How Beyonce's 'Lion King' 'Spirit' video shut down remote Grand Canyon waterfalls

Scott Craven
The Republic |

Last week, the head of Arizona’s film office received a phone call: Would it be possible for Beyonce to shoot a video to promote new "The Lion King" movie at Havasu Falls, one of the most beautiful — and hardest to reach — places in the state?

Havasupai tribal officials quickly granted the request and a video was filmed the next day, reports The Arizona Republic, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.

That video, "Spirit," debuted Tuesday evening during the ABC/Disney special “The Lion King: Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” promoting the July 18 release of the photo-realistic remake of the animated classic movie.

Such is the power of Beyonce.

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The singer raised eyebrows on July 10 when she and a crew filmed at the base of Havasu Falls, off limits to those who don’t have nearly impossible-to-get permits, which get snapped up within hours on the day they go on sale each year.

Many complained on Havasupai Facebook groups that Beyonce’s presence likely kept permit-holding hikers from visiting the most well-known of the turquoise-green falls along Havasu Creek in the Grand Canyon.

How Beyonce's 'Spirit' video shoot happened

Perhaps they'd be shocked to realize how quickly the video shoot came together, though the falls play a small role in the video, released Tuesday on

On Monday, July 8, a location manager phoned Mathew Earl Jones, director of Arizona Film and Digital Media, the state agency that facilitates filming opportunities for production companies.

(If that name sounds familiar, here's why: Matthew Earl Jones is the younger brother of James Earl Jones, who again voices Mufasa in “The Lion King.”)

The location manager asked about Havasu Falls, Jones told The Arizona Republic. The manager hoped to film as soon as possible, preferably in a day or so.

Jones broke it to him gently.

“I expressed told them that this was probably one of the most sought-after locations in the state,” Jones said. “Permits normally take a long time, and our office didn’t issue them.”

Jones said he put the location manager in touch with the Havasupai Tribal Council, hoping for the best.

To Jones' surprise, and particularly because he said the location manager didn't get in touch with tribal leaders until Tuesday, Beyonce's team quickly was given permission.

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Havasupai Tribe welcomed the shoot

The tribe was "honored" to have been asked by the singer's video production team to film "Spirit" in front of Havasu Falls, according to a statement from Muriel Uqualla, chairwoman of the Havasupai Tribal Council.

“By choosing that location, it will serve to further celebrate and honor the natural beauty of our land and the resilience and beauty of our people," Uqualla said in the statement. "Knowing that Beyonce advocates for the preservation of water rights around the world, we were particularly pleased to be able to accommodate her request.

"Her choice to visit the Havasupai Indian Reservation as a setting for her new video and to share it worldwide is a testament to the stunning beauty of our remote homeland.”

Tribal officials offered no comment beyond the statement.

According to video footage of the filming obtained by celebrity site TMZ, Beyonce flew by helicopter to a spot near the falls (the only helicopter pad is 2 miles away in Supai Village), and Havasu Falls was off-limits to hikers for several hours.

Havasu Falls is a striking blue-green waterfall that greets visitors to the Havasupai campground. The turquoise water is created by a high concentration of lime.

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There's no word on how many visitors might have been inconvenienced. The tribe generally issues 300 permits a day.

Many Facebook commenters criticized the tribe for allowing the shoot to infringe on those who paid for permits. (The tribe charges $100-$125 per night for a three-night permit). Others said tribal members had every right to use their land as they saw fit.

Havasu Falls are on camera for less than 10 seconds, though in dramatic fashion. They make their first appearance 1 minute, 7 seconds in as the music swells into the chorus. In one brief sequence Beyonce is filmed from overhead, stretched out in the turquoise water. 

Jones said he was happy that the tribe was amenable to the request to film.

“I was very surprised how quickly they turned it around,” Jones said. “Hopefully they will be open to people filming there now.”

But Jones said he was less thrilled that the filming, supposed to be very hush-hush, apparently was captured by a passer-by with a cellphone.

“The location manager was very protective of their star,” Jones said. “It had to be handled with the utmost discretion. I think he was relieved when he asked me (about any relation to James Earl Jones), knowing I have a background sensitivity to a celebrity’s privacy.”

And that is the Hollywood version of the circle of life.