listen to any of them more often than I had to.

Naomi Scott is maybe just a nose behind Idina Menzel in the technical singing stakes…although that means she’s a better singer than just about anyone else you’ve ever heard on a record, I should add…but in the “conveying emotion” stakes she’s more than a nose ahead. Putting it all together, it’s a win for Naomi Scott in my book.

You can sense her defiance of the Sultan’s wishes. The undercurrent of disappointment that a father she loves treats her as a bargaining chip on the geopolitical chess board. The determination that she won’t be silenced, no matter what the cost…that she’ll have her say if it’s the last thing she does.

I get every single ounce of all that…and more…from Naomi Scott.

And, in addition to the fine work done by Messrs Menken, Pasek and Paul, that’s what makes “Speechless” such an exceptional song.

It’s a career-defining moment for Naomi Scott. And I hope girls watching the film take the confidence, determination and defiance that she shows in the role of Princess Jasmine as a better role model than the ones often trotted out for girls growing up these days.

And if you don’t think that’s important, I’d argue that anything that supports the roughly 50% of the world that’s female to feel like equals, to feel that their voice will be heard and to feel like they matter in the world is probably more important than, say, the ability to design a new smartphone app or attracting a bunch of “dumb” VC money to launch your new Silicon Valley “sharing economy” business.

“Speechless” is truly one of the musical events of the decade and I’m sure we’ll be seeing it as a classic 10, 20, 30, 50 years from now, like so many other of the great songs Disney has brought us over the years.

Which is exactly the status it deserves.

With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, here’s Naomi Scott with the blockbuster song from a blockbuster movie… “Speechless”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0XPsOSYzDJZJArevQNm2AR

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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