‘Rocketman’ Music Producer Giles Martin on Making Elton John’s Classics Blast Off Again

The 22-song soundtrack album is "new arrangements, new versions, a much more creative curve, and Elton loved that," Martin says. "He wasn't thinking, 'Will it do better than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?”

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Giles Martin is the man who made you re-meet the Beatles, through his “Love” mashups and “Sgt. Pepper” and White Album remixes. So it made sense that he would be handed another classic catalog — Elton John’s — but this time with the assignment to recreate or completely rethink the songs from scratch. “Rocketman” doesn’t include a lick of John’s original recordings; it’s Martin’s handiwork as music producer, with no small assist from collaborators like leading man Taron Egerton.

“Sorry” has not turned out to be a hard word that Martin has to deliver to dissatisfied Elton cultists. The $26 million opening weekend, A- Cinemascore grade and 90% Rotten Tomatoes score owe a great deal to this trustee not screwing up the music, even though he took plenty of liberties with the arrangements. (It’s no coincidence, surely, that some of the orchestrations on the reconfigured songs sound a little like they were arranged by George Martin, Giles’ late father, who helmed nearly every Beatles record.)

Martin spoke with Variety about the challenges and ingenuities of recasting such familiar material for a large-scale movie musical that still has to rock. (He also offered at least a hint when, on behalf of Beatlemaniacs everywhere, we asked whether he’s scheduled to work on an “Abbey Road” box set that’s expected to appear before the end of the year, as he did the last two such 50th anniversary collections.)

Elton was said to be pretty hands-off with the film, but did he give you any input during the process? 
He came to a rehearsal to watch them doing the choreography for “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” which is a big sequence in the film. There was an allocation of an hour and half to play Elton some music, and I was like, “Well, I haven’t actually got anything really good to play you! I’ve just been doing sketches of everything.” And in front of everyone, he goes, “Listen, I’ve heard Taron; he’s great. And I have complete faith in Giles, so I don’t need to hear anything. I’ll hear it when he’s finished.” And that gave me confidence, and at the same time, it makes you think, well, I better not screw it up. He was really happy we were using earlier songs — like “Amoreena,” “Take Me to the Pilot,” “Hercules” and some deeper cuts — as well as the classics. It just rode on a wave of his confidence, and eventually at the end of the project, we did get together in the studio because we recorded the end-titles track (“I’m Gonna Love Me Again”). And I said, “The last time we were in the studio together and I recorded you, it was ‘Candle in the Wind’” [the 1997 remake, produced by George Martin]. “Oh my God,” he said, “what a day that was.“ Because we recorded him just after Diana’s funeral for that record.

Was that the connection that brought you into this project?
With (producer) Matthew Vaughn, I had worked on a sequence in the church on the first “Kingsman” movie where I mashed up and rearranged “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. So I knew both of them, actually, and Matthew mentioned that Elton said nice things about me, and that’s how that happened. It’s actually it’s quite a leap of faith on their part. It’s a big project, and I’ve never done a film like this before. I had actually written the score for a film called “Mobile” a while back, but this is a big undertaking, and I’m happy they chose me. It’s been a trip.

In some of your tweets you made it sound like you didn’t spend too much time worrying about the fact that there was going to be a soundtrack album while initially making the film.
I didn’t know there was going to be one. It was only halfway through, when it was kind of surprising that they said to me that they wanted to do a soundtrack album. I suddenly called up Taron and said, “Listen, we’ve got to go record some stuff.” Because in the movie, we haven’t got full versions of songs. “Tiny Dancer” is half of “Tiny Dancer,” and “Rocket Man” is missing a verse, and all this kind of stuff. I had to go back forensically on the tracks we’d done and piece them together and get Taron to come in and sing more. And that was still during the filmmaking process, so it was taxing on both of us. The schedule was crazy: While we’re making this huge film, we’re going to make the soundtrack album as well? It’s 22 tracks — a big album. But it’s a good album, and Taron’s really good. If he wasn’t such a good actor, he could be a singer. I had some pretty good guys playing on this album. On a couple tracks, we had the rhythm section from Chic, who I bumped into in the corridor of Abbey Road and said, “Listen, do you want to play on ‘Rocketman’?” Taron came in and sang live with them, and they were like, “God, he can really cut it.”

Besides the gazillion songs, the film somehow finds room for an underscore as well. Which incorporates still more Elton music.
Most of the underscore is taken up by Elton’s songs. It keeps the energy up, and it’s weird to have other music. I worked with Matthew Margeson, who did the underscore, and I just said, “You know, let’s use Elton’s tunes.” Because he’s got such great melodies, and so many of them, it felt unnatural having someone else’s melody come in to the underscore of the film.

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The songs you produced for the film run the gamut from full-on sound-alikes, like when Elton and Kiki Dee are seen recording “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” to songs that begin simply and blossom into something closer to the records we know, to arrangements that actually sound nothing like Elton’s classic versions at all, which is obviously especially the case with the movie-musical numbers that have other actors singing, like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
Yeah. It’s just to suit picture and drama. Dexter and I discussed whether Bernie (Taupin) should sing “Yellow Brick Road” to Elton. It’s almost sung as a conversation: “When are you gonna come down?” Elton is high on drugs and falling to pieces in the restaurant, and I had this idea of using really strident strings for it, and kind of stripping back the melody as well. Jamie (Bell) didn’t sing the melody in the same way as Elton does, and it’s just to suit the dramatic curve. It starts with Bernie in the restaurant, and then I actually edited it down for the soundtrack from the film version, because there’s a sequence where Elton has a drug overdose and a heart attack, and then he sings the next verse standing in front of the mirror, and that’s when he decides he’s going to go into rehab. It’s certainly an interesting version. I can’t tell whether it makes sense without the film. When you heard it, did you think, “What the hell is he doing? He’s destroyed the song!”

Even listening to the soundtrack prior to seeing the film, you do get an idea of what kind of stylization is happening in parts of the movie.
The movie is a musical, there’s no question about it, as opposed to being a jukebox musical, if that makes sense. “I Want Love” is actually quite Broadway, in its approach, having the ensemble sing it. But when you get to “Your Song,” which starts with them writing it in the bedroom, by the time we go to the studios, it should sound like the original. As a matter of fact, actually, in the movie, I’m sitting there recording him, with sideburns, looking like I’m 1969. In fact, when we recorded that song, I got a great harpist called Skylar to come in and she turned to me — she’s now 73, I think – and she goes, “I played on the original of this. I was at the Royal Academy with Elton.” And it turned out she did. She was playing on “Your Song,” our version, and she played on “Your Song” for Elton 50 years ago. She actually said, “I want to check that you wrote the right part.” … With things like “Honky Cat,” I went more strident with the bass and drums and a bit more complex with the arrangements. There’s so much stuff on there. When I get to the end of the album, I go, “That’s why I’m tired.”

When did the idea of having Elton and Taron duet on an original song, “I’m Gonna Love Me Again,” come about?
That came quite late on. David (Furnish, John’s husband and the film’s producer) called us up about it. Taron sang “Tiny Dancer” with Elton at Elton’s Oscars party, which was amazing. And the night before, we had dinner – myself, David, Elton, Dexter (Fletcher, the director) and Taron — and Elton played us the song. It was fun getting them both in to record. I suddenly had two Eltons on my hands, with different approaches, which was interesting. Because Taron and I had worked so intensely on listening to Elton — and not that we wanted to do a pastiche of him, but we listened to the tracks, and to the multi-tracks, to try to get his phrasing. And then suddenly we had the real deal in the studio. It wasn’t weird recording Elton; it was weird recording Taron with Elton there. Because now could just ask him.

The new song is very Motown-sounding.
Yeah. I did it with Greg Kurstin as co-producer. We originally did horns and sent it to Elton, and he said, “No, I think it should be strings.” This is how good he is on music history. He said more Motown producers used strings, and I was thinking it was horns with Motown, but he’s right. And the luxury of doing a film is that you have an orchestra at the ready anyway for the score, so you don’t have to go into a label (and beg).

Did Taron sound like Elton right from the beginning, or did you end up re-recording things as he got it down more?
I think he evokes Elton. That’s what he does well. It’s similar to acting: You can’t limit yourself by trying to be a unique copy. You can’t be repressed by (thinking), “Am I sounding like Elton?” He evokes the same attitude that Elton has. As time went on, we went back and re-recorded a bunch of stuff, because he became a better singer as he sang more. And also, (we took different approaches in) the way we did the movie and the soundtrack album. Sometimes we would (pre-record) the song, shoot the movie, and then go back and do ADR to match the picture, if he wasn’t singing on the set. But something like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” that version you hear him sing on the soundtrack album ishim singing on set. The same with “Your Song” — that’s just him on set, singing. With “I’m Still Standing,” it’s him acting and singing at the same time. We didn’t have time to go and re-sing it for the soundtrack album. … Doing the ADR later on other tracks was interesting. When he sings “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” in the movie, he’s walking down a staircase and he stumbles, so it was hard when we did the soundtrack album, trying to match it. I’d ask him, “Why is this (strange) vocal thing here? Why have you done this? Why was this kept in?” ”Oh, that’s because he’s walking through a doorway,” or he’s climbing stairs or something like that.

In doing the arrangements, you’re following in the footsteps of great arrangers like the late Paul Buckmaster.
Oh, God, yeah, Paul Buckmaster, and James Newton Howard as well. They’re no slouches. Buckmaster wrote some really brutal, intense arrangements. I worked a little with Ben Foster; we arranged together and he’s brilliant. We started working on “Your Song,” and I suddenly realized, what are we doing here? Let’s just take down (Buckmaster’s) arrangement, because it’s so good. It’s so iconic. And then something like “Rocketman,” which starts off with the swimming pool, I was thinking of “Great Gig in the Sky” by Pink Floyd for the opening. Then at the stadium, it gets huge, and for that there were lots of tripled strings, and we actually recorded two orchestras. It was the Giles Martin wall of sound. You’re kind of arranging for screen, as opposed to just for a record. With “Tiny Dancer,” starting with a piano in the movie didn’t make any sense, because he’s at Mama Cass’s party, and the piano coming from nowhere wouldn’t make any sense. An acoustic guitar made more sense. And on the album when the piano comes in, that’s actually just me using another version for the second half that I tried for the film — almost like a Beatles-style chopping two versions together to make it work.

You’re working with the director who did “Bohemian Rhapsody,” so comparisons must be made, including at the soundtrack level. But that was a very different kind of album.
When I was asked by the label and by the film company “How come the soundtrack album isn’t finished? We finished the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ soundtrack really early on,” I said, “That was finished in 1985.” This is slightly different. I’m actually scoring the film with songs. In all honesty, I don’t think of the commerciality of it. My job was to make a seamless movie where the songs make sense in the film and they’re part of the dramatic curve. Matthew Vaughn said to me really early on, “I want the songs to start and the whole world to open up for Elton.” Each song triggers a moment. And that to me as a musician was really exciting, because it’s new arrangements, new versions, it’s a much more creative curve. Elton loved that, and that was the right journey for us to go on. He didn’t do that thinking, “Wait a second, how is the soundtrack album gonna do? Will it do better than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?” Probably not. But if it makes people go and listen to Elton’s songs — the same as when I did (the Beatles’ Las Vegas show) ‘Love’ — If it makes people enjoy the beauty of those (original) records and the inspiration they hold, then that’s great. I’m not a businessman. It doesn’t even cross my mind. Probably to my detriment. But I hate watching any musicals where you think, “And here’s the song” — where you get that feeling of someone switching a switch, and you go, “They were just talking! Why have they started singing now?” With “Rocketman,” we tried to make it as seamless as possible. Of course sometimes you need to be a bit more blatant. But it’s nice to have an audio representation of the work you’ve done for the movie, as actually soundtrack albums should be, really.

Now that you finished up 18 months of work on this, people are wondering if you’re going to go back into a Beatles project. So is there anything you can say about what you will or won’t be doing next?
Obviously not. Obviously, I can’t. Probably is the answer. [Laughs.] They won’t let me free for too long. But… obviously it’s an honor to step into Abbey Road and work on any of their albums or any of their projects. So, yeah, I can’t obviously now talk about it. But yeah, there’s always things going on.

So, we can count on you not taking a long vacation right now.
No. I think maybe this summer. Right now, no. But I think my family will kill me if I don’t take some time off. … “Rocketman” has been a really heartfelt project, and even though the film’s become quite big, it’s been a small bunch of us working on this project together and throwing everything into it. I mean, Taron threw everything into it. I saw him at the end and he said, “I don’t think I could have given this any more.” I’m so proud of the guy. And then when I was doing the post stuff I had to do, from music to sound to mixing, he actually texted me and goes, “I’m worried about you, mate. You’re working really hard.” That’s the kind of relationship that everyone’s had.