Falling somewhere between “Tommy” and “Across the Universe,” “Rocketman” offers a phantasmagorical, no holds barred, R-rated, jukebox musical version of Elton John’s life. And that was essential to Giles Martin (“Love”), the musical director and son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, who wasn’t interested in doing anything remotely similar to the blockbuster “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“The key for me was that every time a song started, it opened a fantasy world,” said Martin, who found himself auditioning with star Taron Egerton without even realizing it 18 months ago. “How do I get the songs to fit the narrative, to get the emotional context right?”
It didn’t matter if the songs didn’t fit chronologically– that, for instance, John hadn’t yet composed his first number one hit single, “Crocodile Rock,” with lyricist partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), when he launched his U.S. debut at the West Hollywood Troubadour in 1970. It was about personalizing the John/Taupin songbook as the superstar recounts his roller coaster rock’n’roll life in group therapy, kicking off his childhood with “The Bitch Is Back.”
Egerton sang all of the songs, capturing the singer’s distinctive phrasing, and performed most of them live. Everything, of course, was pre-recorded, with Martin collaborating closely with director Dexter Fletcher (who finished “Bohemian Rhapsody when Bryan Singer was fired).
However, the “Crocodile Rock” sequence, the first thing they filmed (fittingly at the Troubadour), did not feature a live vocal performance because of the noise of the crowd. “We had the idea of the crowd lifting off and we shot it,” Martin said. “I then went in with Taron and we put down what songs we could use and then I had an idea for… where he lifts off. But when he started playing, I noticed something was wrong but wasn’t sure what it was. Then I realized that he wasn’t playing with a straight back like Elton.”
But it took some serious discussion among the filmmakers and John about using “Crocodile Rock,” since it’s not John’s favorite song. Yet it fit the uplifting mood perfectly with its nostalgic, ’50s riff. Martin originally hired a pianist to do a Jerry Lee Lewis rendition, but it didn’t translate well. Session keyboardist David Hartley wound up playing piano here and throughout “Rocketman.”
“Taron started slowly and that’s how it begins in the film,” Martin said. “Dexter liked it. Then I had the hole in the middle for a halftime section with orchestra to emphasize the lift of the crowd. We really never had an idea of whether it would work or not. And that’s the way that we did the film.”
David Appleby/Paramount Pictures
The wild “Rocket Man” sequence was the most challenging and creatively thrilling sequence for Martin to arrange. Fletcher choreographed it so that John hits rock bottom in his swimming pool after downing sleeping pills with vodka. Underwater, he encounters his childhood self playing “Rocket Man” on a little piano, tied to a diving bell, and John gets miraculously rescued and revived in time for him to perform the song at his iconic Dodger Stadium show in ’75, shooting up like a rocket at the climax.
“I love the idea of making a stadium song out of a non-stadium song,” Martin said. “We had storyboards because obviously I had to arrange and score the whole song before we shot, and, again, we shot to the music for that. And the first trailer has the arrangement for ‘Rocket Man’ from before we shot the scene. It was one of those things that I was very lucky in the respect that everyone seemed happy with it. I didn’t get huge notes from anyone saying to change this bit or anything like that.”
David Appleby/Paramount Pictures
For the underwater arrangement, Martin first played around with riffing on Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” from “The Dark Side of the Moon” because it’s a song that had always sounded watery to him. “Funnily enough, it’s the same key and almost the first two chords, and I realized I couldn’t do that for obvious reasons. And then I ended up using string effects — bow and synth strings. I’m my father’s son after all, and I also ended up scraping my fingers on a grand piano at Abbey Road [Studios] to get the effect of bubbles popping in my ears.
“Jumping into the stadium, to me, was an eruption of a fantasy, so, orchestrally, I threw a lot at it: strings playing triplets and choir, like a Phil Spector [Wall of Sound] thing. Jokingly, they referred to it as a Giles Martin picket fence of sound. That scene demands this kind of escalation from desperation in the swimming pool to [transformation] on stage again. It’s funny: the whole movie started ballooning at one stage. We thought of making a small film and I think we had huge amounts of freedom in doing a [larger] impressionistic jukebox musical.”