Eye on the Oscars: The Music - Elton John

If you thought writing songs for lion cubs, warthogs and meerkats was tough, in “Gnomeo & Juliet” Elton John brings heart and soul to inanimate garden gnomes.

“I enjoy this process,” says the pop icon, who in addition to “The Lion King,” has also written tunes for “The Road to El Dorado.” “There’s a beginning and an end to every film, every musical. The story makes it easy writing for characters you know about; you can write about their personalities.”

“Gnomeo & Juliet,” produced by John’s Rocket Pictures, tells the story of two garden gnomes from feuding families who fall in love. It is, as the title hints, loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” but with a much happier ending.

Two of John’s songs are originals: “Love Builds a Garden,” a sweeping, graceful ballad that brings to life the poignant love story between two pink flamingo lawn ornaments as it runs over a silent montage (think the opening of “Up”), and “Hello, Hello,” a bright, sweet Beatlesque duet performed by John (as Gnomeo) and Lady Gaga (as Juliet) that plays as the two ceramic gnomes meet cute while wrestling over an orchid.

Tossed around for 11 years, the film, finally released through Disney’s Touchstone imprint in the U.S., surpassed expectations by grossing close to $191 million worldwide theatrically, according to Rentrak. “God, did we have to fight our way,” says John, who doubles as the film’s executive producer.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, who seldom spends more than an hour coming up with a melody, wrote the songs with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, although he originally planned to collaborate with his “Lion King” and “El Dorado” partner Tim Rice.

After the film was resurrected by Dick Cook, the since-ousted Walt Disney Studios chairman told John that he envisioned “Gnomeo & Juliet” as a vehicle for the singer-composer-pianist’s catalog and that the new songs should share in that lineage. “Tim Rice, very gentlemanly, bowed out of the situation,” John says. It marked the first time John and Taupin had written a song together for a film since 1971’s “Friends.”

Lady Gaga’s participation on “Hello, Hello,” which also plays over the end credits, came about after she played a charity event at John’s house in England. “Originally, I recorded the song on my own,” John says, which is how it appears on the movie’s soundtrack. “It fits so much better with the two of us singing it because Juliet has a voice now and Gnomeo has a voice now. She (recorded her part) in Norway or some ridiculous place like that.”

In addition to needle drops of some of John’s biggest hits, composer James Newton Howard, who played in John’s band for years, integrated arrangements of some of John’s best-known works into the score. “He made some of the melodies so poignant,” John says. “I thought he did an amazing job.”

EYE ON THE OSCARS: THE MUSIC
Lyrics bring pix to life | Stars tune up plots | John goes Gaga over inanimate romance
SCORE CARD
From rising stars to Oscar winners, seven composers talk about the method to their musicality:
Henry Jackman | Alberto Iglesias | Dario Marianelli | Michael Giacchino | Abel Korzeniowski | Conrad Pope | Thomas Newman

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