In the pantheon of popular music, few artists have been as celebrated and enduring as Sir Elton John. The Grammy/Oscar/Tony winner is also a Kennedy Center honoree, a Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer, and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. And, with lyricist Bernie Taupin, John has crafted some of pop’s most iconic – and best-selling – music. However, John is hardly one to rest on his laurels; he still plays scores of concerts each year, and a long-gestating passion project, the animated comedy Gnomeo and Juliet, finally hits theaters Friday.
Executive-produced by John, Gnomeo is a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tale with garden gnomes, and features some of his biggest singles (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Rocket Man,” among others) along with “Hello, Hello,” a duet with Lady Gaga. In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Sir Elton shared his favorite films, and discussed the making of Gnomeo and why it’s still a thrill for him to hear his old songs.
Godfather II. Just riveting. It’s just incredible. At that time, there weren’t usually sequels to films, and when they did Godfather II, when they said they were going to do Godfather II, I groaned. And, of course, it was better, I think, than Godfather I. I think it’s an amazing, amazing piece of filmmaking. He was an amazing director, Coppola.
The Lives of Others would go in there. It’s just an amazing movie. And then he went and did The Tourist, which, I think, got a 20 percent rating on your site. We look at your website quite a lot. But, [The Lives of Others] was just a beautiful film.
So many great movies coming out of Germany, like… Well, The Reader was a Stephen Daldry film, but it was all about coming to terms with their past. And also, Downfall was as well. God, I could continue forever because I love movies.
RT: I wanted to ask you about that. You have songs like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and the album titled “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.” How much has cinema informed your songwriting?
I think you’d have to ask Bernie [Taupin] that, because I don’t write lyrics. But I think it’s obviously quite a lot. I mean, he’s written songs like “Roy Rogers.” I mean, we grew up in Britain, and the only good music to listen to was American; the only good films really, mostly – not all of them, but most of the films that we loved – were American. And so you become very romantic about America, and I think it has to influence what you write if you’re a lyric writer. And Bernie’s obsessed with Americana. Listen, I can sit here and probably name a hundred movies that I like, but you asked me off the top of my head. You a——! [laughs] But I think those five… It’s always nice to put a comedy in the mix because they never get nominated, do they?
Next, John talks about working on Gnomeo and Juliet, and what it’s like to hear his music everywhere.
RT: You must be happy that Gnomeo and Juliet is finally coming to the big screen.
Elton John: It’s only taken 11 years, yes. It’s like giving birth to a whale [laughs]. It’s been quite an amazing journey; maybe one day we’ll write about it. But you know what? We’re just concentrating on the positive, and [former Chairman of Walt Disney Studios] Dick Cook was the person who actually really, really said, “Go ahead and make this movie your way, and not the Disney studio’s way,” which was Americanizing the whole thing and giving the gnomes American accents. We always wanted to do this in a British way, and it’s set in Stratford-upon-Avon, so you have to have British actors. We put in a couple of… We put in Flamingo as an American import, just for the American market. We had to do that; we were told we needed to do that, so that was the only way around that. But yes, I’m thrilled with the film.
It’s weird doing animation, because you never really get a glimpse of what it’s going to be like until about maybe four months before it’s finished. You’re just waiting for the animation to be finished. It’s really hard to know what’s going on when you’ve got black-and-white drawings being animated. When you see the actual animation and the visual things it brings to the whole project, then you can actually know where you really stand.
And obviously the music was kind of vital to what was going on in this. It wasn’t my idea to use… It was Dick Cook’s idea to use all the Elton backtrack stuff – or catalog stuff – along with the new songs we’d written. And I think James Newton Howard really did a good job with that, because there’s the danger that it’s going to be a little overboard, but things like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” for the lawnmower race, and “Bennie and the Jets” where he’s on the computer, and “Your Song” was very funny where Stephen Merchant is playing that really drippy character, and it’s a little bit runny. I love things like that. So it gave us a chance to poke fun at ourselves, as well.
But it’s tough doing animation, because again, you’re really hoping that what you’ve got in your mind is going to come through visually. And it’s all very well seeing it on paper, but it’s not the same thing.
When you’re doing an animated film, do you ever say to yourself, “Okay, this is for the kids”? Does it change the audience you’re hoping to reach?
Well, I think adults are kids, too. The first [animated film] I ever did was The Lion King, which was a homerun because it was a really great animated movie. And even though it was for children, there’s so many adult things in it. For example, the hyenas, and all the dialogue that goes on there. And The Road to El Dorado, it’s the same thing. I think now, because adults take their kids to see movies like this, I think you can get away with far more. The proof in the pudding is in the Shrek franchise. I mean, I took my godchildren to see Kung Fu Panda, and I was surprised to see how adult the content was, and how advanced kids are with adult content as well. Much more than we were [when we were kids]. They get the jokes. They probably wouldn’t get the “Bennie and the Jets” jokes on the computer, but that’s a little adult thing going on there.
When I write, I try and write the songs as how they fit the scene. “Love Builds a Garden” is when the poor garden the flamingo’s in… The couple breaks up and it goes to wreck and ruin. You know, that’s the song that had to go there. And “Hello, Hello,” when Gnomeo and Juliet first meet, is the same thing. The kids are the ones buying the Britney Spears singles, so, I mean, come on. Much more advanced than we were; we were listening to “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” [laughs]. Kids have come a long way.
Well, I have that, in a way, anyway. The Lion King gave me that; for that I’m forever grateful. But yes, at my age, lots of people who don’t know my music out there are younger. That would be nice. But I do have that with The Lion King, and Billy Elliot to a certain extent. I’m very fortunate like that. But yeah, the more people appreciate your music, hey, the better it is for me. It’s great. I mean, I write music to be enjoyed, and it’s not just for one kind of age group.
Speaking of people who appreciate your music, when someone uses one of your songs in a movie – I’m thinking of Martin Scorsese with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, or Cameron Crowe using “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, or Lars von Trier with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in Breaking the Waves – do you ever say to yourself, “That’s an interesting take on my song; I hadn’t looked at it that way.” Are you generally pleased with how people use your music?
Yeah, I am. I’m a songwriter, and I never understand people saying, “They shouldn’t record one of my songs,” or “People shouldn’t use this,” or whatever. I think Kings of Leon just said they didn’t want their songs on Glee, and Slash [of Guns N’ Roses]. You know what? Get a f—ing life. You know, your songs, once you’ve written them, you should be pleased and honored that anyone does a version of them. I get excited if I’m in a f—ing elevator and I hear it on muzak. I think, “Oh, I wrote that.” It’s just a thrill. And you never get over that as a songwriter. The choice of “Amoreena” in Dog Day Afternoon floored me, because it wasn’t one of my most… It’s nice when people pick out songs that aren’t so well known. And, in fact, “Tiny Dancer,” I owe Cameron Crowe a lot for that, because he really resurrected that song.
So you still get a thrill hearing your music in an elevator?
Yeah, because that’s the only time I ever hear it — I don’t listen to it at home. [laughs]
But you do play a lot of shows. Is it one of those things where you have some deep cut from Madman Across the Water that you would like to play, but you feel a certain obligation to your fans to play the hits?
No, we play “Madman” on stage; we play “Holiday Inn,” I play “Indian Sunset.” I do different sorts of shows. I do band shows, I do solo shows, I do shows with my percussion player Ray Cooper, I do Billy Joel shows, I do orchestral shows. Last year I played over 80 different songs. So I can do more obscure songs; “Indian Sunset” I do with Ray Cooper, and it’s brilliant. Nobody knows that song at all, and every night it gets a standing ovation, because it’s an unusual, beautiful lyric by Taupin. So no, I’m lucky. That’s why I do different sorts of shows, because if you just played the hits, you’d go stark raving f—ing mad.
Gnomeo and Juliet opens this weekend in the US.