Shaping the music of ‘Rocketman’: A leap of faith into Elton John’s sonic landscape
The last time music producer Giles Martin and Elton John worked together they produced what remains one of the most successful singles of all time. But you won’t hear “Candle in the Wind 1997,” John’s stirring tribute to Princess Diana, on the soundtrack to Paramount’s “Rocketman” — a loose biography of John’s life.
What you will hear is an unusually dense selection of John’s and Bernie Taupin’s other rousing hit songs, each dissected, rearranged, uniquely orchestrated and performed to fit the film’s story and underscore in a near continuous thread.
Martin spent 18 months on the project from concept to final dub, one that he and his colleagues — including director Dexter Fletcher, composer Matthew Margeson, rerecording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith and supervising sound editors Danny Sheehan and Matthew Collinge — consider among the most collaborative efforts in their collective experience. “There are literally wall-to-wall songs at certain points in the film,” says Martin. “We all worked as a tag team the entire time.”
That 1997 hit, recorded by Martin and his father, George Martin, the legendary Beatles producer, may explain why John trusted him so implicitly with his music. For Martin, though, it was a leap of faith.
“I had no experience doing anything like this before,” he says, save for some documentaries and uncredited flourishes in the “Kingsman” films directed and produced by Matthew Vaughn, his old friend from boarding school and a producer of “Rocketman.” “This was obviously going to be a complete farm-to-table approach for me. If it doesn’t sound good, I will be shot. It’s a bit like ‘Abbey Road’ in that respect,” he says of his recent remix of that album.
Although he mixed with Prestwood Smith in post and worked with Margeson and the sound editors in London for a good three months to make the songs and the underscore “melt into the other,” according to Margeson, Martin says the music always came first as the team moved through production and post. “I had to come up with a lot of the soundtrack stuff before we even began filming, so we could shoot to the music,” he says.
Working from storyboards for the film’s big production numbers like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Rocketman” and “Pinball Wizard,” Martin built out his lush, rock-inspired arrangements “a bit like doing an animation,” he says. For most of the other numbers, all sung by the cast, he would record demos of the vocals in the studio to bring on set for playback during rehearsals and filming.
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Taron Egerton, who performs the lion’s share of the film’s songs in a feisty, star-making performance as John, recorded everything in the studio before filming started and continued during post when the filmmakers decided to add more of John’s songs to the underscore.
A large part of Martin’s role was to mold the actor’s vocal technique. “Taron’s work ethic, in all honesty, was incredible,” Martin says. “He can sing, but phrasing is what you have to learn. But he was so keen to learn. He would just do things again and again until he got them right.” Sometimes the pair would hunker down in studio “with an Elton original on multitrack and just listen and work our way through what Elton was doing.”
The aim was always to resonate with the story’s emotional drama without creating a carbon copy of John’s records. “I was lucky we didn’t have to think about overdubbing the actors in the beginning,” says Martin, “and with Taron, we captured him live on set quite often, which as the technical guy, I initially thought would be too tricky, but it was great.” Having both live and studio recordings gave the mix team and editors more options later on.
Not everyone was as willing, at least initially. “Game of Thrones” actor Richard Madden, who played John’s manager and lover John Reid, told Martin at their first meeting “he wasn’t singing on camera — period.” But after coaxing the actor into the studio, Martin recorded what he says was a “simply great performance” of “Honky Cat” on the first take. Others simply surprised him. Jamie Bell, as Bernie Taupin, had an “amazing and angry” rendition of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” that flipped the narrative of that iconic song and was another showstopper, he says. “I had no idea he could sing so well.”
But it was Egerton’s performance on screen that became a guiding force during the final mix. “In a strange way, it is so profoundly good and authoritative that it really led us through the entire process,” says Prestwood Smith. “Often we’d come to a scene and think, what are we going to do with this, and often, his narrative would just help you understand how the scene should play sonically.”
Given the film’s song-heavy story line and visually vibrant palette, all agreed “the score should be simply connective tissue, to be as minimal as it could and just connect the dots,” says Margeson, who was first tasked with creating melodic themes for various scenes and character groups. When they put them up against the picture and decided unanimously they didn’t work, “We asked ourselves, why are we trying to introduce new thematic material to an Elton John story?” he says. “There are so many great melodies that he’s already written. Why not see if we can weave them into the score?”
The film’s modest $40 million budget included the more expensive Dolby Atmos surround mix, which Martin used to remix the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and is inching toward wider acceptance on screen now that Netflix and Amazon Studios require all of their original shows to be mixed in the atmospheric technology.
Rather than simply using Atmos to send “a helicopter flying overhead, what’s more interesting about it is you can put people and an orchestra into the studio to give you that element of reality. It just gives you much more space to put things sonically,” Margeson says. “A good example in ‘Rocketman’ is the scene when he falls into the swimming pool. We can literally move the music up as he sinks to the bottom.”
Subtle as those shifting soundscapes may be, Martin believes they should challenge and engage as much as they sell the story on screen.
“We live in a world where everybody hears but not a lot of people listen,” he says. “People watch so much, but do they see anything? You need to grab their attention, and you do that by startling them a little bit and trying things. I think that’s exactly what my dad did with the Beatles in those days. The same with ‘Rocketman’: These are some amazing songs. Figuring out how to change them, and having a real reason why you do it, is the ultimate goal.”
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